San Antonio's Canary in the Coal Mine

The recent environmental disaster in Tennessee where a coal-ash dump ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of the Volunteer State brought new national attention to the variety of environmental health dangers that coal ash presents, putting to rest the myth of “clean coal.” The New York Times reports this week that there are more than 1,300 similar dumps across the country in 46 states, with most of them being unregulated and unmonitored. The Times also reports that “Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humansâ?¦”

Friends of the Earth is calling out to the environmental community today to lobby Congress to transition the nation away from coal and to ban new coal-fired power plants.

San Antonio, meanwhile, may have a developing coal-ash problem of its own. The San Antonio Housing Authority and partner Franklin Development started digging up some coal-ash waste in November at 1901 S. San Marcos Street on the near West Side, site of the former Swift meat packing plant. SAHA was originally planning to build a $3-million warehouse there, but the site was shut down in 1998 when workers discovered a thick layer of buried coal ash that contained beryllium, a toxic substance that can cause bone and lung damage. The coal ash was speculated to have come from old boilers and/or animal residue from Swift's rendering operation. SAHA spent $300,000 to place an underground plastic liner around the coal ash and shut down the site.

But at the end of 2006, SAHA decided to move forward with development of the site after receiving a September '06 clearance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (a process that the Current is still investigating.) SAHA and Franklin are now planning to build a new low-income housing complex on the site to be called the Artisan Apartments at San Pedro Creek. But site neighbor Fred Perry is waving a red flag.

Perry says he became so ill after dust from the ongoing excavation blew into his used-furniture warehouse that he shut down his business at the end of December, saying he was physically unable to continue working there. He suspects that toxic heavy metals in the coal ash are the culprit for his health problems, which have included trouble breathing, nausea and a metallic taste in his mouth with accompanying sore tongue. The 60-year-old Perry isn't a scientist but he has plenty of experience investigating toxic threats, having previously lived near the Brio Superfund site in Houston, where the entire neighborhood he lived in was eventually razed due to the toxic conditions. He also spent another four years selling and servicing respiratory-protection equipment to the hazardous-materials industry.

“I'm just the canary in the coal-mine,” says Perry. “But I'm at least smart enough to know that this stuff can kill me and that the testing `SAHA` has done is not adequate.”

SAHA and Franklin disagree, claiming that the site has been remediated in compliance with TCEQ standards. But whether those standards are actually adequate and whether environmental testing by contractor Geo-Marine has really eliminated concern about human health hazards from the coal ash at the site remain open questions that the Current is currently digging into. The NY Times story reports that “In Texas, the vast majority of coal ash is not considered a solid waste, according to a review of state regulations by environmental groups. There are no groundwater monitoring or engineering requirements for utilities that dump the ash on site, as most utilities do, the analysis says.”

SAHA is at least now taking a closer look at Perry's problems, but only after he raised hell and called the Current to help investigate. Stay tuned for more on this story from the Current later this monthâ?¦

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