‘DUMP NOT WORTH RISKS,’ says former ash site worker

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By Brent Schanding

CAMPBELL COUNTY—A  former heavy equipment operator purportedly suffering from several health complications after he was exposed to coal fly ash particulates at an East Tennessee dumpsite, says Westbourne workers and others could face similar fates if county commissioners and state officials allow Ketchen Land Company developers to construct a toxic dry-soot landfill there. 

The 40-year-old Jacksboro native — who asked not to be named in this article because he’s part of a pending class-action lawsuit seeking compensation from his alleged work-related injuries — claims he now experiences frequent headaches, congestion, soreness, unexplained boils, high blood pressure, lesions and sexual dysfunction, all as a result of ingesting fly ash during a four-year period of working at an ash landfill site.

Blood tests ordered by a urologist also reveal higher than normal levels of cancer-causing agents in his system, he said. 

“There’s few of us in the county that has any experience with burnt coal dust,” he said.”This fly ash situation — I’ve been personally involved with everything [Ketchen Land Company developers] have talked about doing.”

And he says county and state officials need to rethink the plan before approving a permit for the ash landfill to operate. 

The purported victim was tasked with controlling soot and burnt coal dust at a Kingston fly ash site from March 2009 - May 2012.  

The former worker described the daily routine at the site, where he and other workers often began as early as 4:30 a.m. and finished as late as 9 p.m., treating ash.   

First, a dump truck dumped burnt coal remains into the landfill in mountain-sized proportions. A dozer knocked down the piles,  while a water truck slightly moistened them. A roller then pressed the ash into a flat crust to contain it. 

Site operators were supposed to exercise a strict “zero tolerance” policy for dust, he said. 

“But over time, the wind blows,” he said. “And when it got bad, and things got out of control, we were like firemen. We were called to get the dust under control at all costs. Whatever it took — we fixed it.”

But ash is the consistency of flour, he added. 

“So, it will pick it up and blow in the atmosphere,” he said. “If it’s dry and it takes off in the air — that’s when you’re at risk. You cannot breathe this stuff. Breathing is the No. 1 way it gets in your system.”

Workers at the ash landfill were not given respirators, he said, and were told only superficial dangers about coal ash.

“We couldn’t wash our clothes with our own family’s clothes,” he said. “But fly ash is harmless, they told us. It’s just burnt coal.”

However, an examination of fly ash components, according to the Material Safety Data Sheet — or MSDS — reveals otherwise.  

Ketchen developers were supposed to supply locals with that information at a public forum in White Oak last week — but failed to do so, saying they “forgot” and would do so at a later time.

Initially, developers said such a disclaimer did not exist. 

But an MSDS published by TVA and readily available online shows fly ash contains several cancer-causing agents — including silica, alumina and titanium — although Ketchen Land Company officials told locals just last week, fly ash poses few health risks. 

“What they told in the meeting in White Oak the other night is the same thing we were told going into the job site in Kingston,” said the former ash dump worker. “It’s the same worn out lies.”

The MSDS report advises those who may have been exposed to toxic ash to rinse their eyes and consult a physician if ingested. 

The former ash-site worker said after he left the job, he started connecting the dots on the dangers of the toxic soot. 

“When I finally got laid off, I stayed worn out all of the time,” he said. “I slept almost every day, all day, for almost two weeks. I never did feel any better.”

And several of his co-workers exhibited the same symptoms. 

“Our sex drives were in the tank, we were having chronic headaches, we hurt all over — but no one was talking about it then,” he said. “We’re men, we didn’t want to talk about it. But I’m now taking 60mg of testosterone a day to make me feel half way like a man.”

He says he’s also nasally, congested and suffers from random lesions and skin outbreaks. For the first time in his life, he said he now has high blood pressure. 

“People may say I got older and it runs in my family, but I’ve never had it before,” he said. “My vision’s even changed just a little bit.” 

Most alarmingly, he says his circulatory system has tested positively for arsenic  — a highly poisonous metalloid, also found in coal fly ash. 

“There’s no reason for me to have arsenic in my system,” he said. “I never had it in my life until I went to work [near burnt coal.]”

While it’s unclear if and when his federal lawsuit will be settled, his pro-active warning to others is simple: 

“In no way, shape, form our fashion, should our county commissioners have ever let this dump happen,” he said. “If it’s built — in a nutshell — there’s going to be a lot of sick people in this county. In the end, all you’ve got is your health.” 

Ketchen Land Company developers have already filed for a permit to house the fly ash on a 300-acre site near Westbourne. 

The plan is pending state approval, after commissioners failed to intervene with plans last month.