Updated: Jan 27

Biomass power plants are controversial. While it might be economically advantageous to burn scrap wood and railroad ties, the health risks far outweigh any economic gain.

Statement from the American Lung Association

The main risks to health from burning “clean” biomass are the unhealthy gases that it gives off and the particulate matter that escapes into the air. Several national health organizations, including the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association are on record as being opposed to biomass plants. Their emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, along with their release of large amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter pose serious health risks."

12/5/19 Presentation by David Ramsey, MPH

My part of the presentation is to inform you about the characteristics of the railroad crossties and other products being burned at the GRP plants, and the toxic effects on our health from their handling, burning, and leaching into our environment. I will also report on what a number of state and national health organizations have said about burning biomass and their announcements to the public about the resulting health hazards.

Let’s start with creosote, one of the hazardous substances that has already been mentioned. The creosote that goes into the crossties is referred to as coal tar, or coal tar creosote. It is a syrupy, semisolid mix of many chemicals that is put into the railroad tie by one of several processes.

How much creosote is in each one of the crossties? According to the Railway Tie Association, which is an industry group that has represented railway crosstie manufacturers and marketers for over a hundred years, the average new crosstie has 20 pounds or more of creosote in it. The Railway Tie Association knows a lot about railroad crossties and one of the things they have studied is how long the creosote stays in the crosstie throughout its life of service. What they determined is that on average, a crosstie loses about one percent of its creosote each year over its lifetime. So, a crosstie that is 25 years old would lose about 25% of its creosote. That means that on average a crosstie being taken out of service at 25 years will still have 75% of its creosote contained in the tie. That works out to about 15 pounds, on average, of creosote that will be in each railroad tie like the ones you have seen stacked on the property of the biomass plants. So, if there are 1000 railroad ties stacked up on the plant site, there is about 15,000 pounds of creosote sitting at the site in those crossties (about ¾ of a ton of creosote). You may have heard reports of a study done in North Carolina that says that used railroad ties only have about 6% of their creosote remaining at the end of their service life. We have made efforts to find that study, but the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Railway Tie Association, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services have not yet been able to direct us to such a study.

Dr. Vogel mentioned that creosote itself is a known human carcinogen. There is widespread agreement within the health community about that. He also mentioned that creosote contains many compounds within it, and when heated they rapidly break up and form different gases. At least nine of these gases, and as many as eight others, are also recognized within the health community as known or suspected human carcinogens on their own. These volatile organic compounds that are burned off as gases make up about 85% of the creosote. They have been known not only to cause cancer, but also many lung and respiratory system diseases like asthma, also heart and cardiovascular disease, and diseases of the stomach, intestines, liver, and kidney. Creosote and some of its components have been shown in studies to be stored in body fat and can remain there for a long time. Creosote has also been found in breast milk, and studies show that it can cross the placental barrier and go into the tissues of the unborn child.

So how does creosote get into our bodies? The creosote and its gases get into our bodies in three different ways. One way it can enter is through direct contact with the creosote, by handling railroad ties or dust from the railroad ties containing the creosote, or by having our skin exposed to the soot or gases coming from creosote.

A second way it can be absorbed into our bodies is through swallowing creosote in the dust from the grinding or sawing of creosote crossties, or through ingestion of soil or water that has been contaminated by creosote. Plant workers are especially at risk to dust that is contaminated by creosote. Some places where creosote has been stored such as crosstie treatment plants have seen contamination of the well water in the vicinity. It can also be ingested by eating plants or animals that have been exposed to creosote in the air, water, or soil. Creosote is hazardous to other species besides humans, and it is especially toxic to aquatic species like fish and shellfish. When creosote gets into the water it can stay there for a long time because it forms a tarry sludge on the bottom and slowly releases contaminants.

The third route of entry into our bodies by creosote is through inhalation. Again, workers who handle the railroad ties are at high risk of inhalation of creosote through inhalation of the dust when the ties are ground, through being constantly in the vicinity of the fumes from the ties, and from being in the immediate vicinity of the plant’s stack. Workers at the plant face many health threats due to the creosote, and they must be fully protected at all times, and their families must also be protected due to the risk of transmission of creosote on the worker’s clothing, hair, and skin. Most of us will not be in direct contact with the railroad ties. But the risks of inhalation are very high because the toxic gases enter the body very easily. When the gases are released from the stack at the plant, they will be dispersed into the community, and we will breathe them in throughout the day and every day in various concentrations, depending on our exposure. Some of the toxic gases will be trapped by the plant’s pollution control devices. But some of the gases will escape the traps and exit the stack into the air. Several of these gases are very hazardous to our health even in small quantities, and as I said before, they can accumulate within our bodies over time.

An additional ingredient that is dangerous to be inhaled is the soot and ash that is created by the burning of the woody part of the railroad ties and the wood chips and construction debris. When these are burned part of the burned wood drops through the grate and is captured within the plant. Part of the burned wood leaves the stack as soot or ash. Some of the soot and ash is trapped by the plant’s pollution control devices, and some escapes into the air. The soot is called “particulate matter” as a general term. Particulate matter is of different sizes coming from the stack. Most of the particulate matter that will be released from the plant is small particulates. The smaller the particulate matter the deeper it can go into the lungs when breathed in. So when particulate matter is inhaled by us, or by our animals or pets, or when it lands in our environment, it can be easily absorbed and can cause several serious health effects, especially diseases of the heart and lungs. Particulate matter can be especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and those persons with existing health problems like asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes. In addition, the toxic gases that are being released with the particulate matter can attach to it, and take a ride on it for long distances, depending on the direction of prevailing winds. So you can be exposed to the particulate matter and the toxic gases even if you are a long distance away.

I would like to mention something that hasn’t gotten much attention, because we have been focusing on creosote-treated railroad ties. GRP also received a permit to burn other types of railroad ties.. They will have different mixtures of several chemicals. The mixtures are creosote mixed with borate, copper mixed with napthenate, and copper mixed with napthenate and borate. The creosote-borate railroad ties are considered toxic due to the creosote as described earlier. The copper-napthenate railroad ties are considered moderately toxic, and precautions are recommended for workers handling these ties. The railroad ties containing copper, napthenate, and borate have health effects similar to the copper-napthenate ties. Inhalation of the fumes from these ties can cause headache, nausea, and nasal congestion.

Because all of these railroad ties are toxic to aquatic species, the government has recommended that the ties be stored at least 100 feet from any pond, river, or stream. They should not be stored on bare ground, runoff should be prevented, and the ties should be covered to prevent rain exposure.

Some treated wood that is not a crosstie (wood labeled as construction and demolition material) that may be received as biomass at the plant can also be very hazardous. Wood treated with a solution of chromium copper arsenate (CCA) is very hazardous to health. Since the treatment of wood with this mixture was banned for residential use in 2003, it may not be received in large quantities. But wood coming from tear down of buildings could be in the feed mix. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen and could be a threat to plant workers if they handle it without protection. It is extremely dangerous if it gets into the water supply because drinking arsenic in very small amounts can affect many of our vital organs. Another treated wood that could be hazardous and be received at the plant is wood treated with pentachlorophenol, or “Penta” or PCP as it is sometimes called. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated penta as a probable human carcinogen. Penta treated wood has been banned for public use since 1984, so it is likely to be in the plant’s feed mix in very low quantities as tear down from older buildings. Plant workers are most at risk for exposure, but penta treated wood can be released into the atmosphere and inhaled. Long term exposure to penta can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. We are concerned that workers processing the wood at the power plant are not adequately protected from these health risks.

The plant was originally approved to burn “clean” biomass. Creosote added to the biomass makes it much more dangerous to health. Many health organizations have determined that creosote is a suspected or known human carcinogen. The EPA still stands by its statement, in place since 1988, that “the potential for many types of hazardous pollutants to be included with creosote wastes seriously diminishes the potential for recycling or reuse”. This statement, which is still on the EPA website, contradicts the allowance made in 2016 to define creosote treated crossties as a non-hazardous wood that can be recycled. Before 2016 the creosote crossties could not be burned at the Franklin County and Madison County plants because EPA said they were too hazardous to health. Now they can be burned. What has changed? Nothing, except the definition of what type of solid waste it is. Despite the contradiction in the EPA statements, many other government health agencies are on record about the health risks. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry agrees with other health agencies that creosote is a suspected or known carcinogen. The International Agency on Cancer Research recently upgraded its statement on creosote from a probable human carcinogen to a known human carcinogen. The same Agency has also declared particulate matter to be a suspected human carcinogen. The National Institutes of Health has determined that creosote as coal tars are known to be human carcinogens based on sufficient studies in humans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program classifies coal tar and coal tar pitches to be known human carcinogens, and has also declared that 15 of the toxic gases contained in creosote are reasonably expected to be human carcinogens.

An additional pollutant from the plant is noise pollution. Noise is measured in decibels. Evening and night time noise is considered most threatening to health as compared to the same day time noise. Noise below 30 decibels is thought to be of no threat to health. Noise levels from 30 to 40 decibels can have moderate effects, such as disturbing sleep. Children, the elderly, and persons who are chronically ill can be more adversely affected. Between 40 and 55 decibels, there can be short- and long-term health effects depending on the frequency and duration of the noise. Annoyance, sleep deprivation, and increases in blood pressure have been shown. Children have been affected and have shown that attention and concentration at school are affected. Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) can occur between 40 and 55 decibel exposures. Above 55 decibels, there can be serious health problems. Long term exposure can lead to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, mental health problems, and possibly endocrine problems such as diabetes. Hearing loss, falls, and accidents are often associated with this level of exposure. The EPA and the World Health Organization have established that exposure to noise beyond 70 decibels for a 24-hour period is related to severe health effects, depending on frequency and duration of exposure, and community and personal preventive measures are highly recommended.

The main risks to health from burning “clean” biomass are the unhealthy gases that it gives off and the particulate matter that escapes into the air. Many health organizations are on record as being opposed to biomass plants in general because of the serious dangers to health. Several national health organizations, including the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, are in opposition to biomass plants in general because of their emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, along with their release of large amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. We have provided a handout with a statement from several national health organizations who are opposed to the burning of biomass because of the serious health effects on individuals and the community.

In summary, we hope that you are now more aware of the dangers posed by the burning of biomass, creosote-treated railroad ties, and other railroad ties also treated with toxic materials, that you are aware of the very serious risks of exposure to these toxins and the particulate matter that can carry them long distances, and is a toxic substance in its own right, and of the dangers that creosote and its gaseous components pose to our land, air, and water. You are now aware that GRP has not shown that it can verify which of each month’s tons of VOC’s that are coming from the plant’s stack are one or more of the gases that are considered human carcinogens, nor can GRP tell us how much of the runoff from the stored crossties is entering our groundwater and our streams.



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