Health Concerns Prompt Investigation of NC Coal Ash

Julia Knoerr ‘21

Senior Staff Writer

While coal ash basin closure remains a pertinent topic of discussion, community members perhaps feel more direct impacts through rising health and environmental injustices across North Carolina.

In particular, increasing cases of thyroid cancer and ocular melanoma in unusual populations and rates have raised questions about potential links to environmental factors. In a 2018 report, Iredell County displayed higher five-year thyroid cancer rates than other areas in the state, with the majority in the 28115 and 28117 zip codes. These zip codes are only 6-12 miles from the Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station respectively, and 16 miles from the McGuire nuclear plant. The only confirmed environmental exposure linked to thyroid cancer, radiation enters the atmosphere through coal ash produced from burning coal for electricity.

A 2015 study found that coal ash contains 3-5 times the amount of radiation as average U.S. soil, though U.S. Geological calculations from the 1990s indicate that the amount of radiation an individual is exposed to by living near a coal plant is less than the amount from yearly exposure to X-rays.

Susan Wind, the mother of a thyroid cancer patient, shared her teenage daughter Taylor’s story. Over a couple of years, Taylor suffered symptoms ranging from headaches, weight gain, and fatigue, to feeling generally unwell. She developed a small lump under her ear, yet doctors continued to claim her symptoms were normal for a teenage girl and that she had nothing to worry about.

After hearing about multiple young individuals in the area with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Wind asked her doctor to order an ultrasound and testing. They found her daughter had papillary thyroid cancer that had metastasized, spreading throughout her neck and lymph nodes. Wind shared, “obviously it was a shock, because supposedly young girls don’t get thyroid cancer.”

After hearing similar stories from friends and neighbors, Wind decided to take action. She brought Iredell County’s abnormal cancer rates to her doctor’s attention and contacted Duke University researcher Dr. Heather Stapleton to arrange a study. To secure funding, Wind organized a 5K race in April 2018 and raised $109,000.

Explaining her motivation, Wind proclaimed, “From a mother’s standpoint, we knew there was something off here, and that’s why we raised money, and that’s why we commissioned a team, and now we’re going to test it.”

Last summer, Stapleton began testing potential environmental factors. Wind emphasized, “We can’t say the coal ash is causing the thyroid cancer because that would be irresponsible, because they’re not done with all their research. But the thing that’s very nerve-racking is that Marshall Steam Station is in my backyard. It all comes right into our zip code.”

Lilly Hennessy ’20, a Public Health major, also advocates for the research, noting, “Environmental factors can have indirect effects…because cancer is not usually caused by one direct exposure to something….so that makes it difficult to find if there’s a causation. Research is the most important thing you can do to see if the environment’s causing diseases like this, but of course that requires funding.”

Although causality is difficult to prove, Health and Human Values professor Dr. Patrick Baron reflected on necessary criteria over email, contemplating, “Is coal ash residue the only carcinogen driving up cancer rates in this population? Are the agents contributing to cancer rates just in the surface/recreational water? Are they also to be found in the drinking water? The ambient air? We can answer these questions by looking at the people who got sick, and assessing things about their lifestyles and the environmental exposures they may have had in the past. We can also look directly at the environment, and test drinking water, air, surface water, etc. for agents known to increase the risk of thyroid cancer in humans.”

In contrast, Duke Energy representative Bill Norton claims coal ash pits do not presently raise health concerns. He asserted, “All our work must comply with very strict air emissions controls and water discharge permits and other regulations that all keep the public safe. [Secondly], we’ve got extensive testing, not just by us, but independently by the state, by universities, by public water suppliers, that prove[s] that water supplies are safe from coal ash impacts now…and these groundwater reports that we’ve provided to the [Department of Environmental Quality] prove that they will remain protected in the future.”

However, Environmental Studies major Emma Brentjens ’21 cautioned against

company bias in testing and added, “Duke has great [personal relations] I’m sure. They can spin anything…Definitely don’t believe everything you hear from a company like Duke Energy.”

Illustrating Brenjens’ point, a 2018 report found that “people living in close proximity to coal-fired plants had higher rates of all-cause and premature mortality, increased risk of respiratory disease and lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, poorer child health, and higher infant mortality.” Factors include exposure to air pollutants as well as heavy metals and radioactive isotopes in coal ash. Baron elaborated on human exposure in the Lake Norman area, stating, “We have insights from other health research that coal ash is loaded with carcinogens…We know that smaller amounts are released into the environment from the Duke Energy plant. But there are other suspects, including a chemical compound called “GenX” which was dumped into the Cape Fear River in 2017 by a subsidiary of DuPont Chemical Corp.”

Similarly, an e-mail from the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation’s Brandon Jones corroborated, “The impacts of drinking elements in coal ash such as arsenic, selenium, mercury, cobalt, radium isotopes, and thallium are well established. The dangers of handling coal are currently being litigated in TN.”

Despite the current lack of conclusive findings tying coal ash to specific health conditions, Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued, “Although we don’t know what caused any particular individual’s illness, we do know that this kind of pollution increases the risks for the community as a whole. There is no point of incurring that risk, and in fact that’s why we have these laws.”

At the same time, Baron recognized, “The problem is: how do you protect people, and exercise precaution, before you have complete evidence to establish who may be at risk and why?…So far, officials are keeping the public informed by reporting new cases of thyroid cancer in the area, providing interpretation and analysis of the data, and giving interviews to local media as new information arises.” He acknowledged the challenge of systematic protection, highlighting the need for increased data collection, formal health recommendations for physicians, and surveillance strategies.

While public officials have attempted to keep communities informed, both Brentjens and Environmental Studies Professor Dr. Erik Kojola underscored the limits of these efforts. Kojola characterized community input meetings as “necessary but also insufficient,” explaining that they “often will end up being ways of sort of diverting public attention without meaningful change or…engagement.” Issues with accessibility, particularly for individuals with children or multiple jobs, technical language, and incomprehensive outreach efforts render meetings inadequate.

Furthermore, populations do not experience impacts equally. Kojola emphasized, “I think it’s important to think about who is being exposed to potential risk and how that [is] shaped by intersections of race, class, [and] gender …” He also noted the importance of looking at the history of site placement and at which communities live downstream.

In connection, Brenjens explained her findings from a coal ash project in her Environmental Justice class: “Looking at a map of which counties the coal ash ponds are located in and comparing it to a map of the poorest counties in North Carolina, we saw a lot of similarities there.” She explained that companies often place coal ash ponds in predominantly low-income or minority communities because a lower financial status and lack of political power inhibits resistance.  

Moreover, risks also amplify during natural disasters and for workers tasked with addressing spills. During Hurricane Florence, coal ash gained media attention in North Carolina when the Cape Fear River flooded two coal ash basins at Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Plant. Debate has arisen over the potential dangers of this dam breach.

Additionally, over 200 workers who cleaned up Tennessee’s Kingston Coal Ash Spill in 2008 are currently suffering from illnesses commonly associated with coal ash. Kojola reveals that “workers are often the front line in facing toxins…but sometimes…the responding workers don’t know what they’re dealing with.”

For affected individuals, health care disparities also raise concerns. Kojola explained, “People who have good health insurance can maybe get the preventative check-ups or the monitoring that you would want.” On the contrary, uninsured or underinsured individuals might not be able to afford care. Kojola expanded, “What are the social-psychological effects of stress and fear of potential contaminants?”

Moving forward, Brentjens suggests volunteering in health clinics to assist those with limited care, reading the news to stay updated, and writing representatives. Reflecting on Davidson’s role, Baron offered, “As individuals and as an institution, we can generate some of the research, analysis and health knowledge needed to better understand this issue. We can also be community health advocates for the best possible strategies and evidence-based policies to protect human health on this issue.” Though college students may feel incapable of countering Duke Energy’s lobbying, Baron affirmed, “A healthy public is actively engaged in their collective health.”

2/24/18 A previous version of this article misrepresented the radioactivity of coal ash using a statistic from this article. The statistic (that coal ash is 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste) is accurate when accounting for energy production, amount of waste, and proper storage, but can also be seen as overemphasizing health risks.

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