A month ago, winds blew dust off a huge pile of coal, stored outside of the We Energies' Oak Creek Power Plant onto homes and cars of families just north of the operation. The episode seems to have galvanized broader concerns among neighbors about the health impacts of the coal-burning plant.
Over 160 people attending a listening session with We Energies executives filled an Oak Creek Library meeting room to capacity Wednesday evening.
Hand-written ground rules were posted to remind people who wanted to share their views about the power plant to be respectful and be succinct. And despite the palpable emotion ricocheting around the room, attendees abided by the rule.
Mother of four, Michelle Jeske said she can see the coal pile from her driveway and that dust blowing onto their property is not a rare occurrence. “A pile that large should not be allowed to be that close to residents. And now we’re told this is a nuisance. Noise is a nuisance; this is poison. My boys are not safe.”
Resident after resident stepped forward, one held up samples of black dust she wiped week after week from the same spot on the same window sill. Others sayid they had reached out to We Energies with health concerns and received no reply.
Robert Drenzek’s message was different.
Wearing his union sweatshirt, Drenzek said he has worked at the plant for years and isn’t aware of any chronic health issues among his colleagues.
“I’ve been at the Oak Creek plant since 1977," he shared. "I’ve worked with hundred of employees. Like I said I’m not aware of anyone with chronic respiratory issues. I don’t, I’ve worked on almost every job in the power plant and trust me it is dirty. I feel for you guys for the dust on your houses, but I can’t say it’s had any health effect on me."
When Scott Schemming stepped forward, he said he hadn’t planned on speaking, “but after I’m told that there’s no health issues by people you pay to work at your company I had to speak."
Schemming’s family has lived nearby on 7 Mile Road for decades. “Every single member of my family suffers from a respiratory problem. My kids grow up with asthma when their friends who live five miles away don’t have this problem.” He added, “Stop lying to us, be open to us, stop putting us off.”
When We Energies was given time to respond, Executive Vice President Tom Metcalfe appeared to be visibly moved. “I have to say that I am very sorry for the incident that caused us to be here tonight. We can and we must do a better job,” he said.
We Energies said it plans to install an air quality monitor north of the plant where blowing coal dust has occurred.
Until the company devises a permanent dust blowing prevention strategy, Metcalfe said, “We’re going to lower, flatten the coal pile. We’re going to encrust it with an agent that will seal it tight that will create a 4-inch barrier on the top of the coal pile that impermeable to rain and wind.
"We’re basically going to put it out of service until we get our long-term solution in place.” He added, "That’s going to take three or four weeks. I’m going to ask you to patient with us if you can be.”
Metcalfe said the solution is likely to include a wind barrier around the pile to keep coal dust in place - a technique, he said, that has worked in other places around the country.
When Bill Pringle stepped up to the mic, he shared that he moved his family away from the power plant area a few years ago after his wife and children became ill.
Yet, Pringle remains one of the people pushing for We Energies to act. “One thing I want to say to you, Tom, is thank you for apologizing. The one thing over the last five years I’ve never hear We Energies say is, ‘Hey I’m sorry for what happened."
Pringle hopes Wednesday’s listening session marks the beginning of We Energies listening to its power plant neighbors.
Although Karen Fairbanks has never lived close to the plant, her views on its future operation elicited rounds of applause from the audience.
“I’m a rate payer and I’m also a shareholder. If you can convert Port Washington to gas, then tell me, 'Why you can’t convert Oak Creek?'” Fairbanks added, “I don’t care if my profits go down.”
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