Duke study of coal ash spill raises serious concerns

A team of scientists from Duke University has been testing the land and water in and around the massive coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. Their results not only underscore the precarious nature of coal ash retaining ponds, but the potentially far-reaching and long-lasting impact such accidents have on the environment, wildlife, and human health.

The Duke tests revealed high amounts of arsenic and radioactive radium in the toxic sludge at the spill site, findings that throw up red flags about the “safety of storing ash” and emphasize the need for caution in the cleanup process.

According to the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, water near the site tested fairly clean, with only trace amounts of arsenic present in samples taken two miles downstream from the spill. The sludge and ash, however, contain two radioactive forms of radium, which is highly carcinogenic to humans.

“As the sludge dries out, the ash picked up by the wind as dust will be carried into the atmosphere. Once there, this dust can be inhaled by people, where it can be deposited on the linings of their lungs giving them unwelcome doses of radioactivity and toxic metals,” writes Bill Chameides, Dean of the Nicholas School at Duke.

The possibility of airborne particulates of radium and other toxic substances arising from the sludge is why the cleanup must be conducted with extreme care. It’s also why the presence of some 1,300 coal ash dump sites throughout the country is so dangerous.

Chameides says that the spill and the cleanup effort are “something for the folks in Roane County to think about.” Even more alarming, however, is how the Kingston spill highlights a much broader concern about the safety of coal. These concerns “go well beyond the Kingston plant to all the coal-fired power plants and their coal ash dumping sites throughout the United States,” Chameides writes.

“Is dangerous particulate matter being liberated from them regularly? And if so, what risks might they pose to the people living near these plants?”

A recent article in the New York Times reported that of the 1,300 coal ash dump sites in the U.S., more than 60 had leakage and contaminated the surrounding water.

The government, however, seems to be downplaying the concerns that the Duke scientists raise.

Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke, and graduate student Laura Ruhl collected ash and water samples from part of the Emory River three weeks after the spill occurred.

Their tests of the solid ash samples found significantly higher levels of radium-228 and radium-226 than the EPA reported to have found: 8 picocuries per gram compared with an average of 5-6 picocuries per gram reported by the EPA.

Vengosh and Ruhl also found 95 parts per billion of arsenic in the inlet tested, but lower concentrations downstream. Ten parts per billion is the EPA standard for safe drinking water.

TVA acknowledged the difference between Duke’s radiation and arsenic levels and those recorded by the TVA.

“We still take the Duke report very seriously and will have the site rechecked,” a TVA spokesperson told WSMV of Nashville.