Clean Power Coalition-Southeast Wisconsin
Press Release

DNR Moves to Renew We Energies’ Water Permit – Clean Power Coalition Raises Concerns About Coal Pollution in Lake Michigan

Toxic Mercury, Dirty Coal Ash Practices, and Contamination of Streams Emerge as Top Concerns

By - Jan 31st, 2019 12:15 pm

Oak Creek, WI –  Members of the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin are raising the alarm about the threat of coal pollution in Lake Michigan and other nearby surface water leading up to February’s Department of Natural Resource (DNR) hearing regarding a draft water discharge permit for We Energies’ Oak Creek facility. In late December, the DNR released a draft water discharge permit for the coal plants in Oak Creek and is currently seeking public input on the proposal.

“After taking time to review the permit, we have a lot of questions and concerns,” said coalition spokesperson Dana LaFontsee. “First, this permit grants We Energies the ability to discharge mercury into Lake Michigan at nearly triple the state health and wildlife standards. Second, this permit lets We Energies continue an outdated and dirty method of treating coal ash until 2023, which is the latest possible date under federal law. Is this really the best we can do?”

According to the EPA regulation known as the Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELG) rule, coal plant operators are expected to phase out wet ash handling by 2020 unless they can prove that it would be technologically or economically infeasible for them to do so, in which case they can get state-level approval to push back the compliance date until 2023.

“I’ve been fishing in Lake Michigan for 60 years, and I’m extremely concerned about We Energies being allowed to put more mercury in the water. Mercury is already a big issue in Lake Michigan, and it’s something I have to worry about when I’m eating fish from the lake. Given that coal plants are the biggest industrial source of mercury in our water, We Energies should be bending over backward to help clean this up – not asking for permission from the DNR to make it even worse!” said Frank Michna, a local fisherman and neighbor south of the power plants.

“The question is, will the DNR be proactive with protections, or will they allow We Energies to dictate the timeline for clean water?” Asked LaFontsee.

Additionally, the Clean Power Coalition is asking the DNR to conduct independent sampling in surface waters around the coal plants to determine if coal ash contamination has spread beyond the facility. To supplement their request, today the Clean Power Coalition is publicly releasing the test results of water sampling it conducted over the past year. Leaders of the coalition say that the results, which show high levels of manganese, boron, and numerous other heavy metals in some nearby creeks and marshes, warrant further investigation by the DNR. Manganese and boron are elements that can be indicators of coal ash.  UW-Parkside students helped with the sampling to make sure proper protocol was followed.

The Clean Power Coalition is urging members of the public to express their concerns at the DNR’s upcoming public hearing on Monday, February 11th at Oak Creek Community Center.

“This permit process represents a real opportunity for the DNR to strengthen protections to stop Lake Michigan and other nearby surface water from being polluted by coal,” said Sister Janet Weyker, a neighbor of the coal plant and a member of the coalition. “We hope the DNR will take our concerns seriously and require We Energies to implement the best practices possible around coal ash and other toxins coming from the plant. The safety of our water depends on it.”

The Clean Power Coalition-Southeast Wisconsin will educate the public about the dangers of burning coal on the health of those who live and work in the vicinity of We Energies’ South Oak Creek and Elm Road Power Plants. How we choose to generate electricity has consequences that reach far beyond the return on shareholder investment, affecting everything from public health to a stable climate. When air, water, and soil are polluted, health and life are put at risk. The Clean Power Coalition will promote public debate about the appropriate source of energy for Southeastern Wisconsin. At the same time, the coalition urges We Energies to: 1.) immediately contain the coal dust and other health hazards emanating from the Oak Creek plants, 2.) phase out its use of coal, and 3.) promote rather than obstruct the adoption of renewable energy throughout its service territory.

Clean Power Coalition convening member organizations: Eco Justice Center / Greening Greater Racine / Moms Clean Air Force / NAACP State of Wisconsin Environmental Committee / Our Wisconsin Revolution / Racine Dominicans / Racine Green Party / Sierra Club, Beyond Coal Campaign / Sierra Club, John Muir Chapter / Sierra Club, Southeast Gateway Group / UW Whitewater Students Allied for a Green Earth (SAGE) / Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light / 350 Milwaukee. Supporting member organizations: Citizens Acting for Rail Safety / Gaia Coalition / NextGen America / Racine Coalition for Peace and Justice / Racine Interfaith Coalition / Interfaith Earth Network / School Sisters of Notre Dame / Sierra Club – Great Waters Group / Sierra Club – Fox Valley Group / Wisconsin Green Muslims / Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.


According to the US EPA, mercury is a potent neurotoxin. High levels of mercury exposure can harm the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and immune system of people of all ages. The primary way that people are exposed to mercury is by eating fish that contain high levels of methylmercury, an extremely toxic form of mercury. When mercury is deposited into a body of water like Lake Michigan, microorganisms convert it to methylmercury, which gets more concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Methylmercury in the bloodstream of babies in the womb and young children may harm their developing nervous systems, affecting their ability to learn and think. Communities who rely on fishing from Lake Michigan and Wisconsin’s inland lakes for sustenance or financial well being may be disproportionately affected.

Currently, the state wildlife standard for mercury discharges is 1.3 nanograms per liter (ng/L) and the state health standard is 1.5 ng/L. The DNR’s proposed permit would allow We Energies to discharge water containing mercury at 4.1 ng/L.

Wet ash handling is a process that treats coal ash by mixing it with water which then flows into ash ponds or impoundments. During heavy rain events, runoff from these impoundments risks flowing into nearby surface water. Contaminants can also leach into groundwater. Coal ash contains mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, manganese, and chlorine. All can be toxic. Living near a wet coal ash storage pond is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by the EPA. The toxins found in coal ash have been linked to organ disease, cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and developmental problems.

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