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Poison's Peak

The county is being asked for a permit to stockpile known carcinogens for generations to come. But the coal ash already is there.

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East End Resource Recovery is seeking Henrico County's permission to continue storing coal ash on Darbytown Road.

Go see it for yourself. Drive southeast on Darbytown Road in Henrico County's East End, past the houses decorated for the Easter holiday, and there it is, rising above the trees. From a distance it's a bald hill. Standing in the yard across the street you can see bulldozers shifting the peaks of dark gray powder.

Coal ash.

People know that smoke from a coal-fired power station is poisonous. Yet few of us consider the toxic ash left after the coal burns. I never did. Then, last December, our neighbor called. Had I seen the meeting agenda for Henrico County's upcoming Board of Zoning Appeals? Turns out the East End Landfill LLC wanted a permit "to deposit coal ash and other materials at 1820 Darbytown Road."

And the kicker? The ash already was there.

The exact makeup of coal ash depends on the batch of coal, but typically includes arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and even uranium. Exposure can cause neurological damage; birth defects; heart, lung and kidney disease; and various forms of cancer. That's according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Nobel Prize-winning organization Physicians for Social Responsibility.

There are lots of ways to be poisoned by coal ash. Drink contaminated water, eat food grown in contaminated soil, or just breathe in the wrong place. Recent studies from scientists at Duke University show inhaled coal-ash dust pushes radioactivity and trace metals deep into the lungs where their impact is magnified.

At particular risk are children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with lung disease. In Henrico County that includes the more than 6,500 children suffering from pediatric asthma, more than 20,000 asthmatic adults, and nearly 10,000 residents who have chronic bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association's 2010 State of the Air Report.

So here's this ash, piled high in the midst of residential neighborhoods, just waiting for a breeze. On the first of December gusts in the region reached 46 mph, blowing from the southwest. Strong enough to carry ash over Montrose? Of course. Fulton Hill? Church Hill? Rocketts Landing? Get on Google Earth. See how close it is.

Even more surprising than learning there was coal ash being trucked into our town is the fact that the state's Department of Environmental Quality seems OK with it. Even as the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering a proposed rule to deem coal ash as hazardous waste, the DEQ gave the East End Landfill the thumbs up, claiming the facility meets the necessary requirements and the level of toxic material is small.

But it doesn't take large doses of these toxins to cause harm. There is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And remember, we're already exposed to heavy metals. The Dominion Resources power station — eight miles south — generated 2.7 tons of lead and 50 pounds of mercury in the last three years alone, according to its own reporting. Every small dose increases our health risks.

In addition, heavy metals don't weaken with time; they'll pose the same threat a decade or century from now. The county is being asked for a permit to stockpile known carcinogens for generations to come.

So who would be trusted with this danger? The East End Landfill, owned by Waste Associates Holdings, which in 2008 and 2009 failed six straight inspections. It was fined more than $100,000 in 2009 alone for violations including failure to mark the boundary of the safety liner, risking landslides by piling materials too highl and too steepl, and failure to cover materials properly. In late 2009, the county issued a stop-work order when mud from the landfill covered Darbytown Road. The most recent fire was last September.

By what standard is this facility capable of safeguarding our communities' health and safety? In what way has it demonstrated itself worthy of such a responsibility?

Given the health risk this ash poses and given the DEQ's mission — "promoting the health and well-being of the citizens of the Commonwealth" — it's troubling that the agency allowed the importation of this waste into our community.

The good news? Wise voices are weighing in. Henrico Supervisor James Donati and State Sen. Donald McEachin stood up at a December meeting and opposed storing coal ash in their districts, as did representatives from the Partnership for Smarter Growth, Envision Henrico, the Fulton Hill Resource Center, and neighbors who could get time off on a weekday morning. The board listened, and denied the permit.

Threat avoided. Right?

Only on paper. The ash remains. And last week my neighbor called. Had I seen Henrico's Board of Zoning Appeals agenda? On Thursday, April 28, at 9 a.m. the East End Landfill (which was renamed in December and is now East End Resource Recovery) will appeal the board's last decision in hopes of getting permission to keep storing coal ash.

No doubt, faced with the scientific facts and united community opinion, the Board of Zoning Appeals will uphold its own mission, including "excellent management of the valued resources which create our coveted quality of life."

But this time, we need more than a negative vote. We need the coal ash gone. S

Nicole Anderson-Ellis teaches critical thinking and critical writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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