A few days after the devastating TVA coal ash spill in Tennessee, NRDC received an urgent call for help from our local allies at United Mountain Defense. At UMD's behest, we alerted our contacts at Duke University and urged them to conduct on-site, independent testing of the toxic sludge to see if it posed a danger to local residents. Earlier this month Duke dispatched a team of scientists from its Nicholas School of the Environment, led by Dr. Avner Vengosh.
Those test results are now in...Duke found that the sludge from the Kingston Fossil Plant fly ash spill contains radium and arsenic at levels high enough to affect human heath in the area.
Last month's waste retention pond break at the TVA power plant spilled fly ash into the Emery River, covering over 400 acres with a billion gallons of toxic sludge. Over 5 million cubic yards of this liquified ash -- contaminated with cancer-causing heavy metals -- flooded homes, tainted drinking wells, and covered the countryside. Most of it still remains, making local residents fearful for their safety.
Duke's data won't ease those concerns unfortunately. The level of arsenic and radiation in the sludge is quite alarming. And the threat will increase as the sludge-covered soil dries up, as fly ash can be dangerous if it's inhaled and settles in the lungs.
"Preventing the formation of airborne particulate matter from the ash that was released to the environment seems essential for reducing possible health impacts," Dr. Vengosh told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
While TVA officials pledged to review the Duke studies and take them seriously, they continue to minimize the health hazards. Perhaps they should err on the side of caution and urge cleanup workers and local citizens to take specific safety precautions when dealing with the coal ash pollution.
Soon NRDC will be working with UMD to release the results of health screenings of many residents affected by the coa ash spill. Let's hope TVA pays close attention and acts swiftly and responsibly to protect the victims of its disaster.