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Coal Ash a Toxic Threat

Asheville Citizen-Times; Asheville, N.C. ; Author: Terry Clark; Date: Feb 23, 2012; OPINION

Each year, the 495 coal-fired power plants throughout the United States generate an amount of coal ash that could fill a train of boxcars stretching from Washington DC to Melbourne, Australia.

Coal ash contains a stew of toxic metals including mercury, arsenic and lead. The ash is mostly stored on-site at power plants. It is susceptible to migration from the storage sites by leaching into groundwater or escaping as airborne dust.

The EPA has determined that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer, neurological and respiratory illnesses. The greatest risk is if you live near an unlined wet ash pond and get your drinking water from a well, then you may have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.
The coal ash issue gained heightened attention in December 2008, when about one billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge broke through a dam in Harriman, Tenn. Subsequently, the EPA released a recommendation for basic maintenance in 2009; however opponents of regulation lobbied for legislation tailored to prevent the EPA from monitoring coal ash. At present, there is no EPA monitoring. Last month a coalition of groups including Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) announced intent to sue the EPA for failure to adequately protect human health and the environment.

North Carolina has 26 ash ponds at 14 plants. The greatest risk of spread of toxics is from unlined wet coal ash ponds. In 2007 EPA noted that 16 of the 26 coal ash ponds in North Carolina were unlined. Twelve ponds in North Carolina, including the two at Progress Energy's Asheville Steam Plant in Arden have been rated by the EPA as "high hazard." High hazard rating of an ash pond means that if a dam fails that there probably will be loss of human life. Such classification does not address the risk of dam failure.

The adverse health effects of exposure to toxics in coal ash may be delayed for years. Reliance on short-term health assessments is insufficient. The bottom line is that coal ash contains toxic metals that can cause cancer and other health problems. PSR strongly supports classification of coal ash as a hazardous waste and the creation of uniform, federally enforceable standards for coal ash handling and disposal. Such standards would greatly strengthen protection for human life, health and the environment.

Terry Clark, M.D., is Chairperson of the Western North Carolina Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
ID_Code: B0-302230003

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