TVA Fly Ash Health Fears

The <"">Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) massive fly ash spill is revealing some serious and dangerous health and environmental outcomes.  Science Daily reported that a Duke University report, conducted on samples from last month’s accident found that “exposure to radium- and arsenic-containing particulates in the ash could have severe health implications” in the affected areas.

“Our radioactive measurements of solid ash samples from Tennessee suggests the ash has radiation levels above those reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for typical coal ash,” said Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Preventing the formation of airborne particulate matter from the ash that was released to the environment seems essential for reducing possible health impacts.”

The December 22 fly ash spill released over one billion gallons of coal sludge waste from a holding facility at TVA’s Kingston coal-burning power plant, flooding over 400 acres, spilling into a major drinking water source, and damming the Emory River tributary, said Science Daily.

The research team discovered some disturbing facts, said Science Daily.  For instance, the combined content of radium-228 and -226 in spill samples measured at levels higher that occur in most bottom and fly ash samples, which means that the fly ash in Tennessee is testing with higher radium levels.  Radium is a Group-A carcinogenic material, according to the EPA; radium exposure can lead to cancer.

Also, high arsenic levels were detected in water samples, at 95 parts per billion (ppb), which is drastically higher than the EPA’s safe public drinking water standard of 10 ppb.  Arsenic, a toxic metal, can increase the risk of some cancers, skin damage, and circulatory problems, reported Science Daily.  Vengosh is an internationally cited expert on the chemistry of radioactive elements in surface and ground waters said, “The TVA spill is one of the largest events of its kind in U.S. history.  It raises questions concerning the safety of storing coal ash and the potential effects of coal ash on environmental and human health,” quoted Science Daily.

According to the Knoxville News, the 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash released also damaged 15 homes, with three deemed uninhabitable, and all residents requiring evacuation.

Meanwhile, critics have accused the TVA of downplaying the spill’s dangers.  And, in an earlier Associated Press (AP) report, it noted that a memo—sent to the AP in error—prepared by TVA’s public relations department for a press briefing held the day after the spill, was edited to call the fly ash spill a “sudden, accidental release,” rather than “catastrophic” and was also edited to remove “risk to public health and risk to the environment” as a reason for measuring water quality and the potential of an “acute threat” to fish, said the AP.  Finally, a rewritten description of fly ash noted it mostly “consists of inert material not harmful to the environment,” while references to “toxic metals” in the ash were moved to a section on water sampling.

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