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Clean Coal Continued

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

I reported today on the potential for coal ash dumping to contaminate drinking water. But, the problem doesn’t stop at water.

Earlier this month in Gambrills, Md., airborne fly ash was found on homes, a playground and a senior citizens development near the BBSS ash dump, a sand-and-gravel dump site for Constellation Energy, a utility company based in Baltimore. The environmental advocacy group Environment Maryland released a report finding fly ash at all 12 locations it inspected around the dump in the Gambrills neighborhood of Anne Arundel County.

The potential health risks associated with inhaling fly ash are caused by its fine, dust-like consistency, said Anne Arundel County Deputy Health Officer Katherine Farrell.

"Most particulate matter is filtered out in the upper airway," said Farrell, "so people cough it up. But very fine particulate matter [like fly ash] can reach the deep lung and then there’s a concern because there are no clearance mechanisms.” In other words, fly ash can get stuck in the deep lungs and stay there, potentially leading to long-term problems such as lung fibrosis.

Farrell also points out that the recent tests that found the fly ash did not use quantitative monitoring, so there is no way to determine how much airborne fly ash the area is dealing with. “We wanted [Constellation Energy] to put air monitoring devices near the plant,’ she said, "but they’ve been fighting that."

Constellation’s dumping first became a concern last year when residents learned that coal ash toxins were contaminating the well water. Anne Arundel County health officials alerted the town when they began testing the wells in 2006–7 years after Constellation noticed that its sites were leaking contaminated groundwater. Even after the energy company acknowledged the contamination, it continued dumping for almost a year. Since this acknowledgment, however, the plant has been providing Gambrills residents with bottled water. Now its coal ash waste is being disposed in Richmond and King George County in Virginia.

Constellation is under pressure from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to clean up the water, but this may be a big job, because the plant has been dumping in Gambrills for 12 years.

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