Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems.
“Most of that material is inert,” said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”Mr. Francis said contaminants in water samples taken near the spill site and at the intake for the town of Kingston, six miles downstream, were within acceptable levels.Let us try to do some critical thinking here. The first quote says that coal ash contains significant quantities of lead, arsenic, and selenium. Of course, this may well mean that some coal ash does or that the average amount is in some context considered significant. That context may be that drinking water over a lifetime which has high concentrations of coal ash in it, may cause the occasional cancer or neurological disease. Perhaps if most of a spill is cleaned up in 8 weeks, there is no reason to believe any harm is likely. Or, maybe this coal ash either does not have the heavy metals in it or they are in a form which does not readily leach into water, especially in the winter when the water is cold.
But a draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.
Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.
The contents of coal ash can vary widely depending on the source, but one study found that the mean concentrations of lead, chromium, nickel and arsenic are three to five times higher in the Appalachian coal that is mined near Kingston than in Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.
Stephen A. Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was “mind-boggling” that officials had not warned nearby residents of the dangers. “The fact that they have not warned people, I think, is disastrous and potentially harmful to the residents,” Mr. Smith said. “There are people walking around, checking it out.” He and other environmentalists warned that another danger would arise when the muck dried out and became airborne and breathable.
Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps. For instance, in Anne Arundel County, Md., between Baltimore and Annapolis, residential wells were polluted by heavy metals, including thallium, cadmium and arsenic, leaching from a sand-and-gravel pit where ash from a local power plant had been dumped since the mid-1990s by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Maryland fined the company $1 million in 2007.
Then there is the EPA report which says that arsenic from fly ash might cause a 100-fold increase in cancer. Again, does that apply to this TVA plant's fly ash? It may not have arsenic in high enough concentrations to significantly exceed that we digest from food or breathe in from normal dust. As for the 100-fold increase in cancer, that could mean that the probability for 100,000 people of one person getting cancer rises from 0.0001 to 0.01. There may be many other dangers we all face daily that exceed the danger of this 100-fold increase in the likelihood of cancer. We surely need more information before we go off half-cocked and screaming that we are in mortal danger.
The National Research Council report quote is full of maybes and mights. Again, it is difficult to assess the real danger from this. This might just be a case in which they are calling for more study of the issue and are not issuing a declaration of real danger. Or again, the situation may be such that some fly ash under certain conditions does pose a real danger, but suitable response to the fly ash spill at the TVA plant can mitigate these concerns.
The comment that the mean lead, chromium, nickel, and arsenic concentrations in Appalachian coal is three to five times higher than in Rocky Mountain or Plains States coal may simply mean that fly ash from those coals is rarely, if ever, of danger and that Appalachian coal ash is occasionally dangerous. But, once again we have no definition of what situations are dangerous.
The next comment that the fly ash might become airborne and breathable may be nonsense. If it were inclined to become airborne, it would seem unlikely that the plant would have been allowed to pile it up in the first place. It would have been blown away and many complaints would have been issued. The fly ash materials I have analyzed in my lab were too coarse-grained and heavy to become airborne. These were commonly being investigated as additives to concrete or other composite materials and may not have been representative of all coal ash post-combustion products, but my first point seems to indicate that they likely are. Generally, the coal plants would not like to have a fine powder waste product to have to contend with, so I am sure that they have a preference for a coarse-grained product.
The last quote that 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from fly ash dumps may very well indicate a real problem. Yet, any amount of a heavy metal may be called contamination, though its concentration is way below the level sufficient to do any proven harm. Perhaps they mean that there was proven harm in these cases, but one cannot tell this from the quote. When there is, then it is reasonable to require that fly ash with leachable heavy metals is stored in such a way that any leachate is contained and rendered harmless. This may be necessary at some vulnerable sites or with some types of fly ash.
The article gives one the sense that the author is delighting in finding the TVA irresponsible. Of course, the TVA was irresponsible in allowing the earth dam holding the fly ash back to break. This semi-governmental agency was cavalier with the public safety in that the fly ash might have killed people as it flowed downhill and it certainly did great property damage. Possibly, the TVA was also cavalier from the contamination standpoint even when the fly ash was contained. But, the laboratory analyses of the town's water did not show that it was dangerously contaminated, at least yet. Perhaps, depending on where the town's water comes from, it might be so in time. We cannot tell from the article. What we can see in the article is a consistent attack on the use of coal to generate electric power. More than 50% of our nation's electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants. These cavalier environmental extremists are threatening half of our electricity supply with an as yet very weak case against the environmental hazards of coal.
It is also a valid concern that cutting off 50% of our electricity would bring major hazards to people. Going up and down stairs in the dark is less safe than doing so with the lights on. When refrigerators and freezers suffer a power outage, food spoils. Many people will not throw it all away, so some may be likely to suffer increased food poisioning. Some people with medical problems must have reliable electricity. Many businesses need reliable electricity and will generate faulty, dangerous products without it. Other businesses will go out of business and former employees may blow their brains out in their depression due to losing employment and benefits. If we turn away from coal, which presently produces relatively inexpensive electricity, to more expensive alternatives, many people will feel they are less able to afford medical expenses and will forego medical examinations and treatments. This is a real danger. Attempts to improve human safety can be very complex and should be thought through with great care.
Of course, it would be a very good thing to greatly increase our use of nuclear power. It has an excellent safety record.