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State Finds No Health Impacts From Aurora Energy Plant

Usibelli Coal Mine

An analysis by the state finds no health impacts from coal ash and dust from the downtown Fairbanks Aurora Energy Plant. An Environmental Protection Agency contractor hired to investigate neighborhood contamination found dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons in soil, water, air and surface samples collected over 2 years. But State Environmental Health Program manager Ali Hamade says a recently released draft report indicates no health concerns. 
"All these concentrations of different metals and soil and water either did not exceed federal standards or did not exceed our health screening levels that are set by federal agencies," he said. 

Hamade says samples from two private properties did show elevated lead levels. "But it turns out that these residences do not have children living there, and the amounts of lead in the soil are not a concern for the adults," he said. 

Hamade says it is unclear if the lead is from the Aurora Energy Plant. The health impact analysis and environmental sampling it’s based on were carried out in response to a citizen petition from Theresa DeLima.

DeLima’s parents lived across from the Aurora Energy plant and suffered numerous illnesses that led to their deaths. DeLima blames exposure to coal ash and dust, and she’s not satisfied with the state health impact analysis. "I feel like they're just trying to pacify me and get me to stop talking about it," she said. 

DeLima says coal ash and dust continues to waft onto her parent’s property. "It's pretty amazing. I mean, the amount of black stuff that's blanketing that house and other properties, it's astounding," she said. 

Delima says she’s exploring an independent analysis and legal recourse. The state’s Hamade acknowledges that the environmental sampling was fairly limited, but the state’s finding of no health impacts are a relief to Aurora Energy President Buki Wright.

"That's what we believed would be the case and it appears that it is the case, and so we're pleased that we've been able to validate what we thought all along and have an independent group from the state government agree with that," Wright said.

Wright says the company is committed to running a cleaner operation and has two projects aimed at reducing coal dust and ash. "We'll blend the ash better before it comes out of the plant to go into the trucks that take it away from the plant, so that it's not as likely to create dust," he said. "We're also going to be enclosing some areas that would be more likely to present dust to the air, so that if dust were to escape it'll be in a controlled environment rather than out into the atmosphere and into the area around the plant."

Wright says Aurora is also moving toward having all the trucks used to move coal ash from the plant, enclosed to minimize any escape during transit. Coal ash is considered inert by the state and is widely used for subsurface fill. The E.P.A. is considering regulations for coal ash disposal, following several large spills in the lower 48. 

Dan has been in public radio news in Alaska since 1993. He’s worked as a reporter, newscaster and talk show host at stations in McGrath, Valdez and Fairbanks. Dan’s experience includes coverage of a wide range of topics, from wolf control to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and dog mushing.