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Wisconsin residents hold crowdfunding campaign to buy air monitors for dangerous coal dust

Neighbors take matters into their own hands in response to coal dust in their community.

The coal-fired Oak Creek generating station in Wisconsin. CREDIT: Miranda Ehrlich/Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin
The coal-fired Oak Creek generating station in Wisconsin. CREDIT: Miranda Ehrlich/Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin

A Wisconsin environmental group held a crowdfunding campaign this summer to purchase monitors that can help measure the level of particulates in the air near a large coal-fired power generating site, located on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin raised nearly $2,000 to buy air monitoring equipment to be placed in a neighborhood near the Oak Creek generating site in the city of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Earlier this year, a cloud of coal dust covered the community, located north of the generating site, creating alarm among residents.

The fundraising campaign comes after years of complaints by local residents that We Energies, owner of the Oak Creek generating station, and the city of Oak Creek were not doing enough to protect them from the hazardous coal dust in their neighborhood.

The GoFundMe campaign raised $1,900 from 39 people. The Clean Power Coalition used the funds to purchase six air monitors — each costing between $220 and $250 — and then distributed them to residents with homes in a variety of locations within a three-mile radius of the power complex to measure particulates in the air. A location for the seventh monitor is still being determined.

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“We believe that residents deserve an independent source of information about air quality,” Miranda Ehrlich, a community organizer for the Sierra Club who also serves on the Clean Power Coalition’s data committee, said at a press conference last Friday. “While we are glad that We Energies is self-monitoring, it is important for independent monitoring to also take place to keep We Energies honest.”

After the coal dust incident in early March, We Energies agreed to install an air-quality monitor to the north of the power plant complex. The new monitor is scheduled to begin measuring air quality this weekend, company spokesperson Brian Manthey told ThinkProgress. There is currently a monitoring station on the southwest side of the plant.

The Oak Creek generating site, located about 20 miles south of Milwaukee, is composed of two power plants: the 1960s vintage Oak Creek power plant, which underwent a pollution control upgrade in 2011, and the 1,268-megawatt Elm Road generating station. The Elm Road station is relatively new, with its two units entering service in 2010 and 2011.

The plants use about 12,000 tons of coal a day, which arrives by the trainload and sits in large coal piles. Residents have complained about the effects of wind blowing coal dust off the large piles at the plant site. The dust then lands on nearby homes, cars, and playground equipment.

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Coal dust contains toxic metals including lead, mercury and arsenic. The health effects of particulate matter include aggravation of asthma, respiratory symptoms, and increased mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

Residents have raised concerns for years about coal dust in their yards and homes, contaminated water from coal ash, chronic respiratory illnesses, and even cancer.

Greg Millard, a 17-year resident of the community, said the city of Oak Creek has not helped the residents impacted by the coal dust. At last Friday’s press conference, Millard blamed Andrew Vickers, the Oak Creek city administrator, with neglecting the residents.

Oak Creek, Wisconsin resident Greg Millard, with his hand covered in coal dust, after a major coal dust event on March 5, 2018. CREDIT: MIRANDA EHRLICH/CLEAN POWER COALITION OF SOUTHEAST WISCONSIN
Oak Creek, Wisconsin resident Greg Millard, with his hand covered in coal dust, after a major coal dust event on March 5, 2018. CREDIT: MIRANDA EHRLICH/CLEAN POWER COALITION OF SOUTHEAST WISCONSIN

“He denies anything is happening here,” Millard said. “He refuses to do anything for the citizens here in this neighborhood. We’re tired of it, so now we’ve got PurpleAir [monitors], which will help us see what’s going on here.”

Vickers had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.

In January, the coalition wrote a letter to We Energies requesting an additional air monitor be placed north of the plant and asking for results from both the new monitor and their existing monitor be provided in real time. The company refused this request, but later agreed to place a monitor north of the plant after repeated coal dustings in the area.

However, We Energies said it would not provide results from either monitor in real-time.

That’s when residents residents decided to purchase PurpleAir monitors. The coalition went with the PurpleAir monitors because they provided results in real-time, were low-cost so the group could deploy several of them, were easy to use, and still accurate enough to detect patterns and possible hotspots.

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“Depending on what we find, we can use these results to guide additional testing for coal dust in these neighborhoods or even rent an EPA-level monitor for a short period of time to get some legally definitive results,” Ehrlich said Friday in an email to ThinkProgress..

The monitors will provide real-time air quality results that will be available online. Before heading outside, residents who have asthma or other respiratory conditions can check the website to see if the air quality is good enough.

Millard believes the city is hesitant to push We Energies to help the residents because the city gets $4 million in tax revenue from the electric generating station.

Upon the addition of the two new coal units in 2010 and 2011, We Energies bought up property around the plant for three times the value to create a “buffer zone,” offering residents additional money at closing in exchange for signing an agreement to never sue for health problems, according to a local chapter of the Sierra Club.

We Energies currently owns one other coal-fired power plant, the Presque Isle coal plant in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That plant is scheduled to retire in 2019, which will make the Oak Creek the only coal generating station in the company’s portfolio.

We Energies’ Manthey said encapsulation of the largest portion of the coal pile was completed earlier this summer in an effort limit coal dust. He added that there is no evidence of coal dust leaving the generation site since the event in March.

However, Ehrlich told ThinkProgress that residents have “very strong evidence that coal dust has continued to land in these neighborhoods over the spring and summer.” On Monday, neighbors found significant amounts of black dust on the slide at the local playground, very similar to what was found in March.

“Residents can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars to get the dust tested every time they find it,” she said “but at this point we all know what it looks like.”