We Energies Polluting Oak Creek?
Data shows coal dust covering homes. Residents, environmentalists raise alarm.
Environmentalists and nearby residents say they believe We Energies is blowing smoke after reviewing independent data on the impacts of the Oak Creek Power Plant.
But officials with We Energies, which serves southeastern Wisconsin, insist the plant does not cause adverse impacts to the community, though they pledge a review of its operations in the future.
Although concerns about the plant, on the far southeast corridor of Milwaukee County, and its impacts on the surrounding area have been ongoing, the flames of controversy were fanned recently when black coal dust was discovered beyond the plant property.
Earlier this month, residents living in close vicinity to the plant discovered coal dust covering homes, cars and a playground. Testing from a firm, Aspen Consulting, linked the dust to the plant.
Several organizations — including the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin and the Environmental Accountability Group — held a news conference in the days following the discovery. The event also gave nearby residents a sounding board.
“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” nearby resident Greg Millard said in a statement. “This is the first time they got caught. Coal dust blowing from piles at these plants has been a problem for decades, and We Energies knows it.”
Amy Jahns is a senior communications specialist with Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group, the parent company of We Energies. In an email in response to Urban Milwaukee’s request for comment on the latest concerns, Jahns said the utility is reviewing the protocol at its Oak Creek facility.
The discovery of the coal dust also has added renewed fuel to the ongoing debate about coal power and whether it should be replaced or de-emphasized in favor of other alternative energy sources, such as solar power.
Jahns in the email said We Energies and WEC Energy Group continue to believe that coal power has not been linked to adverse health conditions.
“We take our environmental and community responsibilities very seriously,” Jahns said. “We do not believe, based on advice from an independent health expert, that an occurrence of this nature poses health risks to the community.”
Groups such as Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin and the Environmental Accountability Group, however, beg to differ.
Organizers within the groups say studies have found coal dust contains such toxic metals as lead, mercury and arsenic. Inhaling particulate matter, the organizers say, can aggravate asthma, respiratory symptoms and increase hospital emissions.
Furthermore, the groups note, coal dust can lead to increased mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.
Wisconsin is more dependent on coal than all but nine states and a big contributor is We Energies, which gets 51 percent of its power from coal. The company recently announced it will shut down its coal-fired plant in Pleasant Prairie, and rely more on solar power, but would continue running its newer coal plant in Oak Creek.
Dana LaFontsee, spokesperson with the Clean Power Coalition, says the latest incident is a call to action. She and others within the organization are imploring people — across the Milwaukee area — to seek out changes.
“We’re calling on the customers … to demand action,” LaFontsee declares. “You might not live in Oak Creek, but the dirty energy you use still impacts the people that do. These utilities must move away from toxic coal and transition to renewable energy.”
“Lives depend on it,” LaFontsee says.
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