An aerial view of We Energies’ twin Oak Creek and Elm Road coal-fired power plants south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Credit: Google Earth

When We Energies announced the closing of its Pleasant Prairie coal-fired power plant in southeastern Wisconsin last week, residents and clean power activists applauded. But the news has also caused anxiety as some fear it means We Energies will increase production at a pair of coal-fired power plants about 15 miles away.

Those concerns are heightened by earlier news that tech giant Foxconn plans to open a large factory nearby, which will likely increase power demand in the area.

Residents have long worried about both the emissions coming out of the power plants’ stacks and the coal dust from the coal piles and train cars supplying the Elm Road and Oak Creek plants — known together as the Oak Creek campus.

“It’s great that Pleasant Prairie is closing down, and I’m sure the people that live near that plant have to be thrilled,” said Sister Rejane Cytacki, who leads the Eco-Justice Center of the Dominican Catholic community in Racine County.  “But is that going to mean there will be more energy generated at the Oak Creek Plant?”

The Pleasant Prairie plant, built between 1980 and 1985, has a capacity of 1,190 megawatts. It has run at about 45 percent of its capacity so far this year and 58 percent last year. It’s slated to close in 2018.

The Oak Creek plant, with four units built in the 1950s and ‘60s, has a combined capacity of 1,135 MW. And Elm Road, built between 2010 and 2011, has a capacity of 1,268 MW. The Oak Creek plant ran at a 43 percent and 52 percent capacity factor last year and this year, while the newer Elm Road ran at a capacity factor of 70 percent and 72 percent, according to We Energies.

In 2014, We Energies had requested and received permission to significantly increase the size of the coal pile there. Currently, the Elm Road and Oak Creek plants are allowed to store 750,000 tons of coal outside.

When asked whether the Pleasant Prairie closure could increase operations at Elm Road and Oak Creek, We Energies spokesperson Amy Jahns said, “We will continue to operate our other plants as the market dictates.”

A life-long battle

Charles Michna’s family has been in the Racine area so long that there is a Michna Road. Michna, 64 and a retired machinist, has spent his whole life there except for a stint in the military. Growing up, he remembers seeing black smoke from the Oak Creek power plant, and now on windy days he sees black clouds of coal dust filling the air, he says.

About 30 years ago, Michna had to move out of his home because the company that then owned the power plant was expanding its facilities. He was upset with the amount they paid for his home, and with the way the plant affected the Lake Michigan shoreline. He can no longer walk down to the lake where he did as a kid because of the plant’s loading facilities and the shoreline erosion he figures was caused by that construction.

Best of Midwest: Secrecy surrounds pro-coal group eyeing Ohio wind cases

Now Michna lives less than a mile from the plant and sees fly ash repositories and a coal pile from his window. He uses an inhaler, which he blames on the plant.

Michna says he has attended every public meeting about the plant to voice his concerns. He thinks the plant should be converted to natural gas, which would reduce emissions and eliminate the on-site coal storage and coal trains.

“I’m 60 yards from the tracks, so I’ve got them banging around at 4 in the morning,” Michna said. “Not to mention I have some property on the lake. When they built that power plant, it was the perfect example of how not to put a power plant on a lake.”

“It’s a monstrosity,” he concluded.

Health concerns

Bill Pringle and his family bought a house a few miles from the Oak Creek plant in 2006.

“It was our first home, we raised our kids there, we finished the basement, we had a really pretty fenced-in yard, we were planning on staying for a long time,” he said.

But then he said that he, his wife and their two sons began to suffer respiratory and other health effects, charges he echoed in a lawsuit against We Energies that he later withdrew to seek more plaintiffs.

“I don’t know how many ER visits for us all combined, ambulance rides, the whole nine yards,” Pringle said. “My wife was on 17 medicines, my sons were prescribed inhalers, nebulizers, breathing treatments every day.”

In addition to concerns about the emissions of particulate matter and other pollutants from the stacks, Pringle was most concerned about coal dust from the coal pile and uncovered train cars.

In 2012, We Energies tested homes including the Pringles’ for coal dust and said they found no reason for concern.

Then Pringle hired an independent firm to test in their yard and in every room in the house. Results provided to Midwest Energy News showed what the firm identified as coal dust and/or fly ash — a byproduct of coal combustion — in every room.

In 2014, they moved — specifically because of the power plant, Pringle said — to a condo further north in Plymouth, Wisconsin. Within months everyone’s health had noticeably improved. “It was a night and day difference,” Pringle said. He remains active in the Clean Power Coalition-Southeast Wisconsin, made up of more than 10 local groups and the Sierra Club.

Pringle recently launched a nonprofit environmental testing organization, the Environmental Accountability Group, to offer free testing to people who believe they are being impacted by pollution.

We Energies has purchased 26 homes around Oak Creek since 2009 to create “buffer property around the plant,” according to Jahns. Pringle and other locals see the home purchases as evidence that We Energies is worried about the impact on residents. Last month the Clean Power Coalition drew a packed house to a screening of a documentary about Cheshire, Ohio, a tiny town where the power company AEP bought up almost all the homes surrounding its coal plant.

Regarding residents’ health concerns, Jahns said: “We have taken many steps to be responsive to resident’s concerns. We conducted testing at more than two dozen homes and those test results support our belief that the power plant operations are not causing health problems for residents. We also voluntarily installed an air quality monitor in the area, even though no environmental agency required it. In the nearly two years it has been operating, particulate matter levels have been well within environmental limits. At the coal storage facility, we have proactively upgraded water technologies to minimize coal dust, installed video monitoring, improved wind breaks, and are using foam and crusting agents on the coal closest to the homes.”

An alternative?

At almost 2,400 MW of combined capacity, the Oak Creek and Elm Road power plants are among the region’s largest, with Elm Road also being among the newest.

Jahns noted that “Oak Creek Power Plant has a variety of operating advantages over Pleasant Prairie Power Plant, such as once-through cooling, which allows for more efficient generation. Oak Creek achieves a number of additional efficiencies from being part of a larger campus.”

Oak Creek’s once-through cooling system has been a subject of significant environmental controversy, since it sucks water in from Lake Michigan and traps and kills scores of fish and fish larva in the process. Environmental groups typically push for closed cooling systems that reuse the same water.

While Oak Creek and Elm Road are not expected to close anytime soon, coal plants have been closing nationwide as they face environmental regulations and competition from cheaper natural gas. 

“All together we plan to retire 1,800 megawatts of coal-fueled generation by 2020,” Jahns said. “We will be replacing a portion of this capacity with a combination of clean natural-gas-fueled generation and zero-carbon emitting renewable generation.”

Recent plant closures or announcements by WEC Energy Group, We Energies’ parent company include the Presque Isle Power Plant in Marquette, Michigan; the Pulliam Power Plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, owned by subsidiary Wisconsin Public Service; and the Edgewater plant in Sheboygan that Wisconsin Public Service co-owns with Alliant Energy. 

New generation projects include a 180-MW reciprocating internal combustion engine (RICE) natural gas-fueled generator in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a 50-MW RICE natural-gas-fueled plant in Marinette, Wisconsin, and a 350-MW utility-scale solar farm at a to-be-determined location. She noted that the solar farm and smaller gas plant still need state public service commission approval. She said the projects are part of WEC’s strategy to reshape its fleet to lower carbon dioxide emissions and rely on cleaner energy.

Clean Power Coalition members said that while they worry about the health and environmental effects of burning coal, they are also concerned for the people who work at plants that close. Cytacki said coalition members would like to see wind turbines or solar panels installed on the site of the Pleasant Prairie plant, and ideally in place of the other two coal plants.

“The jobs are an important part of our economy,” she said. “I would like to see that plant [Oak Creek] transformed into clean power. A windmill might be a possibility, it’s right on the lake. I would encourage We Energies to look at that route. People can be retrained for some of those positions. We recognize people’s livelihoods are at stake.”

Tom Rutkowski organizes a group called Southeast Wisconsin Solar Group Buy that helps residents buy solar panels through more affordable group purchases. Rutkowski’s own solar panels provide most of the power for his home and electric car. While individuals owning solar panels won’t necessarily cause a shift in We Energies’ reliance on the Oak Creek plant, he and other residents see it as a way to stake out a cleaner energy future. He noted We Energies’ past attempts to institute policies that would make it much harder for people to finance solar installations, and said that if We Energies “won’t promote [solar] we at least want them to get out of the way.”

“People are really eager to embrace this,” he said. “We think its important for someone to be advocating for cleaner energy.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

2 replies on “As one Wisconsin coal plant closes, neighbors of another worry pollution will shift to their backyards”