LARGE clouds of coal waste blown over Scottish communities are from dumps contaminated with poison and toxic metals, according to a monitoring report obtained by the Sunday Herald.
Millions of tonnes of ash from Longannet coal-fired power station have been disposed of over decades at Valleyfield in west Fife. However, since April angry residents have been complaining that dust whipped up from the dumps has been smothering their homes and harming their health.
Now a report released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) reveals that the dumps are polluted by arsenic, cadmium, chromium and other metals known to cause cancer, birth defects, lung damage and other health problems.
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The “dust nightmare” has been condemned as a “major environmental disaster” by local residents and environmentalists. Politicians have demanded “full transparency” and the dumps’ owner, Scottish Power, has said sorry.
Until it closed in March 2016, ash from Longannet power station was mixed with cooling water and disposed of in a series of lagoons at Valleyfield on the coast of the Firth of Forth. According to Scottish Power, the lagoons are now larger than 35 football pitches.
But over the past few weeks they have dried out, and winds have blown clouds of dust over the villages of Valleyfield, Culross, Newmills and Torryburn. NHS Fife has advised villagers to try and avoid breathing in the dust by staying indoors and closing their windows.
After complaints from residents, Sepa sent inspectors to the site, and slapped two legal enforcement notices on Scottish Power forcing the company to urgently spray water to suppress the dust. This seems to have prevented more dust clouds in the last few days.
Despite concerns as to what toxins the dust might contain, no official information has been provided. But now in response to a request from the Sunday Herald, Sepa has released a detailed scientific report by experts for Scottish Power on monitoring of the Valleyfield lagoons.
The report discloses that traces of eight potentially hazardous pollutants from burning coal were detected in lagoon water in 2016. These include arsenic, a poison toxic to wildlife and people and blamed for causing cancer.
Cadmium, a heavy metal that causes cancer, birth defects and reproductive damage, was also found. A few samples were in excess of agreed environmental “trigger levels”.
Other hazardous pollutants present were antimony, boron, chromium, manganese, selenium and vanadium. In most cases concentrations were said to be low.
Residents say the dust clouds triggered asthma attacks, had children coughing up dust and forced families to move away. They have organised a public meeting in High Valleyfield to raise their concerns with the authorities.
“This serious incident is a major environmental disaster for west Fife villages,” said the chair of the West Fife Villages Community Council Forum, Donald Campbell. “Who knows what health implications this could have for the residents, not to mention those with pre-existing bronchial conditions and the very young and elderly.”
The local SNP MSP, Shirley-Anne Somerville, demanded publication of all monitoring results. “People are concerned about what they have been breathing in,” she said. “They need to know what’s in the dust and what the health implications are.”
She has written to Sepa, NHS Fife, Scottish Power and Fife Council asking for monitoring data. “It is utter mismanagement and unforgiveable to put villagers through this,” she said.
Friends of the Earth Scotland accused Scottish Power of being a “terrible neighbour”.
“Cadmium and chromium are among the last things you want blowing about in dust,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“While most of us have been able to get out and enjoy the sunny weather of the last few weeks, local residents have been trapped in their homes, not even able to open the windows.”
Sepa’s southeast area manager, Iain Cruickshank, promised to be tough on Scottish Power. “This was a very significant event and we take this very seriously,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Submitting a report to the Procurator Fiscal was “one of the options open to us”, he warned. “We will not tolerate a further breach of the permit conditions. We will take any regulatory action needed to ensure there is not a repeat.”
Scottish Power pointed out that the area had less than a tenth of average rainfall in April. “We apologise for the recent dust lifts from the Valleyfield ash lagoons,” said a company spokesman.
“We have been working hard to put measures in place to significantly reduce the possibility of dust lifting from the site. The lagoons are sizeable but the entire site is covered by mitigation measures.”
NHS Fife reiterated its advice to stay inside with windows and doors closed when it’s dusty. “Breathing in dust can be bad for your health, especially if you have heart or lung disease, or asthma,” said public health director, Dr Margaret Hannah.
TABLE: What's in the contaminated ash
Antimony - inhalation can cause heart or lung damage
Arsenic - toxic to humans and wildlife, could cause cancer
Boron - causes eye, nose and throat irritation, may damage male fertility
Cadmium - causes cancer, linked to birth defects and reproductive damage
Chromium - can damage lungs, liver, kidneys and stomach
Manganese - high levels can cause hallucinations, headaches and behaviour changes
Selenium - high levels can cause dizziness, fatigue and digestive irritation
Vanadium - can cause lung irritation, sore throat, wheezing, chest pain and asthma
“I could taste the grit in my teeth” - Residents' stories
Robert McKenzie, vice chair of High Valleyfield Community Council: “Our community has been blighted by the clouds of ash dust for three weeks. Children have had to be kept indoors at school, residents have had to put up with layers of ash on their cars, on washing, and getting blown into their homes. Residents are very angry. They feel that they are due recompense from Scottish Power.”
Jill Steele, Longannet Ash Lagoons Community Action Group: “The cloud rising from the ash lagoons completely engulfed my house for days. I have a six month old baby. I was unable to take her into the back garden, for a walk or even open my windows. She developed a cough. Scottish Power has shown no respect and is fully responsible for this disaster. It has potentially put our lives and health at risk.”
Claire Rodgers, a bank worker from High Valleyfield: “I used to have asthma but haven't had any trouble in a long time. But every time I drove into the village I could just feel a heavy feeling on my chest and struggled to breath properly. I got to the doctor and she prescribed the inhaler. I could actually taste the grit in my teeth. At children's football games, they were all coughing up dust.”
Jemma Far, from Torryburn: “My daughter who has never suffered from asthma or chest problems has been coughing for weeks. Friends have been hospitalised because of their asthma and one was even told it would be better if she could live elsewhere until it was sorted.”