6:00am

Mon July 25, 2011
Environmental Watchdog

Coal Ash: The Health Threat

You can’t see the smokestacks of the Cane Run Power Station from Stephanie Hogan’s home, even though she lives a block away. And while the power plant isn’t visible, it’s still a looming presence in Hogan’s life. “Oh, he breathes so bad, he sounds like Darth Vader.” Hogan shakes her head, and Cody wheezes. “You ain’t even been running.”

The family bought their trailer near the Louisville Gas and Electric-operated power plant about 15 months ago, and since then, Cody has developed serious respiratory problems. Eventually, his mom took him to a specialist, who pinpointed the potential cause of Cody’s sickness.

“I think it was the second visit, she asked where we lived,” Hogan said. “And I told her, and she said ‘Oh, you live next to that power plant. You need to move.’”

But Hogan can’t move. She’s trapped by her trailer’s low resale value, as well as her son’s rising medical expenses. Cody has asthma. He’s had tubes installed in his ears twice and three times he’s come down with an unexplained fever. Hogan estimates she spent nearly $4,000 in doctor’s visits and medication last year.

She says the culprit is coal ash: the sometimes-fine, sometimes-chunky material that’s leftover after coal is burned. It coats her porch, and she doesn’t let Cody play outside anymore, no matter how much he begs.

Coal generates more than half of the nation’s energy and it’s burned in power plants in all but four states. One inevitable byproduct of burning coal is ash, and there’s a lot of coal ash in America.

So much, in fact, that “you could fill the boxcars of a freight train that would stretch from New York City to Melbourne, Australia every year with the coal ash that American power plants generate,” Jeff Stant said. He’s the director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative.

“A lot of this ash has got the consistency of talc,” he said. “People breathe it in, their lungs never get rid of it. It has metals that cross the lung’s tissue into the blood stream. There have been studies done of the exposure of rats to this dust and other lab animals, and the results have been very disturbing.”

At the Cane Run plant, the ash is stored in a landfill and a pond. The pond is invisible from the road, but landfill is pretty obvious: huge piles of slate-grey coal ash rising off the banks of the Ohio River. At the base of the landfill is a pauper’s cemetery.

“It’s kinda fitting, you know,” says Kathy Little. “It really is because that’s where they want to be, within the poorest of the poor areas.”

Kathy Little lives in one of the houses facing the power plant. The Cane Run Power Station is one of three area LG&E coal-fired plants. It burns 1.3 million tons of coal every year. Last year, it produced 160,000 tons of coal ash.

Before the ash is placed in a landfill, it’s mixed with different materials that create a cement-like consistency. It’s loaded into piles, which is where LG&E’s Mike Winkler says it stays.

“It’s plenty heavy enough to stay in place,” he said. “And during the placement process if it’s too dry, then it’s wetted. We’ll have trucks that come through and spray it to give it wetness. But it’s got enough moisture in it that it doesn’t blow off in general.”

But as we walk down the street, Little points to the air above the landfill.

“Yeah. There it goes. You see the black up there? If you notice, you’ll see some ash blowing. That’s what they’re trying to keep on their property, and it’s not happening.”

Sure enough, ash wisps are flying off. They end up on nearby porches and siding. For the neighbors, this is annoying, and also worrisome. Samples taken by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District and, most recently, LG&E itself have confirmed the presence of fly ash on several area homes.

Part two of this story will be published tomorrow.