Subtle assassin: perfect description of fly ash
May 1, 2004
History and the Highway
I knew many truck drivers from the 1970s through the 1980s whose emphysema was more likely caused by the cinders being spread on Pennsylvania roads than any cigarette smoke. Cinders are abrasive, like silica dust when rubbed between one's fingers -- soft in appearance but sharp as tiny knives. Cinders have a 'clinging quality' that not only makes them adhere to slippery roads, but also to windshields, mirrors, head and taillights ... and to lungs?)
Made fat by the purchase of their loyalty by taxpayer dollars, also known as 'government grants', such non-governmental organizations have had their voices silenced by green, and I don't mean the green of the environment. In order to 'reclaim' the mines and to develop -- commercial, residential and recreational -- the Conservancy must keep mum and not make waves.
Of course, in that form, fly ash is deadly in human lungs! Of course it is an insidious killer! For those restoring watersheds on a landscape scale and what part of the earth is not in one watershed or another -- what better way to remove humans from 'the landscape' than by touting a perfect reclamation substance, then using it to smother the rural or small-town human population?
A subtle assassin in the wind? Fly ash has some concerned - The residue of burned culm is used as fill at several Luzerne County sites.
By DAVE JANOSKI
Despite studies that suggest such fly ash, which are fine cinders from the burning of pulverized coal and culm, can harm the lungs and contribute to cardiovascular disease, state officials have approved its use for fill in 139 sites across Pennsylvania, including one near Shupp's home in the township's Preston section.
For the past two years, Northampton Fuel Services Inc. has hauled away culm from the mine-scarred land near the decrepit old Huber coal breaker. The culm is burned in the company's power plant in Northampton County and the ash is returned to the Huber site, where it's dumped as fill.
State and federal environmental officials say fly ash, which contains potentially toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, is safe if handled property.
The ash is touted as the perfect fill for mine-ravaged lands in Northeastern Pennsylvania because it neutralizes acid mine water that can foul streams and wetlands. Fly ash has been used in several local reclamation projects, apparently with little public opposition.
"They say I'm the only one who's complaining," Shupp says of the environmental and business officials who've fielded his calls about plumes of wind-whipped fly ash in his neighborhood. Shupp says he thinks his neighbors "just don't know" their health might be at risk.
But in other areas of the state and nation, the use of fly ash has drawn bitter opposition from environmental and community groups.
One-hundred-twenty-five environmental groups claiming 1 million members nationwide have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of fly ash. The groups cite 80 cases in which, they say, fly ash fill has contaminated groundwater and surface water.
The EPA ruled several years ago that fly ash was a not a hazardous substance as defined by its rules and left its regulation to the states. But the federal agency is developing a set of guidelines for state regulators and holding a series of public "listening sessions" on fly ash around the nation, including one in Harrisburg next month. The process is expected to take at least 18 months.
State officials from the Department of Environmental Protection continue to maintain that fly ash, while it contains potential toxins, poses no hazard to the public.
Each type of ash is tested for its toxic content before it can be used as fill in Pennsylvania, said DEP spokesman Karl Lasher. "It's a question of the concentrations. We're talking about parts per trillion or parts per billion.
"Many of the constituents found in coal ash occur naturally. Many times when they appear in these natural settings, they'll appear in higher concentrations than in these types of coal ash that can be used."
Lasher said DEP regulations require reclamation contractors to water down ash after it is dumped to prevent it from blowing around.
"There can be rules set up during a project to make sure that trucks are tarped so that no material can be blown out of the truck."
Shupp's complaints about blowing fly ash in his neighborhood have prompted DEP officials to inspect the Huber site on at least 20 occasions. They reported no violations, DEP records show.
But Shupp and two of his neighbors say the fly ash is dumped mostly in the early morning or after 6 p.m. The inspections typically took place in mid-afternoon, DEP records say.
A spokeswoman for Northampton Fuel Services Inc., based in Maryland, said the company has followed all of the state's regulations.
"We do believe this to be a safe practice," said Natalie Wymer, a spokeswoman for Northampton Fuel's parent company, National Energy & Gas Transmissions Inc. "The DEP has a couple of decades of monitoring this and we would defer to the DEP. If they change the regulations, we'll work within those regulations."
The fly ash at the Huber site is being covered with dirt and grass, transforming what once was an unusable mine dump, Wymer said.
"We consider it cleaning up Pennsylvania's environment."
Wymer said work on the 30-acre Huber site should be complete in several months. But culm removal, and eventually fly-ash dumping, will continue at two other Luzerne County sites in coming years. The company expects to begin removing culm from another Hanover Township site, known as Loomis Park, near Route 29, this year. Culm removal has started at another site in Plains Township.
The two Hanover sites belong to Earth Conservancy, a nonprofit that holds about 16,000 acres of land once owned by the bankrupt Blue Coal Corp. The conservancy hopes to promote reclamation and commercial, residential and recreational development while leaving large tracts of its holdings as greenways and open space.
Northampton Fuel already had agreements to reclaim the Huber site and another Blue Coal site near Loomis Park when Earth Conservancy purchased Blue Coal's land with $14 million in government grants in 1994, according to conservancy Executive Director Mike Dziak.
Dziak said fly ash is ideal for the conservancy's mine-reclamation plans.
"It's a great material for reclamation and all the testing that we've seen done on it and all the reviews DEP has done on it have been supportive."
Dziak said the conservancy plans to market the Huber site, which is zoned for commercial/industrial use and has talked to several interested buyers. The conservancy does not earn fees from the reclamation process, but it does end up with marketable land that can create jobs, Dziak said.
The purported economic and environmental benefits of fly ash have proven persuasive with Pennsylvania's political leadership.
In February, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers rejected a proposed ban on using fly ash as fill. The ban was recommended by the Army for a Clean Environment, a 750-member group formed to oppose a huge reclamation project in Carbon and Schuylkill counties. The project, expected to last decades, will fill a strip-mining pit 700 feet deep, 3,000 feet long and 1,500 wide with fly ash and soil dredged from rivers.
Dante Picciano, founder of the Army for a Clean Environment, said the state panel ignored its scientific experts, who testified about cases in which fly ash contaminated water supplies.
"Our experts cannot be wrong 100 percent of the time and DEP experts cannot be right 100 percent of the time," Picciano said. "DEP has an agenda and they're going to fill up those holes and the public be dammed."
Picciano's group has been successful in persuading U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Harrisburg, to secure $500,000 for a National Academy of Sciences study of fly ash fill and its effect on groundwater. The study will not address the health effects of airborne fly ash.
Charles Norris, a Colorado geologist who has worked with the Army for a Clean Environment, said the health consequences of breathing fly ash are as yet little understood. The toxic metals found in fly ash were once discharged from power plant smokestacks before clean-air legislation led to new, cleaner technologies.
"Really, in a way, you are going back to what the old problem was. You're letting this stuff drift across schoolyards and people's yards," Norris said.
"I wouldn't want that stuff dusting my office. I wouldn't want it blowing across my kids' playground. I would be very uncomfortable seeing it dust a garden that I'm growing my food in. It's very caustic."
Dr. Ann E. Aust, a researcher from Utah State University, has studied the effect of fly ash particles on human lung cells in the laboratory and found that iron in the particles, especially fine particles, causes inflammation. But Aust says it's impossible to make any definitive, blanket statement about the health effects of inhaling fly ash at this point.
Different types of coal produce different types of fly ash. Aust studied bituminous, or soft coal, from three different states, not the anthracite, or hard coal, found in our region. And even coal of the same type might differ from mine to mine.
"Any correlation you would make between my study and health effects" would be "a little iffy," Aust said. "But we would like to err on the side of caution and say 'be careful.'°"
Residents of Preston don't have that option.
Dorothy Kane, who lives two doors down from Leonard Shupp, fears the ash that coats her home and seeps under closed doors has contributed to her health problems, which include suspected Parkinson's Disease. She spends most days confined to her couch.
"I was OK two years ago, just had arthritis," said Kane, 69, whose husband Leo, 76, suffers from asthma.
"I can't believe what happened to me. I was fine - cooking, cleaning and everything. Now I can't do anything.
"I'm wondering if I didn't get this from that ash."
Times Leader Associate Editor Dave Janoski can be reached at 829-7255.
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