Oak Creek power plant's neighbors still unsettled after black dust found in their neighborhood

Posted at 6:06 PM, Mar 06, 2018

Coal handling operations resumed as normal Tuesday at the We Energies Power Plant in Oak Creek, after neighbors in a residential area to the North found black dust on their homes and cars Monday morning. 

We Energies said it's likely strong winds blew the dust from the outdoor coal piles at the plant into the residential area. 

After a complaint from a concerned resident, workers from We Energies visited the area and collected a sample of the dust. It's being tested to confirm it's coal dust. 

The environmental advocacy group Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin also took samples of the dust and is testing them. 

The Wisconsin DNR said wind gusts in the area of the plant topped 40 miles per hour on Sunday night into Monday morning. 

A compliance engineer from the Wisconsin DNR also visited the power plant and the impacted neighborhood Monday. 

"At the time he was there, he did not notice any dust blowing off the coal piles, neither did he observe any residue as he walked around the area, including a playground on the South side of the plant," said Jim Dick, communications director for the Wisconsin DNR, in an email. 

"Please do not take that to mean we are disputing what neighbors reported. It just means our staff person did not see anything at the time he was there," Dick also said. 

Neighbors in the area near Highway 32 and Elm Rd. said they're concerned strong winds in the future might create the same problem. 

"I have four children, so there are obviously health concerns," said Maira Ross, who's lived in the neighborhood for more than nine years. 

Across the street from Ross's home, Michael Povolo said he worries about his health, as well as the value of his house. 

"Who would buy your home? Knowing you have this problem?" he said. 

Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz said he's confident that We Energies has been safely handling the coal at the plant. 

"They have pretty strict coal-handling policies in place, as far as where they can pile it, how much, and for how long," the mayor said. 

He added the City is willing to work with We Energies and any necessary government agencies to make sure the coal dust is kept out of nearby neighborhoods in the future. 

"This is not something we want to have become a common occurrence," Bukiewicz said. 

We Energies runs an air monitoring station about one mile South of the plant. The results are posted monthly here. 

The company said it's not required to report the results from the air monitor to the EPA or the DNR. However, We Energies said it hasn't seen any levels which exceeded environmental standards since the installation of the monitoring station. 

"Our plant operates in compliance with all federal and state regulations," spokesperson Amy Jahns said via email. 

Ross said her family is prepared to move should the dust become a common issue in their neighborhood. 

"It is something we are going to consider," Ross said.