CLAXTON, Tenn. (WATE) — Scientists at Duke University have reported soil samples analyzed from an Anderson County park near the Bull Run Fossil Plant show high levels of toxic coal ash.

The researchers have developed a test specifically designed to analyze soil for the presence of fly ash, tiny particles generated when a power plant burns pulverized coal. These particles contain high concentrations of arsenic, selenium and other toxic elements, many of which have been enriched through the combustion process.

Researchers analyzed surface soil from 21 sites downwind of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton, Tenn., and 20 sites downwind of Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman, N.C.

They reported soil samples near Bull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton contained significantly higher levels of fly ash than those from North Carolina, with the highest concentration found in soil from the Claxton Community Park. The playground and recreational site is located less than a mile from the Bull Run Fossil Plant.

When soil contaminated with fly ash is disturbed or dug up, dust containing the ash can be transported through the air into nearby homes and other indoor environments. Inhaling dust that contains fly ash particles with high levels of toxic metals has been linked to lung and heart disease, cancer, nervous system disorders, and other ill effects, according to the researchers.

“Being able to trace the contamination back to its source location is essential for protecting public health and identifying where remediation efforts should be focused,” said Zhen Wang, a doctoral student in Vengosh’s lab at Duke, who led the study. “These new methods complement tests we’ve already developed for tracing coal ash in the environment and expand our range of investigation.”

Tests showed that most of the samples collected contained fly ash contamination, but due to the low levels of fly ash, the concentrations of toxic elements did not exceed human health guidelines for metals occurrence in soil. However, researchers say the health risks can grow with repeat exposure as fly ash accumulates over time.

Avner Vengosh, Professor of Environmental Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment explains, “It underscores the need to regularly monitor sites in close downwind proximity to a coal-fired power plant, even if levels of contamination are below current safety thresholds. Fly ash accumulates over time, and risks can grow with repeat exposures to playground dust or home dust.”

Scott Brooks with the Tennessee Valley Authority provided WATE 6 News with the statement below about the coal ash detected at the playground.

“In 2000, TVA collaborated with the Claxton Optimist Club on the construction of the Claxton Community Playground. As part of the project, TVA prepared the site and provided fill materials, mainly comprised of soil but which also included a small portion of bottom ash, while the Claxton Optimist Club provided the remaining materials, including multiple layers of geofibers, gravel, and mulch on top. 

The beneficial use of a small portion of bottom ash as fill meets regulatory standards. While TVA owns the property where the playground and ballfields are located, Anderson County manages the use of the playground under a 30-year easement, and the ballfield area is managed by the Claxton Optimist Club under a license agreement. 

As Duke University’s recent study about the playground revealed, the trace amount of ash in the soil does not exceed human health guidelines that are established by Federal and state agencies to protect public health.

Anderson County Commission Chairman reacts to Duke University Study

The Anderson County Commission Chairman, Tracy Wandell, spoke with WATE 6 News Wednesday about the study from Duke University. Wandell said as a result of Duke researcher’s findings, the Anderson County Commission will request the state do their own testing. “It’s my understanding TDAC is going to try to expedite it, get it done quickly, and report back to our body to let us know what their findings are,” he said.

While Wandell said he feels the playground and surrounding areas in question are safe, he’s still requesting they be relocated. “We’ve already made a motion in intergovernmental relations committee, which is a subset committee of the legislative body, to please consider, respectfully consider, relocating the park, the ball fields, and the optimist club,” he said.

“My understanding is the 100+ acres, 150+ acres off of New Henderson Road, which is fenced in and is pristine land, is not going to be used for coal ash storage, from what I hear, the permits aren’t even in place to allow that now,” he said of the area he believed the facilities could be moved to. “It’d be really nice if TVA could consider relocating these facilities over to that property, helping us as they’ve done in the past.”

Wandell said the study will be discussed at the Anderson County Commission Meeting on Monday, August 16.