Large clouds of coal wastes blown over Scottish communities are from dumps contaminated with poison and toxic metals, according to a monitoring report published by The Ferret.
Millions of tonnes of ash from Longannet coal-fired power station have been disposed of over decades at Valleyfield in west Fife. Since 12 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.
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 on 26 April and 2 May 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 Sepa has released a detailed scientific report by experts for Scottish Power on monitoring of the Valleyfield lagoons.
The 197-page 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”.
Contamination found in Valleyfield ash lagoons
|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|
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 on 20 May 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” and called for a permanent solution. “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. Even if you were not worried about the possible health impacts of heavy metals, the dust itself is a health hazard.”
Samples taken by Sepa verify that dust deposited on west Fife villages comes from the Longannet ash lagoons. But the agency has not analysed the dust’s chemical composition.
Sepa confirmed, however, that the ash dumps were contaminated by cadmium, chromium and other coal-burning by-products. They were at “low levels” that met environmental standards for the site, it said.
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 said.
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.”
The spokesman added: “Due to the hot drying weather conditions still being experienced, we are continuously pumping additional water on a 24/7 basis to prevent the surface drying out. The situation is under control and we will work tirelessly to prevent issues occurring again in future.”
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.
Residents’ stories: “I could taste the grit in my teeth”
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 during all the recent good weather, residents have had to put up with layers of ash on their cars, on washing, and getting blown into their homes this whole time.
“Residents are very angry, especially that it has taken so long to bring this under control. They feel that they are due recompense from Scottish Power for all the upheaval and stress this incident has caused.”
Jill Steele, Longannet Ash Lagoons Community Action Group: “We have been dealing with extreme difficulties since 12 April. The cloud rising from the ash lagoons completely engulfed my house for days. I was left with a layer of thick, black dust throughout my house, especially my windowsills and on my car.
“I have a six month old baby in the house. I was unable to take her into the back garden, for a walk or even open my windows to let fresh air in. She developed a cough. I consulted my GP who advised to keep windows and doors closed especially living so close to the ash lagoons as this may be triggering or contributing to her cough.
“Scottish Power has shown no respect to the local community and is fully responsible for this disaster. It has potentially put our lives and health at risk as well as the wildlife from the nature reserve surrounding the lagoons.”
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.
“When dropping Robbie, my son, at school I could actually taste the grit in my teeth. To believe how bad it was, you would have to have been here. At children’s football games, they were all coughing up dust.
“It’s not been good living in and around the lagoons recently and the things we are finding out are worrying.”
Connie O’Donnell, from High Valleyfield: “Both my kids had a viral infection and hacking cough for over two weeks. My main concern was the effect this could have on them, especially my youngest who is nearly nine months old and has Down syndrome.
“You could taste the grit in your mouth when it was bad. I strongly feel tests should be carried out and results as to what we’re breathing in made available to the public.”
The report for Scottish Power released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency
Enforcement notices issued by Scottish Environment Protection Agency
A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 14 May 2017.
Photos and film thanks to locals residents.