The Enviro Beat: Dried coal ash highly toxic, Duke scientists report

An Aug. 15 Duke University study details just how toxic coal ash is: Samples taken from the Dec. 28, 2008, coal-ash spill near Kingston, Tenn., contain high levels of toxic metals and radioactive elements, including arsenic, mercury and radium. As the sludge dries, risk of exposure via inhalation increases dramatically, the Duke team found.

“Our study highlights the high probability that as the ash dries, fine particulates enriched with these elements will be re-suspended in the air as dust and could have a severe health impact on local residents or workers who inhale them,” says Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. And the smaller the particulates, the greater the concentration of toxins, he adds. Vengosh also notes the potential risk to aquatic life in affected rivers, the Cinch and Emory, as well as tributaries: High concentrations of mercury have been found in samples downstream of the spill.

The Tennessee Valley Authority clean-up efforts have focused on preventing the ash from becoming airborne, and state/federal monitoring has revealed no violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulates in the air.

Funded by a one-year, $105,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the Duke team is conducting a systematic monitoring program to evaluate the origin of high mercury levels found in the river sediments and to monitor its effects on the aquatic life. The research team included graduate students and researchers from the Nicholas School, the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The study was published Aug. 15 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. To view a slideshow of images taken soon after the spill, click here. To view a summary of the study, click here.

— Margaret Williams
(photo by Avner Vengosh)

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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3 thoughts on “The Enviro Beat: Dried coal ash highly toxic, Duke scientists report

  1. tatuaje

    *smacks forehead with palm*

    This stuff is poison, yet we simply keep it next to people in unlined, open air pits with no regulation?

    This makes me think of the people you wrote an article about in February.

    The people who live in Lake Julian Trails (and anyone else in the immediate vicinity) need to educate themselves.

    And ‘Progress’ (I really do hate that name) Energy needs to dispose of their toxic chemicals in a way that doesn’t endanger people.

  2. Mister Blister

    I don’t know that any of this info is new. Don’t expect changes anytime soon. Those coal folks give plenty of money to politicians.

  3. Jeff Fobes

    Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste
    60 Minutes Investigates a Potentially Harmful Waste Byproduct that Inundated a Tenn. Town

    “(CBS) We burn so much coal in this country for electricity that every year that process generates 130 million tons of waste. Most of it is coal ash, and it contains some nasty stuff. Environmental scientists tell us that the concentrations of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals are considerably higher in coal ash than in ordinary soil.

    “When coal ash is disposed of in dry, lined impoundments it is said to be safe. But it’s often dumped into wet ponds – there are nearly 500 of them across the country – and in those cases the ash could pose health risks to the nearby communities.”

    For the rest of the article:;segmentUtilities

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