Is Ash-Filled Sludge A Health Threat?

Environmentalists are concerned about a Tennessee neighborhood after an earthen dam holding back a 40-acre retention pond at a coal-burning power plant collapsed. They are worried that sludge, which is filled with ash from the coal-fired plant, could pose a health risk. But initial tests found no threat to drinking water.

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The health of people in the area is on the minds of state and federal officials who've been working all week to determine what the ash slide could mean to humans, as NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: The fly ash is what's left after coal is burned. These wastes are sometimes mixed in with concrete and other building products, and there seem to be no ill effects from that. But problems can occur when fly ash is inhaled or touched or swallowed. Max Costa, chairman of the department of environmental medicine at New York University, says there's lots of nasty stuff in fly ash from coal.

Dr. MAX COSTA (Chair, Environmental Medicine, Langone Medical Center, New York University): The major toxic elements in it are heavy metals - such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, vanadium is in it, nickel, lead - and these metals produce a wide variety of toxicities.

SILBERNER: They can cause cancer, impair kidney function, destroy nerves. Some of them on contact can seriously irritate the skin or eyes. The big question here, says Costa...

Dr. COSTA: How much of the metal's going to dissolve in the water, and whether the water will get into anybody's drinking water.

SILBERNER: How much metal is in the fly ash to start with depends on what type of coal it is and how it's treated. And how much metal leaches out of the fly ash and into the ground water depends on how acidic the water is, he says. John Moulton is the spokesman with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant. He says the Authority is doing its best to control the fly ash in the river.

Mr. JOHN MOULTON (Senior Manager, News Bureau, Tennessee Valley Authority): On the surface, we've installed - we've got skimmers that are skimming the surface to get the ash off of the water, and we have booms, which are, you know, used in all kinds of - any kind of a spill on a river.

SILBERNER: As for the river water itself, he says, TVA has seen no impact on fish or aquatic life.

Mr. MOULTON: Also, our sampling has determined that there's been no indication that the water would not be drinking-water standard. So, we have no indication that it's impacted drinking water as well.

SILBERNER: Environmental groups are saying the fly-ash spill is an environmental catastrophe. The TVA reported yesterday that enough sludge spilled out of a 40-acre holding pond to cover more than 3,000 acres with a foot of water. The Environmental Protection Agency's Laura Niles says it's too early to say how bad it's going to be.

Ms. LAURA NILES (External Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency): The scope of it and the amount of acreage that this spill has covered is certainly very large. But we don't know, really, the extent of the contamination right now until we get a lot of our results back.

SILBERNER: And she says the early numbers, at least, indicate no immediate hazard. For the moment, her suggestion is to avoid physical contact with the sludge.

Ms. NILES: I shouldn't imagine anybody's out there walking around in it, but wouldn't want to until we determine what all materials are in there and what levels they are at.

SILBERNER: The EPA and Tennessee state officials are hoping to get a close look later today at new measurements of what's in the sludge and the water. They say they'll know more then about the likely impact of the spill. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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