What Health Experts Say About Coal Ash

Environmental activist group Earthjustice frequently refers to coal ash as a “known threat to our health and environment.” But what do public health experts find when they actually study the material? Answer: Quite a different story.

Here’s the kind of rhetoric Earthjustice is using right now to urge people to contact the president and demand hazardous waste regulations for coal ash:  “Coal ash contains dangerous pollution… that can cause cancer and lung disease, damage internal organs and nervous systems, and cause developmental problems in babies and young children.” “This waste… poses a significant threat to our health and environment.” “A coal ash pond in Tennessee… poisoned rivers and water supplies.”

            The failure of that Tennessee pond was by far the largest spill of coal ash in history.  So how bad were the health impacts?  The Tennessee Department of Health, under cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has produced a 240-page draft Public Health Assessment of the incident.  Here is a summary of the health impacts in the experts’ own words:

“No harm to the community’s health is expected from touching the coal ash. Even though touching the coal ash could cause local skin irritation, the metals in the ash are not likely to get into people’s bodies from merely touching the coal ash.”

“Using municipal drinking water from the Kingston and Rockwood water treatment plants will not harm people’s health because the raw and finished water have continuously met drinking water standards. Also, using well or spring water within four miles of the coal ash release will not harm people’s health from exposure to coal ash or metals in the coal ash because no evidence has been found for groundwater contamination by coal ash.”

“Using the Emory River at the site of the coal ash release (near Emory River mile 2) could result in harm to residents or trespassers from physical hazards associated with cleanup efforts and from the volume of ash present, if residents or trespassers entered the area. No harm to people’s health should result from recreational use of the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee Rivers outside the area of the lower Emory River down to the confluence of the Emory and Clinch Rivers, as specified in the recreational advisory and river closure.  As the advisory indicates, people are advised to avoid areas where they see ash, however, even if it is outside the area of immediate impact. Previous fish advisories should be followed.”

“Breathing ambient air near the coal ash release is not expected to harm people’s health as long as adequate dust suppression measures are in place. No harm to people’s health is expected from occasionally breathing coal ash if it should become airborne for short periods of time. If dust suppression measures should fail and particulate matter is present in concentrations greater than National Ambient Air Quality Standards due to the coal ash becoming airborne for periods longer than one day, the department concludes that particulate matter from airborne coal ash could harm people’s health, especially for those persons with pre-existing respiratory or heart conditions.”

The draft Public Health Assessment has already been reviewed by universities and several government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Anyone can obtain a copy by going here: The public can comment on the document until March 9.


Posted by: on: Feb 12, 2010 @ 09:39