Scientists Develop New Tool To Help Identify Coal Ash In Soil, Water

Scientists Develop New Tool To Help Identify Coal Ash In Soil, Water

2:05pm Oct 24, 2019
The Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County. KERI BROWN/WFDD

Researchers at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill have developed a new technique to track the footprint of coal ash in the environment.

The new forensic tracer uses lead isotopes to detect coal fly ash in dust and other solids, including soil and sediments.

It was used to analyze dozens of samples collected from 12 U.S. coal-fired power plants between 2004 and 2013.

Tests show it can distinguish between the chemical signature of lead that comes from coal ash and lead that comes from other sources, including leaded gasoline and lead paint.

Coal ash contains toxic substances and heavy metals, which can leach into groundwater. It’s often recycled to make concrete and other products and applied on soil as fill for projects.

Duke University professor Avner Vengosh and his colleagues recently published the results of their study. He says it broadens their ability to assess and monitor exposure risks.

“What we are doing now is really doing the basics of trying to separate and protect the environment and humans from coal ash," says Vengosh. "And we have very cool and exciting new tools to show when you can see it in the environment or not.”

Vengosh says this new method "augments the suite of isotopic tracers we already have developed for tracking coal ash contamination in aquatic environments."

Researchers say it’s the first study to provide a systematic analysis of lead isotopes in coal fly ash from all three major U.S. coal-producing basins.

*You can follow WFDD’s Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

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