TENNESSEE AND PENNSYLVANIA -- The burning of coal at power plants produces a byproduct known as fly ash. Many times the waste isn't properly stored and that can pose serious health concerns.
On December 22, 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant west of Knoxville suffered a major fly ash spill. An earthen dike failed, releasing an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash into 300 acres surrounding the plant.
The spill resulted in the evacuation of a nearby residential area. It also damaged a natural gas line and disrupted power and transportation.
In the aftermath, TVA ended up buying all 180 properties and 150 houses affected by the spill and recovery effort.
The land received a big-time makeover, but what about the effects of the fly ash on the health of people and the environment? According to the TVA, it's not a problem
"We look to independent studies, and they have determined in thousands and thousands of samples and in two studies that are public, that there is no harm to human health as a result of the elements that are in coal ash," Anda Ray, TVA's senior vice president of Engineering, Environmental, and Support Services, told CBN News.
"But I understand that people are worried," Ray added. "And perhaps there's other issues, and they need to check with their physician."
Residents Demand Action
Tell that to worried residents living near fly ash impoundments in Pennsylvania.
Sonny Markish lives in La Belle. The view from his yard is a massive dump site, complete with the rumble of large trucks hauling the ash. He showed CBN News a substance around his property that he says has been tested and proven to be fly ash.
Markish says he and his wife have battled cancer, and he has asthma.
"I certainly don't believe that it is helping me, especially like when I come out here, my eyes begin to water," Markish said. "I can taste foul things, and I see dust that is coming from the dump up there."
The primary concern for residents of La Belle, Pennsylvania, is what's called "fugitive dust." They say because the fly ash is not contained properly, the wind blows it into their communities, coating their properties and affecting their health.
Markish's neighbors, Yma and Rudy Smith, told CBN News they are both on kidney dialysis.
"It ate the roof off of my home, so if it did that, what is it doing to the insides of my body?" Yma Smith questioned. "Breathing, I'm coughing; my eyes are burned. I can't go outside and sit."
Yma's husband, Rudy, believes fly ash is at least partly to blame for the death of his friend, who was only 56 years old.
"I want this community to be cleaned up," Rudy Smith told CBN News. "I'm tired of seeing my friends in this community die. My friend I used to work at the coal mine with, Mike Kwasny, he died from cancer in the sinuses."
Little Blue Run
The nation's largest coal ash impoundment is about an hour and a half north of La Belle. Despite its massive size, it's known as Little Blue Run and sits on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border.
The fly ash is stored in a large body of water, and like the residents in La Belle, homeowners there say health issues are prevalent.
Sabrina Mislevy lives near Little Blue Run. She told CBN News she knows a lot of people who are sick, and she blames fly ash.
"I'd say about 83 for sure, and... it's all health problems, whether it's cancer or it's lung, simple sinus issues, asthma -- which is lung -- skin rashes that just appear for no reason," Mislevy said.
Marcy Hughes also lives near Little Blue Run. Doctors diagnosed her daughter with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Hughes believes fly ash is connected.
"When we went to a physician in Pittsburgh, he asked us point blank what were we doing in Beaver County because at the same time she was diagnosed with the Hodgkin's, there were several other [s]," Hughes said.
A September 2010 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice, states "...coal ash commonly contains some of the world's deadliest toxic metals: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium. These and other toxicants in coal ash can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans."
The report goes on to say, "...coal ash toxins have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality."
Lisa Graves Marcucci works for the Environmental Integrity Project. She's an advocate for the people living near La Belle and Little Blue Run.
"As someone who has visited and really spent lots of time with folks in these neighborhoods who are living near these sites, there seems to be a pattern that develops, that makes you wonder, 'is there a correlation between?'" Marcucci told CBN News.
"I think at this point, we don't know. But I think we should be erring on the side of caution and putting in safety mechanisms that really are common sense so that we can protect human health," she added.
Marcucci and others want the Environmental Protection Agency to establish federal minimum standards for all 50 states to protect the health of people and the environment -- standards that the states would enforce, including the following:
- Lining fly ash dumps as well as covering them daily
- Putting tarps over the trucks that haul the ash
- Full disclosure of pollutants in the ash
- Rules to control "fugitive dust"
- The phasing out of wet storage ponds like Little Blue Run
- Continuous monitoring at the dump sites
"We need to say that maybe the cost of doing business includes healthy protections for everyone -- workers and people who share the fence line," Marcucci said.
What the EPA Says
The EPA officially considers fly ash non-hazardous waste. Even so, its website acknowledges fly ash contains "contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects."
The website also says, "EPA's risk assessment and damage cases demonstrate that without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and often migrate to drinking water sources, posing public significant health concerns."
In addition, in a written statement to CBN news, the EPA said, "Fly ash is composed of very small, fine particles, and breathing in fly ash may cause respiratory problems in humans."
"It's coming on my property, harming me and my wife, plus my neighbors, plus my dogs; I've lost four or five dogs to cancer," Markish said. "It's just not right!"