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Throughout the spring and early summer, coal dust has been repeatedly blanketing Oak Creek homes, cars, and a neighborhood playground. The culprit? The coal plants next door. Madison Gas and Electric, which is a partial owner of the complex, is complicit in these impacts. MGE says We Energies, the primary owner and operator of the coal facility, is taking care of the problem. However, at this point, it is abundantly clear that their proposed solutions are too little, too late, and that MGE must do more to take responsibility in getting off coal completely.

Recently, a letter (see accompanying pdf) from Thomas Metcalfe, executive vice president for We Energies, identified what he called "long-term strategies" to deal with the coal dust problem, including "Planting more trees for screening" and "Constructing a wind barrier either partially or fully around the coal piles." Trees? Really? It is difficult to imagine how a row of saplings could shield residents from the mountain of coal next door.

And the "wind barrier" — described as "a large screen that could be as tall as 100 feet" — wouldn't actually block particulates from escaping. It would simply reduce wind speeds in the area around the pile. A 2017 study on coal dust from the National Bureau for Economic Research explains that coal piles cause fine particulate pollution in multiple ways (handling, processing and pulverization), as well as emitting volatile gases. The study concludes that these fine particulates, some 2.5 microns or smaller, can travel as far as 25 miles, an area that encompasses much of Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha.

Furthermore, Metcalfe's letter avoided addressing the effects of coal dust blowing off the coal trains onto the families living anywhere near the tracks along the route from Wyoming, where the coal is mined, to Oak Creek. These trains typically consist of around 115 cars, which travel uncovered because coal is combustible. The jostling that occurs can cause each car to lose between 500 and 2,000 pounds of coal along the way, according to an internal company study by BNSF Railway. Even when mitigation measures are in place, ThinkProgress estimates that between 75 and 300 pounds of coal dust escape each car. That’s a massive amount of dust inundating numerous Wisconsin communities, including Kenosha and Racine.

Coal dust isn't the only toxic aspect of coal energy production. Coal ash (burned residue) is carcinogenic, containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury among its contaminants. In the May/June issue of Sierra Club magazine, the club’s executive director Michael Brune tells us, "Even among dirty fuels, coal causes the most obvious harm to the environment and to human health, from mercury poisoning to black lung disease. Just the soot from coal-fired power plants is responsible for an estimated 13,000 premature deaths annually in the United States." 

There is really only one solution: transitioning to clean and renewable energy with all due speed. Fossil fuel energy comes at a cost to health. People suffer, particularly children and the elderly. Health is undermined, lives are shortened. The fossil fuel industry has known this for decades. Clean, renewable energy is inevitable. These energy sources — solar and wind — ensure strong, stable jobs, substantial profit, and healthier families. And the rest of the world (including many other states) is moving in this direction. China, our greatest economic competitor, now leads the world in solar panel production. Meanwhile, MGE is still running on nearly two-thirds coal.

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Meanwhile, the residents of Oak Creek continue to suffer the greatest exposure to coal dust, outside and even inside their homes. Just a few days ago, residents again found visible coal dust on their homes, vehicles and outdoor furniture. Coal dust has been found inside 19 of 26 homes tested around the plant. There is no escape for Oak Creek residents. Should everyone wear a respirator, even indoors, even during sleep? We inhale about 10 times every minute, night and day. That's 600 breaths every hour, 14,400 every day. Should their health just be written off as "collateral damage"? The cost of doing business? 

MGE calls itself “your community energy company.” If that’s the case, MGE CEO Jeff Keebler should listen to the Madison community and eliminate coal from MGE’s fuel mix in favor of clean, renewable energy — that is, if MGE values the health of Wisconsinites more than short-term profits.

Carl Lindner is a member of the executive committee of the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin, and an emeritus professor at UW-Parkside.

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