We Energies will tear down more homes in the coming weeks around the Oak Creek power plant, a move that continues to unnerve some residents and environmental activists.
The purchase and destruction of homes around the power plant have left some in Caledonia wondering if their town is disappearing just like Cheshire, Ohio, a small town that was bought by a nearby power company for $20 million.
Four raze permit requests were filed by We Energies last week with the Village of Caledonia for the destruction of homes at 7832 Douglas Avenue, 8127 Botting Road, 6005 County Line Road, and 5510 7 Mile Road. We Energies purchased the four homes in 2015 and 2016. The utility has purchased 30 properties totaling over 200 acres since 2009, including one this month.
Ten other homes along 7 Mile Road, Botting Road, and Douglas Avenue also have their homes listed for sale by Jane Dulisse, a Shorewest Realtor, who has handled many of We Energies real estate transactions. We Energies officials have said over the years that they too are creating a buffer zone around the plant.
“As properties become available we deal with them on a case by case basis, we don’t publically discuss conversations we have with landowners and there is no directive or connection from We Energies either formal or informal to any real estate agent that has approached us with a property for sale,” said Amy Jahns, spokesperson for We Energies.
What will happen to the four properties after the homes are torn down? Like the others: The wells will be capped, no trespassing signs will be posted, and the properties will be taken off of the tax rolls.
Because the utility now owns the properties and is exempt from paying property taxes on land it acquires for a buffer zone, the village cannot collect property taxes from them. But We Energies still pays a utility tax on its gross receipts for sales, which then comes back to the village in the form of state shared revenue.
Striking similarities between Cheshire Ohio and Caledonia
Sponsored by the Clean Power Coalition-Southeast Wisconsin, the group is seeking to educate the community about the “dangers of burning coal on the health of those who live and work in the vicinity of We Energies’ south Oak Creek and Elm Road Power Plants,” said Tom Rutkowski, a member of the group.
“Apparently, demolishing people’s homes is all part of the business of running a coal-fired power plant. It has been happening here for a while, just as it happens in other areas surrounding coal plants. Ironically, your energy bill pays for the destruction of homes and neighborhoods,” Rutkowski said.
Like the Gen. James M. Gavin Power Plant in Cheshire, Ohio, the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant is the largest power plant in the state. Yet, the Oak Creek plant produces about half of the electricity the Cheshire plant does. For years the townspeople in Cheshire complained of “raspy throats, burning eyes, sore lips, mouth blisters and grime everywhere,” according to a story by the New York Times.
Caledonia residents living around the plant complained of the same.
“Honestly, it was almost frightening to watch this movie and hear their testimonies,” said Bill Pringle. “To hear their symptoms, the descriptions of the plumes, the grime… everything was exactly same.”
But not everything was the same. The 90 homeowners received payment from AEP for three times the value of their homes after the EPA found that they had violated the Clean Air Act in 2000, according to a story by the New York Times.
The We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant, however, is operating within the boundaries of EPA regulations. And unlike American Electric Power, We Energies is creating its buffer zone in a piecemeal fashion. Still, they are buying the properties at two to three times the assessed value of the homes.
First home in mediation to be razed
One of the homes expected to be razed over the next few weeks used to be owned by Tim Hupp and his wife Susan Hupp.
The couple sold their home at 7832 Douglas Avenue last year to We Energies for $349,500. The Village of Caledonia assessed the property at $104,500 in 2016, according to the Racine County property transfer records.
The Hupp’s home was among the 19 that tested positive for the presence of coal dust in 2016. The couple and their family have had a myriad of health problems over the years. Tim has been hospitalized 18 times with pneumonia since 2008. His wife Sue has cancer and three of his siblings also died of cancer. The couple moved back into Tim’s childhood home in 2004 after his mother Roberta Hupp also died of COPD.
All six of them lived in the same house.
But We Energies has denied that there is a correlation between the Hupp’s health and the rest of the mediation group’s claims, and the proximity to the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant.
“As we have said before, no link has been established between our operations at the Oak Creek Power Plant and health issues raised by some area residents,” said Brian Manthey, spokesperson for We Energies, earlier this year.
But the EPA concluded in 2009 that fine particle pollution does pose serious health threats, including early death from short-term and long-term exposure, cardiovascular harm, respiratory harm, may cause cancer, and may cause reproductive and developmental harm. The Hupp family lives close to an air monitoring station that has registered fine particle pollution, even though those levels are within the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
In May, however, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said that it was “unlikely” that the air quality around the power plant was making residents sick.
But Pringle believes the DNR and EPA rely too much on We Energies own reporting.
Former Caledonia resident forms non-profit to do testing
Initially part of the mediation group, Pringle has been the most vocal about We Energies. He has formed a non-profit group called the Environmental Accountability Group, which will test homeowners’ water and the air inside their homes for free.
“We want to the start filing that data with the state and federal government,” he said. “If the government won’t do it, we will. And the purpose of the group is to provide honest data about air and water quality, whether it’s near a foundry or power plant.
“Too many people are getting sick. We need to start shaking this tree hard.”