EPA: Fly ash samples show elevated arsenic levels

EPA: Fly ash samples show elevated arsenic levels

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The fly ash slide happened at the Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22. The fly ash slide happened at the Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22.

HARRIMAN (WATE) -- Tests on samples of fly ash in the ash slide area around TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant show some elevated levels of arsenic, EPA officials admitted at Friday's briefing.

An EPA spokesman added that TVA has taken full responsibility for this and efforts continue to remove ash in the area and to test it.

The situation would normally have triggered a cleanup by EPA, but TVA was already doing this, the spokesman said.

TEST RESULTS ON WATER AND SEDIMENT

When asked if the arsenic in the fly ash is hazardous, the  spokesman said, "It's harmful to humans," but he did not elaborate on the local test results.

However, the data released Friday shows the total arsenic level in one water sample was 149 times the maximum level.

How is arsenic harmful to people?

For more information on the concerns arsenic can raise, 6 News searched the EPA Web site, finding descriptions of the element's compounds in a hazard summary.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found throughout the environment. EPA has classified inorganic arsenic as a Group A, human carcinogen.

Acute (short-term) high-level inhalation exposure to arsenic dust or fumes has resulted in:

  • Gastrointestinal effects (nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain)
  • Central and peripheral nervous system disorders have occurred in workers acutely exposed to inorganic arsenic.  

Chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to inorganic arsenic in humans is associated with irritation of the skin and mucous membranes. 

Chronic oral exposure has resulted in:

  • Gastrointestinal effects, anemia
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Skin lesions
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Liver or kidney damage in humans. 

Inorganic arsenic exposure in humans by inhaling has been shown as strongly associated with lung cancer.

Human ingestion of inorganic arsenic has been linked to a form of skin cancer and also to bladder, liver, and lung cancer. 

Again, 6 New emphasizes that EPA didn't describe the arsenic found in the local fly ash samples as capable of producing these effects.

EPA says it's taken 58 samples total in the area. The samples are from a combination of surface water, wells, ash piles and all three water treatment plants for both treated and untreated water.

Drinking water safe

Despite test results from independent environmental groups showing water samples in the ash slide area are below suitable standards, EPA insists the drinking water is safe.

The spokesman says his agency's concentration has been on public drinking water, not the water in rivers. EPA is focusing on private wells and water intakes at treatment facilities, and these test within safe standards.

He said he doesn't know how the independent groups obtained their test results, but he has 100 percent faith in EPA's data and test results.

Roane County Mayor Mike Farmer said the drinking water provided by all Roane County utilities is safe.

Kingston Mayor Troy Beets also said the water is safe. He said the formula for his three-month-old great-grandchild is mixed with Kingston tap water. Then he drank a cup of water he said was from a tap.

Officials with the state Department of Environment and Conservation say they took samples from 20 private wells Wednesday and are taking more samples Friday. They expect to have about 40 samples when they're finished. The results aren't available yet. 

Air quality tests safe

Air quality is being monitored for dust and particulates in five locations on private property for 24 hour periods.

Crews have also taken out handheld monitors for air samples and taken 400-500 readings.

EPA says Friday the air quality is very good.

Rebuilding and recovery progress

Roane County officials say despite progress clearing Swan Pond Road and Swan Pond Circle, they won't be re-opened anytime soon. Portions of the roads were destroyed and other portions must be repaired.

Plus, the roads must be used by crews with heavy equipment, making them unsafe for the general public to drive, officials said.

All of the damaged railroad tracks in the area have been removed and work is underway to rebuild them.

The temporary dike construction at the mouth of the Emory River before it goes into the Clinch River is 70 percent complete.

The dike rebuilding is being down in two phases. The first will allow a dredge machine to get out there and build phase two.

Work is also underway to restore drainage to the area.

Crews in boats have removed nine tons of cenospheres from the water, out of an estimated 25 tons. TVA is keeping the material because it can be sold or used for something else. 

Barges are also in use to remove the debris such as trees and trash from the water.

TVA says re-seeding of grass may start this weekend or the first of next week, depending on conditions.  

Crews will drop seeds from a helicopter on the exposed ash area and follow it up by dropping mulch.

A TVA official says the plant keeps a 30 day reserve supply of coal so it can continue producing power. He says no coal has been brought in for the plant Friday, but there's plenty of reserve supply and no danger that power can't be produced because of the slide.

The official also said there's a significant amount of discussion about TVA doing things differently in terms of handling ash containment ponds, but he didn't give specifics.

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