By LAURA GURFEIN
WASHINGTON (Dec. 11, 2009) - Gayle Queen is afraid her organs may fail, and her doctor says she's already in bad shape.
"My doctor told me I have the lungs of an 80-year-old woman," said Queen, 56, a nonsmoker.
The Gambrills resident testified on Capitol Hill Thursday that improper disposal of coal combustion waste, often referred to as fly ash, contaminated the water supply in her neighborhood and ruined her quality of life.
The Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering federal regulation for the lining used at dump sites. Some states have their own regulations in place now.
More than 4 million pounds of fly ash was dumped in an 80-acre site in Gambrills, where it contaminated the groundwater. Queen had been using water from a well on her property until 2007, when she was informed that it was unsafe for consumption.
The local power company, Constellation Energy, has been purchasing bottled water for residents for more than two years.
"Every two weeks I get bottled water to drink, bathe, do everything with," said Queen.
Constellation and the owner of the dump site have since been fined $1 million for the contamination, but Queen said the damage had already been done.
Since her husband died three years ago due to organ failure, Queen, who is unemployed, hasn't been able to make mortgage payments on her home.
"I may file for bankruptcy or foreclosure," she told the lawmakers.
As compelling as her story was, a scientist took the witness chair to cast doubt on fly ash's harm.
"I've seen people die a million different ways, but I've never seen somebody die due to coal ash," said Dr. Donald McGraw of Pittsburgh.
There has been evidence linking arsenic, which is found in fly ash, to cancer and diabetes, said another scientist.
"The contamination of the ground water may have been going on there for a long time and may still be going on," said Mary Fox, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Others who testified with Queen about the negative impact of fly ash on their lives included Raymond Hunt Jr. of Waterflow, N.M., who became so choked up during his testimony that his wife had to finish his statement.
"I was so weak, I couldn't stand or walk," said Hunt as he described the health problems he and his family suffered from contaminated water in the 1990s, including digestive problems and diarrhea. Some of his children experienced learning difficulties, and one son was in special education throughout high school.
Hunt's family meat business also was hurt. Within two years he lost all his sheep - approximately 1,400 - and was forced to take outside jobs.
Robyn Whitaker-Pierce of Chesapeake, Va., also testified that fly ash became a danger to her family's health. She said several families in her area had recently been diagnosed with various cancers and asthma.
Whitaker-Pierce's home equity has greatly depreciated, which she and her husband had counted on for retirement, and she is worried about how to pay for her sons' college education.
"We are literally held hostage in our homes, not at the barrel of a gun, but by a cesspool of hazardous materials," she said.
Queen said she is glad to have shared her story with the lawmakers.
"If nothing else, I think they heard us loud and clear," she said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.