Coal Is Literally a Dead End
Pollution from coal used at two Oak Creek power plants has long-term health consequences.
Last month, the Clean Power Coalition of Southeastern Wisconsin hosted a “Listening Session” at the Oak Creek Public Library. Residents were invited to share their experiences and concerns regarding the ongoing problems and recent incidents involving coal dust from the two coal plants in their neighborhood. More than 160 attended, and many spoke passionately about their families’ exposure to coal dust inside and outside their homes. Also attending were representatives from We Energies, which owns one coal plant in Oak Creek and from WPPI and MG&E, the two utilities who co-own the other, newer coal plant with We Energies, known as the Elm Road Generating Station.
Thomas Metcalfe, Executive Vice President for We Energies, spoke of what he called “long-term strategies.” On April 10 a letter went out from him repeating those strategies. Two of them include “Planting more trees for screening” and “Constructing a wind barrier either partially or fully around the coal piles.” Trees? Really? It is difficult to imagine how a row of saplings could shield residents from the mountain of coal next door. This proposed solution is also ironic, given the fact that We Energies chopped down a section of mature forest to make way for the coal pile in the first place.
As for the wind barrier—described as “a large screen that could be as tall as 100 feet”—it is, at best, a partial solution. The material wouldn’t actually block particulates from escaping. It would simply reduce wind speeds in the area around the pile. A 2017 study on coal dust from the National Bureau for Economic Research explains that coal piles emit fine particulate pollution in multiple ways. Wind blowing dust off the pile is one factor, but coal piles also emit volatile gases, which can cause the formation of fine particulates. Additionally, the handling, processing, and pulverization of coal on site can contribute to the problem. The study concludes that these fine particulates, some 2.5 microns or smaller, can travel as far as 25 miles.
Coal dust isn’t the only toxic aspect of coal energy production. Nearly every stage of the process has detrimental impacts on human health and the environment at large–from extraction, to burning, to disposal of coal ash waste with its carcinogenic heavy metal contaminants. In the May/June issue of SIERRA, Sierra Club Director Michael Brune tells us, “Even among dirty fuels, coal causes the most obvious harm to the environment and to human health, from mercury poisoning to black lung disease. Just the soot from coal-fired power plants is responsible for an estimated 13,000 premature deaths annually in the United States.” That’s the equivalent of four 9/11 attacks every year, or one every three months. Yes, every three months.
There is really only one solution: transitioning to clean and renewable energy with all due speed. Fossil fuel energy comes at the price of health. People suffer, particularly children and the elderly. Health is undermined, lives are shortened. The fossil fuel industry has known this for decades. Clean, renewable energy is inevitable. These energy sources—solar and wind—ensure strong, stable jobs, substantial profit and healthier families. And the rest of the world (including many areas of America) is moving in this direction. China, our greatest economic competitor, now leads the world in solar panel production. We can lean into this exciting new transition, or we can stand back as the world passes us by. Finally, clean air, clean water, and uncontaminated soil are human needs. They are environmental needs, earth-needs. And they are every bit as vital for our children and grandchildren and the generations to come.
At the annual shareholders meeting, We Energies CEO Gale Klappa stated that “progress is our most important product.” If that’s truly the case, We Energies needs to embrace progress by eliminating coal from its fuel mix and transitioning to renewable energy. The measures We Energies has suggested so far in response to the concerns of Oak Creek residents are not progress or “long-term solutions”—they’re just more of the same. If Wisconsin’s energy company executives are unwilling to make these changes, then it falls to the shareholders and customers to make their feelings known. Phone calls, letters, and emails encouraging a change of policy will send a clear and compelling message to those in charge. Transitioning to clean, renewable energy makes good business sense, and it’s the right thing to do to protect our health, our people and our planet.
Carl Lindner is a UW-Parkside emeritus professor who lives in Racine.