Toxic coal ash found at Anderson County playground, Duke study says

A new series of tests from Duke University found that soil samples from an East Tennessee playground contained toxic metals.
Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 5:12 PM EDT
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CLAXTON, Tenn. (WVLT) - Soil from a Claxton, Tennessee playground contains low levels of coal ash from a nearby Tennessee Valley Authority fossil plant, according to a new study from Duke University. A Duke University professor said repeated exposure to toxic metals found within the ash can mean health risks, even if levels are below the established safety hazards.

The study involved four new tests that allowed scientists to analyze soil for fly ash particles so small other tests might miss them. Fly ash is a substance produced by burning coal that can contain toxic elements like arsenic that become enriched through the combustion process of burning coal. Inhaling fly ash can lead to lung and heart disease, nervous system disorders and other illnesses, according to the study.

Researchers analyzed surface soil from 21 sites downwind of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bull Run plant and 20 sites downwind of Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman in North Carolina.

The samples from North Carolina came from Mooresville, which is a town located across the lake near the Marshall plant. The Tennessee samples were taken from Claxton, a town near the Bull Run plant.

Control samples were also taken upwind of both plants to test the validity of the new tests.

Duke University reports the tests showed that most of the samples collected downwind of both plants contained fly ash. However, the samples taken from Tennessee showed “significantly higher” levels of fly ash than the North Carolina samples, the study says.

Worse, the samples with the most fly ash particles came from Claxton Community Park, a playground near the Bull Run plant. None of the samples contained enough fly ash to exceed human health guidelines, however.

“The Bull Run results are the most systematic, and...ironically at the playground, near the plant. That’s what received the highest percentage of fly ash into the soil, which is, for me, it’s extremely alarming to see it in the most potentially most vulnerable population,” Dr. Avner Vengosh, Professor of Environmental Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment said.

Dr. Vengosh said that while there were low levels of toxic metals in the soil, that does not mean there is no risk.

“Low concentrations of toxic metals in soil does not equal to no risk,” Vengosh said. “We need to understand how the presence of fly ash in soils near coal plants could affect the health of people who live there. Even if coal plants in the United States are shutting down or replaced by natural gas, the environmental legacy of coal ash in these areas will remain for decades to come.”

According to Vengosh, repeated exposure to the toxic metals can mean health risks, even if levels are below the established safety hazards.

“[The test] underscores the need to regularly monitor sites in close downwind proximity to a coal-fired power plant, even if levels of contamination are below current safety thresholds. Fly ash accumulates over time, and risks can grow with repeat exposures to playground dust or home dust,” Dr. Vengosh said.

The peer-reviewed study was published in Environmental Science & Technology on July 20.

TVA stated that they respond to any neighbor concerns related to dust issues from their facilities. A hotline number is public for complaints but the Bull Run facility stated it had not received any complaints of fugitive dust through the hotline.

“In the past few years, TVA has not received any complaints of fugitive dust through the hotline regarding our Bull Run facility,” Public Relations Officer Scott Brooks said. “While we have received no calls through our hotline number, we have investigated a few citizen concerns reported through other methods and determined that no further action was required.”

Brooks also gave an example of their response and testing.

“For example, TVA quickly responded in 2019 when residents who live near the Bull Run plant were concerned about dust falling on their property. We checked and confirmed that our facility was working properly. We tested the dust and cooperated fully with TDEC’s independent testing,” Brooks said. “The conclusion from TDEC was that the sample results were consistent with what would be expected of Tennessee soil and was more than 99 percent free of coal ash, which confirmed our own test results.”

TVA has tested soil at Bull Run and around the site, including Claxton Community Park, officials stated.

The TVA reiterated that the tests at Bull Run consistently showed that the ratio of the fly ash to soil was low and “the concentrations of toxic elements did not exceed human health guidelines for metals occurrence in soil.”

Dr. Vengosh said he would like to see the Bull Run site shut down and coal ash to be moved off-site. He said the next step is fighting for stronger regulations and addressing the issues that could face the people who live there for years to come.

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