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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

EPA Will Listen to Milwaukeeans' Health Concerns

Can the feds help us achieve environmental justice?

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In a highly unusual move, two administrators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will visit Milwaukee next week to hear concerns about health issues that may be caused by air and water pollution.

The EPA Community Forum, organized by the Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Cleaner Valley Coalition, will provide an opportunity for city residents to tell their stories about asthma, infant mortality and other health issues that disproportionately affect city residents, especially African-American, Hispanic and Hmong residents.

"The fact that they are willing to hold a listening session with the community—I'm very pleased about that," said Patricia McManus, president and CEO of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

Milwaukee has high rates of health issues that could be caused, at least in part, by environmental pollution.

Milwaukee County has the highest rate of asthma emergency room visits in Wisconsin, at 81.6 visits per 10,000 people in 2007-2009; statewide, the average rate was 39 emergency room visits per 10,000 people, according to data collected by the state Department of Health Services (DHS). Milwaukee County also had the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations.

African Americans seem to be hit the hardest by asthma and have an asthma hospitalization rate that's five times higher than white residents, according to DHS statistics.

Infant mortality rates are elevated in the central city as well.

Links to Menomonee Valley Coal-Fired Power Plant?

Members of the Cleaner Valley Coalition contend that one of the contributing factors is We Energies' coal-fired power plant in the Menomonee Valley, located between the Potawatomi Bingo Casino and the Harley-Davidson Museum. More than 24,000 people live within a mile of the plant, primarily African-American, Hispanic and Hmong residents who earn low incomes.

We Energies' Menomonee Valley plant launched in 1968 and uses 2,200 tons of coal each day to provide electricity and steam to heat or cool buildings downtown.

The Cleaner Valley Coalition has been pressing the company to upgrade the plant's pollution controls or to convert it to natural gas, which would be better for the environment.

Critics point out that We Energies has upgraded or converted its coal-fired plants in primarily higher-income, white areas, such as Port Washington, Pleasant Prairie and Oak Creek, and coalition members are urging We Energies to clean up the valley plant to protect the health and well-being of the city's minority and low-income residents.

"This plant is incredibly dirty and it's having an inordinate effect on the inner city," said Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper. "All of the people who live around that plant, mostly people of color, are the ones most affected by the poor air quality and the health effects from the contamination of the fish."

Emily Miota, of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said that the valley plant has been operating with outdated and lax air and water permits granted by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). She said the EPA could put pressure on the DNR, which in turn could require We Energies to install more modern pollution controls at the valley plant.

The EPA has also proposed federal mercury rules to be implemented next year, which would help to reduce one of the most harmful toxins created by coal-fired power plants.

"These are the first-ever federal mercury protections," Miota said. "We hope that they move forward with those."

Nenn said the proposed mercury rule could be "technology-forcing" at the valley plant, a way to force We Energies to upgrade its pollution controls.

Nenn said she's concerned about mercury and other pollutants getting into the air and water, and ultimately into the food supply of those who fish in the Menomonee River.

"There are people fishing constantly," Nenn said. "I think there are definitely health impacts on these people who are largely subsistence fishing."

We Energies spokeswoman Cathy Schulze said that the company will file a petition within days with the state Public Service Commission (PSC) to take the first step toward upgrading its infrastructure and potentially converting the plant to natural gas. Schulze said it must wait for the PSC's response before moving forward.

Schulze said the valley plant is "in compliance with all necessary environmental permits" and that both We Energies and the EPA monitor the air quality near the valley plant.

We Energies Water Quality Manager David Lee said the plant's most recent water permit was issued in 1987, and it is still in effect. He said We Energies has a 2010 application pending with the DNR.

He said no mercury is found in the waterways around the plant and other pollutants are within state standards.

The EPA Community Forum will be held 6-9 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12, at the Ascension Lutheran Church, 1236 S. Layton Blvd. For more information, go to cleanervalleycampaign.org.