EarthTalk: What were the environmental impacts
of the huge coal ash spill in Tennessee this past December?
-- Dave S, Lynnfield, MA
525 million gallons of wet coal ash spilled into the
Tennessee River and surrounding areas last December,
flowing into the water supply for Chattanooga and
millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee
and Kentucky. Afterwards, tests found elevated levels
of lead and thallium, which have been linked to birth
defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders.
© Brian Stansberry, courtesy Wikipedia
call for an end to the age of coal—one of the dirtiest
and most common of all the fossil fuels we now use—took
on new urgency this past December when some 525 million
gallons of wet coal ash, enough toxic slurry to flood more
than 3,000 acres of nearby land, spilled into the nearby
Tennessee River and surrounding areas when a retaining wall
at a power plant in the town of Harriman gave way.
sludge destroyed 12 homes, though no one was directly injured.
However, an unprecedented fish kill occurred in the Tennessee
River and area tributaries in the aftermath of the spill.
According to John Moulton, a spokesman for the Tennessee
Valley Authority which owns the plant, a test of river water
near the spill site found elevated levels of lead and thallium,
both of which have been linked to birth defects and nervous
and reproductive system disorders. He reassured locals that,
although these substances exceeded safety limits for drinking
water, they would be filtered out by normal water treatment
some area residents aren’t so sure that they are safe
from the effects of the spill, which is estimated to have
been over 40 times bigger by volume than the infamous Exxon
Valdez oil spill of 1989. Calling it an “environmental
disaster of epic proportions,” Carol Kimmons, a local
resident who works at the non-profit Sequatchie Valley Institute,
told reporters that the nasty black ash flowed into “the
water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living
downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.” She
added that the spill was 70 percent bigger than a similar
one in Kentucky in October 2000 (306 million gallons) that
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) referred
to at the time as “one of the worst environmental
disasters in the Southeastern United States.”
than a year after that Kentucky spill, researchers found
levels of lead downstream from where the spill took place
that were 400 times higher than the EPA’s safe limit.
And levels of Beryllium were 160 times higher than acceptable
EPA levels. “Coal contains huge amounts of heavy metals,
and when coal is burned, the organic matter burns off, but
many of the nasty chemicals stick around, in higher concentrations,”
said Kimmons. “Also, coal is 'washed' using some really
nasty chemicals, which are also left over in coal slurry.”
The bottom line, she concluded, is that “coal slurry
is really, really toxic stuff.”
on the very same day as the huge Tennessee spill, a coalition
of 39 non-profit groups delivered a letter to then President-elect
Barack Obama asking him to overturn a pending Bush administration
rule change that would ease regulations on coal waste disposal.
The groups contend that coal ash has already polluted 23
states and that the proposed new rule would only allow more
pollution and more risks to human health and the environment.
Now-President Obama has pledged to undertake a comprehensive
inventory of liquid coal ash waste and propose new regulations
to ensure its safe disposal.
disaster proves that regulations around coal slurry impoundments
need to be tightened, and not loosened,” says Kimmons.
Only time will tell if verbal commitments from Washington
materialize into help on the ground.
Valley Institute; Tennessee
EarthTalk: I run a sorting machine at the post
office, and am worried about all the paper dust swirling
around the building. I asked both management and our union
if this was a health or safety problem and both said no,
but I’m not sure they really know. Can you set the
-- J.G. Eddins, Phoenix, AZ
carriers may have bad weather and biting dogs to deal
with, but back at the mail sorting facilities, postal
workers often face one of the byproducts of the increased
mechanization of sorting facilities: paper dust, which
can trigger asthma, bronchitis, allergic reactions,
migraines, bacterial infections, conjunctivitis and
sore throats. Postal machines also send potentially
carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (such as ink)
and other irritants (like dust mites) into the working
© Steve Johnson, courtesy Flickr
One of the drawbacks
to the increasing mechanization of postal facilities is
the increase in paper dust. The machines doing the grunt
work loosen the dust and send it airborne where workers
can breathe it in copiously. Contrary to what management
and the union may say, paper dust can be a hazard to postal
workers, causing and exacerbating respiratory problems.
Sorting machines could also theoretically disperse contaminants
(such as anthrax) intentionally sent through the mail into
postal facilities, further adding to the risk of the job.
no federal safety standard on it, so it’s a real problem,”
reports Bob Williamson, president of the San Francisco chapter
of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). “We’ve
had people who have developed occupational asthma from breathing
the fine dust.” Other reported problems include bronchitis,
allergic reactions, migraines, bacterial infections, conjunctivitis
and sore throats.
In the Fall of
2008, more than 450 current and former postal employees,
many in the Chicago area, signed a petition to occupational
health officials and postal unions blaming health problems
on paper dust fibers inside post offices. Some are seeking
health benefits to pay for related medical treatment.
“I do believe
that my life is going to be shortened,” Delphine Howard,
a former manager at two local post offices, told Chicago’s
ABC7 News. “I started having severe bronchitis attacks,
severe asthma attacks, and severe chest pains.” She
worked for the postal service from 1987 until 2005 when
her doctor diagnosed her with “a medical condition
that is affected by unclean air, dust particles and residue
in volumes in her present employment areas.” Several
other Chicago area postal workers complained of similar
symptoms as a result of ongoing exposure to postal dust.
The U.S. Postal
Service (USPS) studied the issue in 1998 and found no direct
link between health and postal dust, but did discover that
sorting machines could send potentially carcinogenic volatile
organic compounds (such as ink) and other irritants like
dust mites, into the air. The USPS told ABC7 News it had
“only received two direct complaints of respiratory
problems in the last several years.”
of the machines can help keep the problem in check. “Vacuum
and wipe down the machines every day rather than resorting
to the quicker method of blowing the dust off the machines
and into the air,” says the APWU’s Williamson,
adding that workers can also wear masks to minimize breathing
in of postal dust and any contaminants in the air with it.
He also recommends that post offices rotate their workers
around to different duties to avoid perpetual exposure to
potentially harmful or aggravating activities. Besides dealing
with paper dust, mail sorters frequently suffer from muscular-skeletal
problems associated with repetitive motion strain.
Workers Union (APWU); U.S.
SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM