New coal ash threat identified: toxic dust hurting lungs, hearts

William Gibbs of Uniontown, Alabama started seeing the paint peeling off his truck a few months after coal ash from the spill in Tennessee arrived at a nearby landfill. "If that’s what it’s doing to my truck, imagine what it’s doing to me," said Gibbs. (Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice from "Ash in Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash Is Hazardous to Your Health.")

Before the end of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to finalize the first-ever federal regulations for disposal of coal ash from power plants. And in the wake of Duke Energy's massive February spill of coal ash into the Dan River, the North Carolina House and Senate are still battling over legislation to protect the state's waterways from contamination with the toxic waste, which contains poisons including arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and uranium.

So far, the fight to better regulate coal ash at the federal and state levels has focused on the threat the waste presents to water supplies. Utilities have historically stored the waste in massive, unlined impoundments near the same lakes and rivers that provide cooling water for the plants. Sometimes those impoundments fail catastrophically, as in the 2008 disaster at TVA's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee that contaminated the Clinch and Emory rivers. More commonly, coal ash pollution escapes into the environment in a less dramatic fashion, seeping from the impoundment into the groundwater or nearby streams, as is happening at all 33 of Duke Energy's ash impoundments across North Carolina and many of the other 1,070 ash impoundments nationwide. To date, environmental watchdogs have documented over 200 sites nationwide where coal ash has caused environmental damages, with many of the cases involving water pollution.

But water pollution is not the only environmental threat from poorly regulated coal ash: A new report identifies serious health risks from airborne coal ash, which will be a growing problem for North Carolina and other states as they shift from wet to dry storage, as many environmentalists are urging.

Last week Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and Earthjustice released "Ash in Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash Is Hazardous to Your Health." It finds that coal ash dust can be inhaled into the lungs, where the small particles cause inflammation and immunological reactions and increase the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes. The dust can get into the air from dry coal ash landfills and from uncovered trucks carrying coal ash, and it presents a hazard to workers handling coal ash as well as nearby residents.

"Breathing dust can cause disease and drastically decrease the quality of life for communities along the fenceline of coal ash dump sites," said co-author Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice. "We know coal ash is poisoning our water, and now we also know that it’s poisoning our air as well."

An estimated 36 percent of coal ash produced in the U.S. is disposed of in dry landfills, usually at the power plant site where it's generated, while about 21 percent is stored in wet impoundments. But even wet impoundments can lead to airborne coal ash problems through mismanagement, especially in dry climates.

The report highlights six communities threatened by airborne coal ash dust. Three of them are in the South:

* Uniontown, Alabama, where residents say dust from a landfill that received 4 million tons of coal ash from the TVA Kingston disaster blankets their cars and homes, causing respiratory problems, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Workers at the landfill also say the airborne coal ash has hurt their health.

* Louisville, Kentucky, where coal ash blows from a mountainous pile at LG&E's Cane Run Generating Station onto a nearby community.

* Chesapeake, Virginia, where construction of a golf course using 1.5 million tons of coal ash from Dominion Virginia Power sent clouds of toxic dust onto workers and nearby homes.  A construction manager for the project has claimed he suffered serious injury from inhaling the ash.

The other communities that the report looks at are in Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Most of the cases raise environmental justice concerns. For example, 90 percent of the residents of Uniontown, Alabama are African American, and 45.2 percent live below the poverty line. Many residents of the community near Louisville's Cane Run plant live in trailers and mobile homes. The coal ash dumpsite at issue in Nevada is only 300 yards from the ancestral home of a band of Paiute Indians, while the New Mexico site is on a Navajo reservation where a quarter of the residents lack access to electricity even while living with its toxic waste.

The EPA acknowledged the health threat from dust near coal ash landfills in a 2010 draft risk assessment. But environmental health watchdogs say the EPA's assessment underestimated the risk to human health by considering fugitive dust emissions only from wind erosion but not from unloading the ash or from trucks carrying it to the landfill.

There are currently no federal regulations addressing the threat of toxic dust from coal ash disposal. And of the 37 top coal ash-generating states, fewer than half require dust controls at coal ash landfills, with Pennsylvania the only state to require dust controls at ash ponds. To see regulations by state, click on the table at left, from the PSR/Earthjustice report.

North Carolina is among the states that already require dust controls at coal ash landfills. But with pressure building to shift from wet to dry storage, compliance is likely to become a growing concern for the state.

The legislation that North Carolina's Republican-controlled state House and Senate were working on before they left town last week would have required Duke Energy to remove ash from wet impoundments at four sites deemed to pose the greatest risk to the public, including the Dan River site, and move it to dry landfills. Negotiations reportedly broke down over determining the risk level for the remaining dumps. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), said he plans to bring up the measure again when the legislature reconvenes for a lame-duck session after the November election. On Friday, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed an executive order directing the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to take the necessary steps to authorize the dewatering of coal ash at the four priority sites, which also include Duke's Riverbend, Asheville and Sutton plants. Environmental groups have called for all impoundments across the state to be emptied and the contents moved to lined landfills.

Meanwhile, several thousand tons of the coal ash spilled into the Dan River have been dredged up and disposed of at a lined landfill in Person County, North Carolina despite local officials' concerns about safety.

"Federal regulations for coal ash can’t come soon enough," said Evans of Earthjustice. "Whether it's a catastrophic spill, a slow poisoning of nearby waters or the dust blowing from these sites, coal ash contaminates our lives in too many ways."