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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

County Board Votes In Opposition To We Energies' Mercury Discharge Request

Frank Michna spoke before the DNR hearing began Monday. Michna and his siblings live just south of the Oak Creek Power Plant.


Thursday, the Milwaukee County Board made its voice heard by voting 16-0 againstallowing We Energies' Oak Creek powerplant to raise its daily maximum discharge of mercury into Lake Michigan.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has the final say in granting a the mercury variance permit to the electric company.

Original story, February 12:

We Energies hopes to increase the amount of mercury it is allowed to release from its coal-burning Oak Creek power plant into Lake Michigan. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held a hearing Monday as part of its review process.

Credit Susan Bence
DNR wastewater section chief Jason Knutson explained the proposed waste water permit at Monday's hearing in Oak Creek.

Jason Knutson, wastewater section chief with the DNR, attempted to appease the crowd and explain the mind-numbingly complex five-year waste water permit We Energies wants to renew.

"I would like to go over some of the noteworthy changes proposed in the draft permit. I will mention that this is not an exhaustive list. If we were to cover the entire permit, we’d be here for a couple of hours at least just for this presentation alone," Knutson said.

We Energies treats the waste water from its coal burning power plant in Oak Creek before discharging it into Lake Michigan.

One-point-three nanograms per liter is considered the maximum discharge for wildlife health.

Knutson says We Energies is proposing an exception for its Oak Creek plant. "We have the limit of 4.1 parts per trillion proposed…. So they’re required on any given day to be beneath that," Knutson explained.

Knutson assured the crowd the plant’s average discharge would be far less than the limit and said We Energies will be required to zero in on mercury contamination and how to reduce it.

Credit Susan Bence
Sarah Zarling traveled from Watertown to share her views at the hearing in Oak Creek.

What then unfolded was a procession of three-minute speeches – some imploring, others chastising the DNR not to approve the permit.

Sarah Zarling said she drove an hour with her husband and two young children to speak.

"It breaks my heart to have to come to these things, that we even have to have these discussions about protecting our planet," Zarling said. "I implore you to do the right thing and to deny the permit."

Steven Shea wears two hats – one as a Milwaukee County supervisor, the other as a teacher. Shea was adamant that children are being harmed by mercury.

"I work all the time with people with all manner of learning disabilities," Shea said. "We now know that most of those learning disabilities, most of them come from pollutants. And now We Energies wants to put more mercury in our water."

Oak Creek resident Robert Destromp says he’s worried about his 18-month-old son.

"You guys are telling us there is mercury in the water and there’s arsenic in the water – which is a known carcinogen," Destromp said. "What’s the plan? You guys are supposed to be protecting the public. What are you doing?" 

We Energies officials did not speak at the hearing. But later, spokesperson Brendan Conway said the proposed permit simply means the power plant will be treated like other facilities handling waste water along Lake Michigan

"Both MMSD (Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District) and Racine have higher variances than this 4.1. It is not an unusual or an unsafe situation. People should know that 99 percent of the time we are under that number and often at or below 1.3," Conway says.

And while Conway says the utility is committed to reducing the amount of mercury making its way into Lake Michigan, "This is not an imminent public health risk. People aren’t drinking this water," he says.

People have one more week – until February 18 – to comment on the permit. In order to move forward, it has to be approved by both the Wisconsin DNR and the EPA.

Credit Susan Bence
Oak Creek Power Plant

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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