MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee County Board has voted unanimously to ask the state Department of Natural Resources to deny a variance request from We Energies to allow the energy company to dispose of up to three times more mercury than the legal limit through 2023.
The variance, if approved by the DNR, would allow We Energies to continue operations at its Oak Creek power plant just north of the Oak Creek-Caledonia border while the company investigates spikes in arsenic and mercury levels in the plant’s discharge and seeks a long-term fix.
“There is no scientific, environmental or moral reason to put more mercury into Lake Michigan,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Steven Shea, who represents Cudahy, St. Francis, South Milwaukee and parts of Oak Creek, said in a press release. “…We Energies should be moving towards 100% renewables, not burning more coal. This is 2019, not 1919.”
Shea authored the Milwaukee County resolution rebuking the variance application. The County Board approved the ordinance on Thursday.
We Energies spokesman Brendan Conway dismissed the resolution as “more political grandstanding.”
“It doesn’t change the facts of what is actually going on,” Conway said. “This variance will continue to be safe. It’s not a public safety issue. It’s not a public health issue.”
Mercury exposure can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, according to the World Health Organization, which considers mercury a public health concern. A state DNR guide on safe fish-eating habits does not recommend eating most Lake Michigan-caught fish for more than one meal per month.
The DNR currently allows mercury concentrations of 1.3 parts per trillion in water discharge. The variance asks the DNR to allow We Energies’ discharge to have a concentration of 4.1 parts per trillion. The company has a less than 1% chance of exceeding that number, Conway said.
“The numbers show that this is not something that happens every day or often,” Conway said.
About 150 area residents showed up to a February public hearing on the variance in Oak Creek, with many voicing opposition.
“The health of our communities is far more important than the profits of a corporation,” County Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, who represents part of Downtown Milwaukee, said in the release.