'We got a coal problem': Oak Creek residents square off against We Energies

People living in Oak Creek are taking matters into their own hands. They say they woke up this week to black dust covering their homes, and blame the power plant next door.  

We Energies and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are having the black dust tested to be certain it's coal. But residents did some testing of their own, and found that it's definitely coal dust.

Frustrated neighbors, some in respirator masks, held signs that read "Coal Blows" and "Breath is Life." They gathered at Haas Park, in the shadow of the We Energies Power Plant in Oak Creek.

"It's like we're all forgotten down here," said Greg Millard who lives nearby. "Sure, Oak Creek's got a lot of nice things going, Ikea, Town Center, but we got a coal problem, and we can't hide it no more."

Remnants of the black dust they found on their properties Monday after strong winds, are still visible on the playground. Testing these residents had done, confirms it's coal dust.

"The particles are so small, the can travel for miles," said Bill Pringle. "They double the coal pile size and now we have this problem here again."

Pringle is a resident we've been following for years. He took a loss to sell his house near the power plant, because his family was having major health issues. Before he moved, We Energies did not find any coal dust inside his home. But Pringle says he did. 

"I had tests on my own that we paid for, and we found that my house had coal and ash in it," Pringle said. "We don't trust We Energies."

Pringle is leading efforts against We Energies in this neighborhood. He created an organization called Environmental Accountability Group, Inc. 

"Our mission is to compile data, like we do here, and make the public fully aware, so they know what's going on and can get involved," Pringle said.

Tom Metcalfe, the Executive Vice President of We Energies, acknowledges there should be no black dust.

"That is a nuisance and simply shouldn't happen," Metcalfe said.

But he says We Energies monitors the air. He also says independent health experts the company uses confirm there's no health risk to neighbors. 

"The levels of coal dust that we're talking about is just really not a health issue,"  Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe added that he worked at the Oak Creek plant for five years, along with at least 300 employees, none of who have breathing issues from coal. But he vows to "re-double" efforts to control dust.

"We're going to take a fresh look at all those procedures to assure it doesn't happen," he said.

Metcalfe says We Energies is considering putting an air quality monitor back in Haas Park. The company removed one from the park because of "low data results recorded."

Many health studies do link breathing in coal dust to various health and breathing problems. Neighbors are organizing efforts, to strengthen their fight against the power plant.

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