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After Years Of Coal Ash Exposure, Scientists Assess Health Of Cane Run Neighbors

Sometimes, while sitting on the front porch of her home, Kathy Little used to feel coal ash blowing against her legs.

The fly ash was soft and fine and tasted of sulfur. It collected in the nooks of her windowsills and dusted the flowers in her garden.

It blew off coal storage piles and through the power plant’s emissions stacks. It ejected hundreds of feet into the air from the sludge plant and flew off the 160-acre coal ash landfill.

The ash often drove Little indoors, and she eventually stopped allowing her granddaughter, Bryanna Bates, to play in the yard. She kept the windows and doors shut.

For years, the ash leftover from burning coal at Cane Run Generating Station blew onto nearby communities. The era of coal power at Cane Run came to a close in 2015, replaced with the first natural gas combined cycle plant in Kentucky. But the ash remains in landfills, containing heavy metals known to be hazardous to human health. And despite the likely dangers, research on the effects of coal ash exposure is only just beginning.

Kathy Little is worried about her granddaughter's health.

“I mean she has had nose bleeds and she has had other issues and I wonder if that does relate to her being exposed to coal ash at 18 months old,” Little said, sitting on the front porch of her home, surrounded by her garden, gazing at the coal ash impoundment across the street.

The effects of coal ash on health are not well understood, but new research on the families who live near Cane Run aims to change that.

Kristina Zierold, an associate professor with the department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Alabama Birmingham, is recruiting families for a study funded by the National Institutes of Health to better understand the impacts of coal ash.

“I think it’s kind of an emerging health issue, I think that it’s not well known unless you happen to be one of the six million people that live near a coal ash landfill or storage pond,” Zierold said. “I think also, it’s a big industry.”

Studying The Effects Of Coal Ash

Coal ash is one of the largest types of waste in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Coal-fired power plants generated 130 million tons of coal ash in 2014, according to the American Coal Ash Association.

The ash is stored in landfills and ponds, but it escapes through the air and in the water.  A WFPL News and Ohio Valley ReSource analysis from June found contaminated groundwater at 14 Kentucky power plants.

Seven of the sites covered under the EPA rules exceeded federal drinking water standards for arsenic. Tests at three sites showed radium levels above drinking water standards.

Fly ash, the same type of ash found on Little’s home, can contain toxic metals including chromium, lead and known carcinogens like arsenic.

Fine particles can get into the lungs and travel to organs, Zierold said. It can also cause cardiovascular and respiratory issues, like black lung disease, which is caused by exposure to coal dust.

And near LG&E’s Cane Run plant, records document the ash leaving the site and traveling to nearby homes. Between 2011 and 2013, the Louisville Air Pollution Control District fined the company at least eight times. In November of 2013, Louisville Gas & Electric agreed to pay $113,250 for outstanding violations over the previous two years.

In February of 2014, residents complained of the smell of rotting eggs wafting from Cane Run. That November LG&E’s own video footage shows large clouds of dust traveling across a coal ash pond and blowing toward the homes on Cane Run Road — where Little lives — according to violations issued by the local Air Pollution Control District.

Last year, Zierold published a pilot study of 111 children from four neighborhoods near Cane Run.

She used focus groups to develop a questionnaire and survey neighborhoods near the plant as well a clinic in Indiana with no coal ash exposure to compare results.

Of the 231 residents who completed the survey, 62 percent worried “a lot” about the exposure to coal ash, according to her study.

Zierold found children exposed to coal ash were almost six times more likely to have gastrointestinal problems, three and a half times more likely to have ADHD and were also more likely to have difficulty falling asleep, grind their teeth and suffer leg cramps.

In the abstract Zierold wrote “Several components of coal ash, such as heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic, may be associated with health and sleep problems in children.”

Little’s granddaughter, Bryanna, now 15, was one of the children to fill out that survey. Little said Bryanna has leg cramps, migraines, stomach issues and trouble staying asleep.

But the study has limitations. It only looked at the prevalence of problems, not the root cause.

“It doesn’t necessarily imply that coal ash is the reason for these conditions,” Zierold said.

Other limitations include recall and selection biases. Parents more concerned about the health impacts of coal ash may have been more likely to participate, or may not accurately remember a child’s health outcomes.

LG&E did not respond to questions about the possible dangers of coal ash exposure.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said the company has concerns about the conclusions of Zierold’s pilot study because it did not determine whether there had been exposure and did not consider other relevant factors.

“We have made significant investments across our power plant fleet to further reduce emissions and have extensive dust control measures in place, including dust control plans at our plants. Our Cane Run coal-fired power plant was retired in 2015. We are currently in the final stages of closure of the plant’s ash pond and landfill,” said LG&E spokeswoman Natasha Collins.

Looking For A Link

In June, attorneys on behalf of Little and three other neighbors re-filed a class action lawsuit against Louisville Gas & Electric seeking damages for coal ash emissions. Despite all of the health concerns surrounding coal ash, the lawsuit only seeks to recover damages to property.

The residentsfirst sued LG&E over coal ash in 2013. The bulk of the suit was thrown out the next year. A federal judge dropped the remaining claim last year, but left the door open for attorneys to re-file in state court, said Justin Sanders, an attorney on the case.

The lawsuit includes strong evidence that coal ash from Cane Run blew onto neighboring communities between 2008 and 2015. It includes photos, videos, at least eight violations from the Air Pollution Control District and lab results.

Even LG&E’s own tests found samples from Little’s home showed “significant amounts of fly ash,” according to the lawsuit.

In the meantime, Zierold continues her research looking for a link between coal ash and health outcomes.

Using the findings from the pilot study, Zierold was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The latest study will take a more in-depth approach to learn how fly ash affects children’s development in 12 ZIP codes in Jefferson County and parts of Northern Bullitt County.

Researchers are putting air samplers in people’s homes, collecting children’s toe and fingernail clippings, conducting computer testing, passing out questionnaires and completing environmental home assessments.

Zierold is already in the fourth year of the study, which wraps up in 2020. But she is still short on participants.

“We’ve recruited about 200, so we have another 100 to go so it’s really hard to say anything until you have the full population,” she said. “I am continuously trying to recruit.”

Little’s granddaughter has already participated in the latest study. Now the family is just waiting for the results.

Only when you link environmental issues and environmental pollution to a general population can you understand what happens to a child,” Little said.

Featured photo: Kathy Little, at her home across the street from Louisville's Cane Run Power Station.


Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.