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What are the health risks of coal piles like the ones in Green Bay?

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What are the health risks of coal piles like the ones in Green Bay?

C. Reiss Terminals, a Great Lakes shipping company, has been transporting coal for more than 135 years from its dock in downtown Green Bay.

July 9, 2024 2:10 PM CDT

By: Bennet Goldstein / Wisconsin Watch

C. Reiss Terminals, a Great Lakes shipping company, has been transporting coal for more than 135 years from its dock in downtown Green Bay. 

Locals and lawmakers have long complained about the fugitive dust that blows from its iconic coal piles into the surrounding low-income neighborhoods, whose residents — nearly half of whom are people of color — disproportionately bear the effects. 

Officials hope to relocate the business, which occupies 35 acres along the Fox River near Mason Street. They unsuccessfully tried for years to identify a new site that meets the company’s operating needs.

But they found one at the now-razed J. P. Pulliam Generating Station, which shuttered in 2018. Brown County purchased the site of the former Public Service Corp. coal power plant three years later and intends to lease it to C. Reiss. But it would first need to transform the property — which is located in an industrial area at the Fox River’s mouth, more than a half mile from the closest residence — into a functioning port.

The city and the county have amassed more than $30 million in local, state and federal dollars for the project. Still, its future is unclear after the proposal wasn’t selected for another federal grant valued at $25 million. Local government leaders say they remain committed to seeing the project through.

The coal piles would not actually be moved, but rather drawn down by C. Reiss as coal is simultaneously deposited at the new site, where the power plant also stored coal outdoors for more than a century.

Coal piles release dust and gases as they are exposed to air. Long-term inhalation of coal dust can lead to lung and cardiovascular disease and death. C. Reiss reports its annual air emissions to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Carnegie Mellon University economists found that airborne particulates detected within 25 miles downwind of coal power plants increased alongside coal deliveries and the size of coal stockpiles. And as ambient fine particulates increased, so did the areas’ death rates.

“There may be relatively low-cost policy interventions to reduce the air pollution from coal piles,” study co-author Akshaya Jha said. “Covering the coal piles up. There are water-based or even chemical-based liquids that you can spray periodically on the coal pile to reduce the coal dust coming from the pile.”

Additionally, acidic runoff containing heavy metals forms when it rains on coal piles. The Wisconsin DNR regulates businesses that generate industrial stormwater and requires C. Reiss to follow a stormwater pollution prevention plan to reduce the risk of its coal piles polluting local water supplies.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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