Coal storage expansion causes dust concerns at Wisconsin power plant

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With plans to increase the coal storage capacity at its Oak Creek power plant near Milwaukee, We Energies has recently raised concerns about human health and the environment. As reported in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, residents have been joined by environmental organization Clean Wisconsin to request that state regulators force the utility to better control coal dust drifting from the plant into nearby neighborhoods.

The $2.3 billion power plant represents the most expensive construction project in state history. In a $62 million expansion bid, the company now seeks to double its coal storage capabilities in order to purchase more coal from the western United States at cheaper prices than it can currently buy eastern Appalachian coal. The expansion, which would allow the facility to store as much as 1.5 million tons of coal on a 30-acre site by 2017, would save the company an estimated $9-11 million a year.

The state Public Service Commission has approved the project, and the matter now goes before the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for air emissions permitting. The DNR has issued a preliminary approval of the plan, but will not finalize conditions for the project until after public hearings have been completed.

At a public hearing last Thursday, neighbors voiced concerns over dark clouds of coal dust and fly ash that overfly their neighborhoods on windy days. They are now asking the state DNR to force We Energies to take a more proactive approach to limit blowing dust and ash at the facility.

The best approach would be to cover the Oak Creek coal under a dome, said attorney Pamela Ritger. In California, petroleum coke, a coal-like byproduct of oil refining, has been required by state law to be covered since 2000, and KCBX Terminals, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, said it would construct a $120 million storage facility to house petroleum coke on Chicago’s south side. The city banned the storage of coke at the site this June, however, because of environmental concerns and community opposition.

We Energies spokeswoman Cathy Schulze said the company would defer to the DNR on the issue of coal storage. The DNR has asked the utility to conduct a feasibility study regarding more stringent precautions to minimize wind-born coal derivatives, and will scrutinize the company’s response before making further decisions on the issue. 

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