Week of 5/03/09

Dear EarthTalk: What were the environmental impacts of the huge coal ash spill in Tennessee this past December?

—Dave S, Lynnfield, MA

Environmentalists" 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.

The 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 processes.

But 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."

Some 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

More 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."

Ironically, 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.

"This 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.

CONTACTS: Sequatchie Valley Institute; Tennessee Valley Authority.

Dear 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 record straight?

—J.G. Eddins, Phoenix, AZ

Letter 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 environment.© 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.

"There’s 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."

Diligent cleaning 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.

CONTACTS: American Postal Workers Union (APWU); U.S. Postal Service.

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