Today and for the foreseeable future all of us face the threat of COVID-19. This disease is particularly hazardous to those with weakened immune systems, and specifically those who struggle with respiratory problems. We who live in southeast Wisconsin are especially vulnerable, because we are breathing the most polluted air in the state.
For many years the American Lung Association has given an “F” to the air quality in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and Wisconsin’s greatest polluter, by far, is our coal-burning energy provider, We Energies.
Many residents of southeast Wisconsin suffer from an unusually high rate of breathing problems. Polluted air puts people at a greater risk of catching the coronavirus and of having a more severe infection.
A recent New York Times article tells us “The reasons are twofold: First, air pollution can cause or aggravate respiratory illnesses like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And those illnesses can make you more susceptible to the worst effects of lung infections. Second, exposure to air pollution is known to raise the chance of contracting viruses in the first place, regardless of underlying health conditions.” The article continues with Dr. Meredith McCormack, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association and associate professor of pulmonary and critical care at Johns Hopkins University summing it up, “All things being equal, a person exposed to air pollution would likely have a worse outcome if they were exposed to coronavirus.”
Mountains of coal at two We Energies plants daily threaten the health of Oak Creek residents, even as a much larger area continues to be affected. A 2017 study from the National Bureau for Economic Research explains that coal piles cause fine particulate pollution in multiple ways (handling, processing and pulverization). These fine particulates, some of them 2.5 microns or smaller, can travel as far as 25 miles, an area that encompasses much of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.
Need more? A new study by Harvard University’s School of Public Health shows the coronavirus risk to be dramatically heightened for people living in the most heavily polluted areas. According to Dr. Francesca Dominici, the lead author, highly polluted counties “will be the ones that will have higher numbers of hospitalizations, higher numbers of deaths.....” The study concluded that anyone living in a county with high levels of 2.5 microns particulate matter is 15% more likely to die if he contracts COVID-19 compared to people living in an area with less air pollution.
For those of us who are not We Energies and WEC (the parent company) executives, the health of our families, friends and neighbors is paramount. The only remedy is clean, renewable energy. And the response from We Energies and WEC? The Wisconsin State Journal, in an Aug. 19, 2019, article, reports that chairman of We Energies Gale Klappa “said earlier this month in an earnings call with analysts that the utility expects to continue running its newest coal plants through mid-century.”
So much for our concerns. Thirty more years of filthy air is the promise made by We Energies and WEC executives Gale Klappa, Thomas Metcalfe, Kevin Fletcher and William McKnife. Every day coal is burned leads to respiratory problems and weakened immune systems. The bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and COPD brought on by coal dust exposure is bad enough, but it has left us much more vulnerable to COVID-19 and other viruses yet to come. We Energies is a clear and present danger to southeast Wisconsin. Every day.
Carl Lindner of Racine is a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and an Executive Committee member of the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin.