EPA says respirators not needed at ash spill site

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By Damon Lawrence

Craig Zeller, project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said there is a system in place for monitoring the health of people working at the TVA ash spill site.  

“We have perimeter air monitoring at six stations on site surrounding the work area, and that’s to guard against any off site dust migration from the worker area to local communities,” he said during an interview in June.

The perimeter monitoring system isn’t the only thing being used, according to Zeller.

“We also have industrial hygiene monitors on our workers that are actually working in and amongst the ash,” he said. “Those actually pull samples of air from their respiratory zone where they would be breathing.”

Hundreds of workers have been part of TVA’s effort to clean up the mess caused by the Dec. 22, 2008 ash spill. A dike failure at the Kingston Fossil Plant released more than 5 million cubic yards of ash into the environment.  

The EPA said the spill is regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history.

“Ash itself does have elevated levels of arsenic, about three times say background,” Zeller said. “Selenium kind of the same, about three times what native soil concentrations are in East Tennessee.”

The EPA was brought in after the disaster to oversee the cleanup.

Despite what’s in the ash, Zeller said masks and respirators are not required for people working at the site.

“With the dust suppression we continue to monitor the levels on their IH monitor as well as the perimeter and those levels have proven to be safe enough where they do not have to wear respirators,” he said.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week by some former workers said Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. had a responsibility to keep people working at the cleanup site safe. Jacobs, the lawsuit alleges, failed to do that by lying to workers about the safety of fly ash and rebuffing their requests for respirators and dust masks.

“Defendant expressly refused plaintiffs’ specific request for respirators and personal protective equipment to use during cleanup of the fly ash site and threatened some plaintiffs who so requested,” the lawsuit said. “Further, when some individuals were prescribed respirators or protective masks, they were ordered not to wear said items, despite defendant being responsible to provide a safe environment for individuals present on the site.”

The plaintiffs claim they suffered health problems from exposure to the fly ash.

“Defendant knew that the fly ash was contaminated with toxic constituents,” the lawsuit said. “Defendant therefore had a duty to warn plaintiffs of the presence of the toxic constituents. Defendant breached its duty by not only failing to warn plaintiffs, but actually fraudulently concealing that fact.”

Jacobs, which is headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., has yet to file an answer to the lawsuit.