In 2017, Susan Wind’s 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Her family’s first thoughts were that cancer “just happens.” After all, cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for approximately 10 million deaths in 2020.
However, soon after the news, Wind learned of three other people with cancer living on her street in Mooresville, NC.
“I had all these parents contacting me saying their kids had thyroid cancer — teenagers, very young, even 13-year-olds,” Wind said.
Wind said she learned that other people in her community had different types of cancer. Over two dozen parents from her daughter’s high school contacted her about their children’s cancer cases.
Although she wasn’t sure what was wrong, Wind began her investigation to understand what was in her family’s environment.
According to a 2019 report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of new thyroid cancer cases reported between 2005 and 2016 in Iredell County — where Mooresville is located — was higher than new cases from the state as a whole.
Now working as an environmental activist, Wind said she eventually learned about the coal ash stored at Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station, a four-unit power plant that uses coal and natural gas in Catawba County.
Wind is organizing and leading a national protest on September 20 at the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, in response to the lack of action against coal ash in the country.
Despite the high rates of various types of cancer in certain areas, there are no officially recognized cancer groups in North Carolina.
Coal ash in NC and USA
Coal ash, which comes mostly from burning coal in power plants, contains pollutants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, according to the EPA.
Inorganic arsenic is a confirmed carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization. Exposure to mercury – even in small amounts – can have a toxic effect on many different body organs and functions.
Without proper management, these chemicals can contaminate air, waterways, groundwater, and drinking water.
Rebecca Fry, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said that no amount of arsenic is good for humans.
Fry, whose career has been devoted to protecting the public from toxic metals, added that there needs to be more research on the topic of coal ash.
Since the chemicals in coal ash can occur naturally, she said further testing could be complicated.
To determine a link to chemicals derived from coal ash as opposed to naturally occurring chemicals, she said special scientific processes, such as the use of tracers, must be applied.
“I think many, many studies haven’t done that,” Fry said.
But coal ash — and the pollutants within it — aren’t limited to North Carolina.
Kristina Zierold, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said she conducted a pilot study in Louisville, Ky., to investigate the health of children living near two power plants.
Because the study used a cross-sectional study design, it did not prove the stations caused any adverse health effects, Zierold said.
However, she said the study found links between exposure to fly ash – a component of coal ash air – and behavioral phenomena such as depression and anxiety in children aged four to 17.
She added that many community members in her area have suggested looking into how coal ash is affecting the elderly as well.
“Many of the adults in my community said, ‘Oh, you should do a cancer study because this person has breast cancer, this person has breast cancer, and I know three other people who have breast cancer,'” she said.
Zierold said these adults also lived near coal ash sites.
“The things I heard from other community members were similar to other stories and case studies — what they hear from other people who are exposed to coal ash,” she said.
In 2019, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality ordered Duke Energy to excavate six remaining coal ash sites in the state. DEQ determined dredging was the only option to meet the requirements of the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014.
Coal Ash in Chapel Hill
Locally, the city of Chapel Hill approved a Memorandum of Understanding in April with construction company Belmont Sayre to redevelop 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The city purchased the property in the 1980s, using the site to build the Chapel Hill Police Department.
In 2013, coal ash was discovered at the site, apparently built on construction debris. Remedial investigation reports began that same year.
In 2019, the property was determined eligible for the Brownfields Program by the state DEQ. The program helps redevelop abandoned or underutilized properties hampered by real or perceived environmental pollution.
According to the development’s website, 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. it was previously managed by a private facility prior to the city’s purchase. Because of this, the city has no sources that directly indicate where the coal ash may have come from.
Chapel Hill City Council member Adam Searing said the more he learned about the development project, the more he worried the city was making a big mistake.
“Building housing, especially housing that was supposed to be more affordable for lower-income families and children, could have very serious health consequences, especially for the children who would eventually live there,” he said.
Searing said the coal ash apparently came from UNC’s cogeneration facility before the property was purchased by the city. The coal plant, located at 501 W Cameron Ave., was and still is a major producer of coal ash.
He added that he would be fine with building housing on the property, but would like to see the coal ash removed first.
“If you look across the country, no one else, no other community, is building housing on coal ash,” Searing said. “Covered in dirt or not.”
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