Coal Ash May Pose Health Hazard As cleanup continues on the giant sludge spill from a Tennessee coal plant, government officials are trying to figure out how much of a disaster it is. It could pose a hazard to people and the environment.
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Coal Ash May Pose Health Hazard

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Coal Ash May Pose Health Hazard

Coal Ash May Pose Health Hazard

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And we turn now to NPR health correspondent Joanne Silberner to learn what this huge spill may mean for people who live in the region. Joanne, the spill is vast. How big a health threat is it to people?

JOANNE SILBERNER: Well, it really depends on what's in the ash. The ash is what is left over after you burn coal; it's that sludgy stuff. But one of the things in there is heavy metals. These are things like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, selenium. None of these things are good. They can have some pretty serious effects when they get into humans. They can cause cancer, kidney problems, nervous-system diseases, but it all depends on how much is in the ash, and that depends to start with, with the coal itself. It can vary a lot from one lot of coal to another.

Now, if the heavy metal sticks to the ash, stays with the ash, then it may not be so bad because that can be filtered out pretty easily. If it gets into the water, into the drinking water, and the heavy metal leaches out of the ash that can be hard to deal with. Now, we've got the TVA, as Tamara said, saying we've done some measurements. It looks good. We're waiting really for the EPA and the state to come out with their measurements to really say, it might be bad; it might not. But it really depends on those measurements.

SIEGEL: What about other environmental effects, say, for wildlife?

SILBERNER: Well, there have been reports of a fish kill, and given that it was so fast after the event, chances are that it was probably just the straight sludge suffocating the fish.

SIEGEL: It's like a tidal wave of sludge that came out.

SILBERNER: Right, and they can't breathe anything out of that. You know, there is a history. This isn't the first time this has happened. The EPA has on record 24 spills. They're serious coal ash spills. And from that and from other spills we know, it can accumulate in animals and plants, work its way up to the food chain. Selenium causes reproductive problems in animals. Cadmium, like in humans, causes cancer. Some of the stuff, as Tamara mentioned, is on land; that's going to dry up. How much is going to get into the air? All those things remain to be seen, but you know, again, if it's there in high amounts, that's going to be a problem. If these heavy metals are there in low amounts, not so.

SIEGEL: Joanne, this coal ash was contained in a pond, and the way the spill occurred was that the levee, in effect, the earthen dam or barrier that kept the sludge inside the pond, broke and it spilled out. Are there rules for how this sort of material is supposed to be contained?

SILBERNER: Well, there are rules, but they're not as strict as you might suspect. The EPA regulates this as if it's regular household garbage. It treats it like a landfill. You don't want anything leaching out, but that's pretty much it. So, there's no special consideration because there is heavy metals in it. Now, the state of Tennessee is tasked with enforcing those rules, and they say that they did inspect the area back in May of 2008. So, it has been inspected recently. One of the issues is, what do you do with this stuff?

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SILBERNER: There is a lot of it, 120 million tons a year. There are ways to recycle it. You can put it into concrete, but that's only about a quarter of it. The rest of it has got to go somewhere. Some people are talking of putting it into abandoned mines.

SIEGEL: So, what happens next?

SILBERNER: What happens next is the measurements will come out. And those are going to be really telling. You'll see how much of it is there. And this is probably going to spark a national debate. Clean coal, that phrase has been batted about, and I think that this is going to give fuel to the people who say there is no such thing as clean coal.

SIEGEL: As we heard from Tamara already, that has been charged at least through a sign. Thanks a lot, Joanne.

SILBERNER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: NPR's Joanne Silberner.

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