Coal ash contains radioactive contaminants, Duke Univ. researchers say

DURHAM, NC (WNCN) — Researchers at Duke University are raising new concerns over the millions of tons of coal ash stored at facilities across the state.

A new study found coal ash contains radioactive contaminants.

Since the major spill in February that coated nearly 70 miles of the Dan River with sludge, most of the focus has been on heavy metals and other toxic elements found in ash

. “I think we have to treat this seriously,” explained Avner Vengosh PhD. The Duke University geochemistry professor says coal ash may pose a bigger risk than first thought.

“This should be defined as a hazardous waste and therefore should be treated as such,” Vengosh said.

The peer-reviewed study says they’ve concluded that coal ash contains radioactive contamination at levels up to10 times higher than unburned coal.

Vengosh admits the levels of radiation are very low and are naturally occurring.

“If you compare it to the average soil in the United States it’s about 5 times higher,” he explained. But he says the radioactive materials can still pose environmental and health risks.

He says what makes it a risk coal ash’s tiny particle size and storage practices, making it more likely to reach the environment.

“There is the risk of emission into the atmosphere or emission to the groundwater when we have spills or leaking of coal ash ponds,” Vengosh said.

Vengosh says the isotopic ratios of the radioactive material found in coal ash are unique to the coal it’s burned from. This means researchers may now use it almost as a fingerprint, to determine the source of any contamination.

Duke Energy says it is aware of the new study.

“This issue has been researched over many years. The U.S. Geologic Survey notes the majority of coal fly ash is not significantly enriched in radioactive elements, and this does not represent a health concern for plant neighbors,” said spokesperson Erin Culbert

Culbert says Duke Enerty has done some isotopic testing in the past and may consider using it in the future if they found there was a need for it. She says previous testing proved radioactive contamination was not a threat.

“The level of radioactive elements in groundwater near ash basins is either not detectable or extremely low and similar to what’s naturally in the soil,” Culbert said.

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