Employees of an Ohio landfill used primarily for disposing of toxic coal waste byproducts like coal ash were told that the waste was “safe enough to eat” and weren’t required to wear protective gear, resulting in numerous illnesses and some deaths, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of 77 people last month.
Doug Workman, a supervisor at the General James M. Gavin Residual Waste Landfill landfill in North Cheshire, Ohio, allegedly responded to worker inquiries about whether working with the coal waste was safe “by sticking his finger into the coal waste and then placing his fly-ash covered finger into his own mouth,” thereby implying that “that coal waste was ‘safe enough to eat,’” according to a report in the West Virginia Record. Both Workman and American Electric Power — the power company that owns the landfill — are targets of the lawsuit, which claims that workers who handled the waste were not adequately protected from its toxic properties.
“Repeatedly, individuals were not provided with protective equipment, such as overalls, gloves or respirators when working in and around coal waste,” the lawsuit reads. “These working men and women, already exposed to the contaminants at the job site, then, in turn, carried the coal waste home to their families on their clothes and shoes, thus even exposing family members to the deadly toxins.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 77 people, 39 of whom were direct employees of the landfill and others who claim they were harmed by contact with those employees. The West Virginia Record notes that most of the workers were actually employees of contractor companies that worked for AEP.
AEP owns the landfill because it is directly next to one of its coal-fired power plants, and is therefore used to dispose of the waste that comes from that plant. One of the biggest forms of waste from burning coal is called coal ash, which is usually stored with water in large ponds, or in landfills. The black sludgy substance is known to contain arsenic, lead, and mercury.
However, workers at the Gavin landfill were allegedly told that the coal ash was only a mixture of “water and lime,” and that it contained “such low levels of arsenic, it made no difference.” The workers were allegedly told that the “lime neutralizes the arsenic,” according the the Record’s report.
The lawsuit begs to differ. “Coal waste contains a multitude of contaminants that are dangerous to human health, and individuals can be exposed through contact on skin, inhalation and ingestion,” it reads. “These toxins have been shown to be directly related to incidences of cancer, respiratory disease, heart disease, chromosomal abnormalities and birth defects, among others.” In addition, the physician-led organization Physicians for Social Responsibility states that coal ash toxics “have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.”
For the time being, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. Instead, it is considered an “exempt waste” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. As of now, it’s the second-largest form of waste produced in the United States.