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Tracking air quality around Oak Creek plant

Tracking air quality around Oak Creek plant

We Energies air-monitoring station

The We Energies air-monitoring station at Seven Mile Road, east of Highway 32 and just west of the Union Pacific Railroad near the Oak Creek Power Plant, is shown on Feb. 3, 2016.

CALEDONIA — The Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin has teamed up with residents surrounding the We Energies Oak Creek power plant to independently monitor the air quality in that area.

The coalition announced on Friday that they’d raised the funds and purchased seven air quality monitors that are being installed outside volunteers’ homes, three in Oak Creek and four in Caledonia.

Real-time information

Sister Rejane Cytacki, Executive Director of the Eco-Justice Center, where one of the monitors will soon be installed, said that the idea came from one of the the coalition’s monthly meetings that serve as a brain storming session.

Initially they’d thought about getting one of the Department of Natural Resource’s air monitoring devices, but the idea stalled due to the cost and the questions who would be responsible for the device.

Miranda Ehrlich, a community organizer with the Sierra Club and active member of the coalition, did some research and suggested purchasing some devices from PurpleAir, an international company that has monitors installed around the world.

Ehrlich said the advantage PurpleAir gives over We Energies’ system is the PurpleAir monitors upload the Air Quality Index in real time whereas We Energies reports its air quality findings monthly.

“This is helpful for residents who have respiratory issues and need to know if the air is safe to breath today,” Ehrlich stated in the press release.

The monitors use lasers to detect particulates PM10 (particulate matter, which is measured in micrometers) to PM2.5 and PM1.0. Particulates sized PM10 are large enough to be expelled from the lungs but are still hazardous, particularly to people with respiratory conditions. Particles sized PM 2.5 and smaller are small enough to enter the blood stream.

Anyone can access PurpleAir’s readings online by going to and clicking the ‘Map’ tab at the top of the screen.

One of the monitors, at the home of Charles Michna at Seven Mile and Michna roads, will not upload its data in real time because the Michnas don’t have WiFi. But Michna wants to compare the data from his property, on the east side of the railroad tracks, to the We Energies monitor located on the west side of the tracks.

“I’m 60 yards from the tracks and I probably get hammered the worst depending on the time of year,” said Michna. “It’s something we’ll have to study and we’ll have a better answer after that happens.”

Not the full picture

We Energies Brian Manthey said the air monitors will be able to tell people about the quality of the air but not what the particulates are and where they came from.

One example he gave was from the Fourth of July when the power plant’s air quality monitors gave an abnormally high reading. They later learned the particulates were fireworks’ residue and not from the power plant.

“In terms of being able to get a quantitative number, that is what (the monitors) will be able to give them,” said Manthey. “We’re saying they may not be able to know that the power plant is the source for the reading they are able to get.”

Ehrlich said she’s aware these monitors won’t be able to analyze the makeup of the particulates. In the short term, the goal is to provide information to area residents about the air they’re breathing.

Long term, they want to use the data from the monitors to inform further research. From the monitors they can learn which areas have better or worse air quality and how that’s affected by factors such as the weather. From there, she said, they could use more sophisticated equipment to figure out where particulates are coming from.

“This is the first step, among other things, to investigate the coal dust issues and investigate air quality issues,” said Erhlich.

Also, having an air monitoring system independent from We Energies would ensure the public receives accurate information, she said.

“While we’re really glad that We Energies is doing self-monitoring, we think it’s important to do independent monitoring to keep polluters honest,” said Erhlich.


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Christina Lieffring covers the City of Racine and the City of Burlington and is a not-bad photographer. In her spare time she tries to keep her plants and guinea pigs alive and happy.

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