Report: Coal Ash is Harmful to Your Health

A new report from two environmental non-profits looks at the effects of coal ash on human health.

And it may sound obvious, but the report found that breathing coal ash can have serious health consequences.

The ash is what’s left over after coal is burned in a power plant for electricity, and right now it’s not regulated on a federal level. Power plants store the ash in outdoor landfills or ponds, and in many places—including Louisville—nearby residents frequently report ash leaving the property.

And the ash is becoming more toxic over time. 

“As air pollution standards have tightened and fewer and fewer toxicants are going up the stack, more and more of these poisonous heavy metals, like arsenic and mercury are winding up in coal ash,” said Alan Lockwood, a senior scientist for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

When people breathe in coal ash, the tiny particles travel deep into the lung and cause inflammation, Lockwood said. Those can trigger conditions such as asthma, and can travel to other organs where they increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Lockwood said he doesn’t think the report will be news to power plant operators, who routinely require workers to wear protective clothing when touching coal ash.

“But as soon as it goes out the door it’s almost completely unregulated,” he said. “So magically, it’s transformed into something that’s not dangerous, but inside the power plant you have to wear protective clothing and respirators to protect workers from the effects of inhaling this coal ash.”

In Louisville, residents living near both the Mill Creek and Cane Run power plants have complained of ash leaving the power plants and contaminating their properties. Neighbors of the Cane Run plant have a lawsuit pending, claiming the ash has damaged their properties, and Louisville Gas and Electric has been fined repeatedly by the Air Pollution Control District for fugitive dust and odor issues at the plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency is required to finalize the first-ever federal regulations for coal ash this December.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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