EPA checks Marsh Fork Elementary for coal dust

Preliminary tests done by a Region III Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigative team at Marsh Fork Elementary found no signs of excessive dust or coal dust outside or inside the school. Raleigh County Schools requested that the agency do additional testing during August 15-17.

Their final report may take several more weeks to be completed, said team lead investigator Bill Steuteville, Region III EPA multi-media enforcement coordinator. Multi-media refers to soil, air and water.

A coal dust silo stands 225 feet from the school. Dust samples collected in the school in January by D. Scott Simonton, P.E., PhD showed coal dust in all seven samples. Simonton is vice-chair of the state Environmental Quality Board. Dr. Dewey Sanderson, Professor of Geology at Marshall University, analyzed the dust samples.

Particulates analyzed in January were coal dust. Size varied, but most were smaller than 10 microns, said Bo Webb, Coal River Mountain Watch member.

Wiley’s meeting with

Senator Byrd

Ed Wiley walked from Charleston to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about safety concerns about the school, which is surrounded by mining operations.

Wiley walked through Morgan County in late August. He arrived at the nation’s capital last Wednesday and met with Senator Robert Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall to talk about the school’s issues.

Issues include a toxic coal sludge pond above the school, reports that the pond dam is periodically leaking, numerous dam compaction rate violations, blasting at an adjacent surface mining operation, coal trains idling 150-200 feet behind the school spewing diesel exhaust, antifreeze sprayed on the coal to minimize dust and other toxic chemicals and heavy metal impurities involved in manufacturing.

Wiley’s concerns about trees rotting inside the sludge pond and breaking off and puncturing the dam appear to have been addressed. In 1972, a similar sludge pond dam failed at Buffalo Creek and 125 people died as black water flooded the valley.

The sludge impoundment dam is regularly inspected, said Jessica Whitehouse, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson. There is a permissible amount of seepage from the dam, she said. Inspectors are usually onsite to monitor the dam during periods of heavy rain, said Whitehouse.]

EPA testing

During the EPA testing at Marsh Fork Elementary, five real-time air-monitoring devices were placed at various distances upwind, downwind and crosswind from the coal dust silo said Steuteville. One air monitor was placed in the playground area. The devices registered particulate counts, temperature and humidity in the air over a five-hour period.

The tests were begun before a coal train was loaded and continued for several more hours after loading was over. No increase in particulates was attributed to loading, said Steuteville.

Found two urgent issues

The team identified two issues that needed immediate attention during their inspection of the mining operations and the school for dust and compliance.

Asbestos was found on a pipe inside a school basement crawlspace. The asbestos has been sealed off and will be removed at the end of the school year when students won’t be present. Asbestos is a common problem in schools built prior to 1980.

As requested by the EPA inspectors, the coal company is voluntarily removing two 1,000-gallon tanks of anhydrous ammonia that are situated around 600 feet from the school. Anhydrous ammonia is used to adjust the pH of the wastewater byproduct of coal manufacturing.

Anhydrous ammonia is considered an extremely hazardous substance under the Clean Air Act, said Steuteville. In an accident, it would send up a toxic cloud, he said. The coal plant is switching to a temporary caustic soda system in place of the ammonia, he said.

Steuteville examined the school grounds and every room in the school for signs of coal dust and excessive dust but didn’t find any. One gymnasium rafter appeared darker than expected. Their team also looked at every aspect of the mining operation and observed no dust except in a few situations. Excessive dust was not a problem onsite, said Steuteville.

The investigative team is now examining the size and components of coal dust particles and possible toxicity at low exposures, he said. Steuteville is researching the toxic effects of coal dust and black lung. There is limited research available, he said. Much more testing could be done and there are indications that it would be appropriate, he said

Coal dust can stay in the lungs

Dustless than seven microns gets in the lungs and can stay there, said Dr Alan Ducatman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Community Medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

“Smaller particles have a larger active surface area relative to their mass and are generally considered more dangerous,” said Ducatman.

White cells can clear carbon dust out of the lungs to some degree, but not completely, he said. That is why miners, smokers and some third world city dwellers have black carbon accumulations in their lungs. Coal dust can set off an inflammatory cascade that can lead to disease, he said. There would need to be a sufficient dose of coal dust, as is seen in miners, Ducatman noted.

Length of time for inflammatory response is dose-dependent and complex, being affected by peak dosages, which are more dangerous, said Ducatman. Exposure to coal dust or asbestos can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, he said. He doubted if children would get sufficient coal dust dosage in their school life to get fibrosis. Whether diesel exhaust was in the breathing zones of the children would have to be examined.

“Diesel exhaust has numerous toxicities, including carcinogenesis. It is not a desirable exposure,” said Ducatman.

Exposure levels to coal dust and diesel exhaust at Marsh Fork Elementary have not been determined. Ducatman was doubtful if the level of either would be above environmental thresholds. He wondered how many parents would be content with children getting below threshold exposures and whether that meant it was a safe place to go to school.

Ducatman advised a formal health assessment, which could be done by West Virginia University or Marshall University in conjunction with the Bureau of Public Health. Diesel components, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and school particulates could be measured, said Ducatman.

Breathing tests would be a good idea, but children’s ages would have to be kept in mind. Inflammatory markers in the blood could also be examined, but a comparison group would be needed, he said.

“It is much easier to fix things like this before they happen,” Ducatman said.

Officials say school is safe

Air quality tests conducted last August at Marsh Fork Elementary tested for humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and comfort levels, said Bill Elswick, the state education facilities supervisor. These tests are conducted at every school, he noted. Humidity rates were high, but resolvable with the normal operation of HVAC units once school began.

“From our tests, there’s no reason why kids shouldn’t be attending that school. If we find any reason to the contrary, we’ll address it immediately,” said Elswick.

State School Superintendent Steve Paine feels the Marsh Fork Elementary situation is a matter for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to determine what additional tests need to be done. School officials don’t have the expertise to determine if there are serious issues at Marsh Fork, he said.

They’ve seen no indications yet that the school needs to be closed, Paine said. He, Elswick and Raleigh County School Superintendent Dr Charlotte Hutchens are waiting for the final EPA report and for advice about further testing.

Wiley won’t quit

Ed Wiley won’t quit until they get a new school built above the coal mining operations. Their Pennies of Promise campaign has raised over $3,600 so far toward a new school.

Wiley said that four teachers and three children at the school have died of cancer. There’s also a child on a breathing machine and a lot of kids sick with respiratory problems, severe headaches and other complaints, he said.

Wiley urged people to call or write Governor Joe Manchin, Senator Robert Byrd and Senator Jay Rockefeller, to give donations or hold fundraisers for a new Marsh Fork elementary school and to get involved.

“Stand up. This could happen in your backyard. If we fail to take care of our children, we have failed as Americans,” said Wiley.

Wiley and the crew were thrilled with the support they received in Morgan County. Events were organized in Paw Paw, Largent, Great Cacapon and Berkeley Springs during Wiley’s walk here. Around 40 people attended Wiley’s presentation at The Red Guitar on Sunday, August 27.

Local follow-up meeting

A follow-up meeting about Marsh Fork Elementary and the surrounding mining issues is planned for Sunday, September 24 at 4 p.m. at The Red Guitar.