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Oak Creek Power Plant

The We Energies power plant in Oak Creek is shown on June 8, 2012. 

OAK CREEK — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is scheduled to hold a public hearing over We Energies’ application to renew its water discharge permit for the Oak Creek power plant.

The draft permit, which has been available on the DNR’s website since December, grants a variance for the amount of mercury and arsenic the power plant is allowed to dump with its wastewater. That would mean that the power plant could discharge those chemicals at a rate higher than the regulation standard into Lake Michigan for a temporary time period.

Jason Knutson, the DNR’s wastewater section chief, said the variance was put into place because We Energies had discharges above what’s permitted, so the power plant could continue to operate as it works with the DNR to identify the source of the elevated levels.

“Anytime we issue a variance we include conditions that lead to the highest level of compliance,” said Knutson. “These variances aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

As part of the process a public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 11, at the Oak Creek Community Center, 8580 S. Howell Ave.

Coalition tests area waters

The Clean Power Coalition of Southeastern Wisconsin, a local clean energy group, presented the results of its water testing near the power plant to the DNR and asked that the agency investigate further.

The samples, collected by UW-Parkside students and tested at the University of Wisconsin Laboratory of Hygiene, showed unsafe levels of boron, arsenic, copper, lead, manganese and more metals. The CPC published the test results on its website on Feb. 7.

Water testing sites

A map from the Clean Power Coalition's website shows the location of the water testing sites.

Three sites were chosen because they were close to the plant and were publicly accessible: a stream along the bike path west of the power plant, another along County Line Road and a culvert south of the power plant. Samples were collected on June 14 (the summer test results) and Nov. 16 (winter test results) and were sent to the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison for testing for heavy metals.

Summer test results

The Clean Power Coalition's water test results for summer show lower levels of heavy metals than winter but levels of manganese higher than the public health standard.

The samples collected in the summer had levels of boron, aluminum and manganese higher than the public health standard for drinking water. The winter samples contained high levels of those metals plus arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, nickel and vanadium.

Winter test results

The Clean Power Coalition's water samples collected in November showed unhealthy levels of aluminum, manganese and other metals in waterways near the Oak Creek power plant. 

During the second round of testing, the coalition also collected samples from a creek at the Eco-Justice Center, 7133 Michna Road, and another creek at Seven Mile Road, both in Caledonia. CPC representative Miranda Ehrlich said “nothing concerning” was found at those locations.

Caveats and unclear connection to power plant

Ehrlich said there are two caveats to their findings: first, at this early stage they cannot definitively say the metals came from the coal fire power plant. The second is that the water they tested is surface level water, not drinking water. It’s unknown if any of those metals are infiltrating into the drinking water system.

However, she hoped the results would compel the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to investigate.

The permit up for renewal is for discharge into Lake Michigan, so Knutson said its unclear at this point if the test results are tied to the power plant.

“Before we finalize the permit we’ll need to answer that question,” said Knutson. “We’re keeping the answer to that question open until we give everybody an opportunity to provide information that might be relevant to our decision making.”

We Energies’ response

We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway took issue with CPC’s implication that the metals could have come from the Oak Creek power plant.

“The test results of water sampled from drainage ditches near the Oak Creek facility includes runoff from farm fields, state highways and other land uses,” wrote Conway. “The metals that are found are elements that are a natural part of soils and will influence the water quality composition of samples taken in a drainage ditch located in a suburban/rural area.”

Conley also had strong words regarding the organization comparing the results to drinking water standards on their website.

“It is unfortunate the Clean Power Coalition continues to try and scare people using stunts and half-truths,” wrote Conway in an email. “Apparently they believe it is responsible to scare people by comparing water in a stream to water that comes into our homes.”

Ehrlich said the CPC’s testing was just the first step.

“However, we do think what we’ve found is concerning enough that the DNR should consider looking into it,” Ehrlich wrote in an email. “Given that We Energies’ water discharge permit is currently up for renewal, we thought this was a good time to engage the DNR on this issue so they can consider this information while finalizing the permit.”

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Reporter

Christina Lieffring covers the Burlington area and the Village of Caledonia. Before moving to Racine, she lived in Nebraska, Beijing, Chicago and grew up in Kansas City.

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