A proposed Department of Natural Resource rule would limit the amount of arsenic allowed to be discharged by We Energies into Lake Michigan, but We Energies is asking the state for a variance for the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant.

The request comes at time when almost 20 families are negotiating with We Energies about the impact of living next to the Oak Creek Power Plant, which they say has affected their health, drinking water, and property values over the years, said the group’s attorney Maxwell Livingston.

To protect wildlife and health, the DNR recommendation would impose a limit of 0.2 µg/L for arsenic into Lake Michigan. Arsenic has been associated with certain types of skin cancer, circulatory disorders, tremors, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, diabetes and depression. The We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant burns almost 6,200 tons of coal daily at the plant, which is known to have high amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals. 

“Wisconsin takes its responsibilities to implement the Clean Water Act very seriously,” said DNR secretary Cathy Stepp. “Our state has historically been, and continues to be, a leader in many water-related areas.”

Still, We Energies and the DNR have agreed on an interim limitation of 1.5 µg/L and 1.5 µg/L per day for two of its outfall points.

The state drinking water standard for arsenic — a naturally occurring element found in the soil and rocks — is 10 parts per billion. But the water We Energies discharges into Lake Michigan at the Oak Creek Power Plant is from Lake Michigan to begin with and the arsenic level in the lake is already at 1.5 µg/L.

“We are already way below the drinking standard…we’ve made our case to the DNR and we’ve worked with them to put together a draft permit that will go out to public comment,” said Brian Manthey, spokesperson for We Energies. “This is a new standard, not a new operation of the plant.”

The variance request is part of We Energies pollutant discharge elimination system permit, but this is the first time the department has imposed limits on arsenic.The proposed variance, which the EPA would need to approve, doesn’t change the use of the receiving water, according to the DNR.

Manthey also pointed out that Wisconsin’s regulation on arsenic is one of the strictest.

The public utility also maintains that cost is also a factor. To meet the arsenic limit, the capital cost would exceed $60 million and carry a price tag of $17.4 million per year in added operational costs for the Oak Creek Power Plant. This would result in a .56 percent rate increase for We Energies 1.1 million ratepayers. And if they would be required to make the same upgrades for the Pleasant Prairie Power Plant, the rate increase would be 3.65 percent, according to We Energies.

“Human Caused Conditions or sources of pollution prevent the attainment of the standard and cannot be remedied or would cause more environmental damage to correct than to leave in place,” according DNR documents

A public hearing has been set for 1 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Oak Creek Community Center, 8580 S. Howell Ave

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.