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Beats Me answers your questions about how education, the environment, race and innovation impacts life in southeastern Wisconsin.

Health Risk or Nuisance? Questions Surround Oak Creek Power Plant's Impact on Neighbors

Susan Bence
Oak Creek Power Plant

Along the shore of Lake Michigan, a coal-burning power plant occupies more than 1,000 acres of land in Oak Creek. Joe Dubanewicz, who lives nearby, has been wondering about the plant, so he reached out to WUWM's Beats Me with his concerns.

“I am wondering if the coal ash ponds are leaching into the groundwater. Who tests the groundwater and are there any monitoring stations for coal dust?” he asks.

Joe's questions are specially relevant given We Energies admitted that a wind event on March 6, 2018 deposited coal dust on properties north of the Oak Creek Power Plant.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Air monitor south of the power plant. In the background are train cars loaded with coal.

Tom Metcalfe, the company's executive vice president, set out to dispel Joe’s fears. He says the 2,300 megawatt-producing campus contains zero coal ash ponds. “We have had fly ash buried in licensed landfills at the site. They’re sealed, they also have the impermeable membranes on the underside to protect them and we collect the leachate from them as well.” Metcalfe adds, “But they’re dry – they’re not ponds.”

He says the company also regularly monitors the groundwater around the ash landfill sites as well as the water drawn from Lake Michigan. That water is used as a coolant and is then returned to the lake.

As for watching out for dust blowing off the huge mounds of coal stored outside, in January 2016 We Energies installed an air monitoring system. “In response to concerns that had been raised by the community south of the plant and we’ve been monitoring that on a monthly basis, we publish that information.” Metcalfe adds, “We’ve been able to show that there have been no exceedances.”

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Frank Michna stands on his property south of the power plant. He's one of 11 siblings whom grew up and remained on their family land.

Frank Michna has complained about air quality to We Energies and the DNR. Michna and his siblings grew up - and continue to live on land - overlooking Lake Michigan due south of the plant.

“My great, great grandfather was a Bohemian immigrant. He homesteaded 40 acres. As kids we all had horses and we rounded up the cows and brought them in at night. We had a great life here – you couldn’t have anything better than we had," he explains.

Michna was 8 years old when the power plant went on line. He believes his family’s chronic health problems are tied to pollution it generates.

Frank Michna shot this video...

“I’ve had health conditions since I was little. We never really knew what it was from but now that I’m older, I’ve had asthma and pneumonia and a lot of upper respiratory ailments. My sister has had heart conditions and all of us have different palpitations.” He adds, “ Eleven kids, no smokers, but yet we have conditions of people who smoke.”

A father of five, Bill Pringle shares Michna’s concern: “My kids were on nebulizers everyday, inhalers. My wife was on a nebulizer too.”

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Bill Pringle says when his young family lived two miles south of the power plant his children and wife became ill.

He moved his family away from the plant over three and a half years ago, Pringle says, “Within three months (of moving)… they were all off everything.”

But he says he’s not going to step away from the issue. “I used to, and I’m doing it again, hand out flyers that said ‘Caledonia community environmental awareness. Do you know what you’re breathing?’...  I’ve got to do something here. People cannot be breathing this.”

Pringle spearheaded what he calls the Clean Power Coalition.

We Energies Tom Metcalfe says the utility is aware of resident concerns and intends to take action. They are looking at the possibility of installing real-time air monitors. "So it’s not an after-the-fact look..., but it’s a monitor that could give us immediate indication that we have an exceedance that we could take action immediately. That would be a lot more valuable for us and obviously the neighborhood as well.”

But Metcalfe stops short of saying the Oak Creek Power Plant poses a health risk to the community – describing the coal dust as simply a “nuisance” to the neighbors.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
On March 6 residents just north of the plant and this playground found a layer of coal dust throughout the neighborhood.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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