Officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health decided this week it will gather all available information about pollution from Plant Scherer in Juliette and its potential health effects on nearby residents.
This scoping document would identify what information might still be needed to understand the public health impact of the plant. It could be the first step toward an in-depth public health assessment of Scherers impacts, with recommendations for action, said Carla Coley, environmental director for the North Central Health District.
Coley said the district, which includes Monroe County, has conducted such assessments before for Superfund sites such as the Woolfolk Chemical site in Fort Valley and the Powersville Landfill in Peach County.
Georgia Power is the primary owner of Plant Scherer, believed to be the largest coal-fired power plant in the country.
Many Juliette residents have found unsafe levels of radioactive uranium and radon in their well water, or elevated radon levels in the air of their homes. Digesting uranium can cause kidney dysfunction, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Airborne radon, which can seep into homes through tiny cracks in the foundation, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer and is the leading cause among nonsmokers, the EPA says.
Public health officials have said uranium and its byproducts occur naturally in the rocks of the Piedmont region.
Coley acknowledged that few Georgia wells outside Monroe County have been tested, which limits understanding of what naturally occurring uranium levels might be. But Monroe County uranium levels are similar to those found in parts of Tennessee and South Carolina that have the same geology, she said.
At recent public meetings on the topic, some residents voiced concern that the uranium contamination might be caused or worsened by Plant Scherers unlined coal ash pond. Every year the plant puts thousands of pounds of heavy metals and acids into the pond, one of the largest of its kind in the country.
It is felt the coal ash pond and naturally occurring uranium are, on the surface, two separate issues, Coley said.
However, she said, Whether or not the plant is adding to the uranium groundwater issue is something we would like to know, and we feel very strongly that public health needs to take the lead in finding that out.
Jennifer Jones, public information officer for the North Central Health District, said a recent CNN news story made public health officials more aware of some Juliette residents fears about the plants health effects.
We exist to protect our community, and if our communities are concerned, we want to look into it, she said.
Mark Williams, a Georgia Power spokesman, said, at Scherer and all our other plants, our priority is to provide safe electricity for our community. We live here, too, and were not aware of any health issue related to Plant Scherer.
Williams said Georgia Power officials have seen several studies related to uranium in the area that all concluded it was naturally occurring. In addition, he said, Georgia Power and the state Environmental Protection Division tested groundwater samples from a well by the plant in 2008 and conducted chemical, physical, microbiological and radiological tests on them, finding nothing unsafe.
EPD officials who could answer questions about testing around the ash pond could not be reached this week.
The scoping report will look at potential sources of exposure to pollutants from Scherer -- not only ground water, but through air and other routes -- and identify where there are gaps where we need further data and what we need to do to obtain that data, Coley said. She said public health officials plan to meet with state and federal environmental enforcement agencies as well as Plant Scherer officials.
Eventually, the department plans to include community groups, the University of Georgia cooperative extension and the local health department to the discussions.
Coley said someone asked about the coal ash pond at a recent public meeting in Juliette, but the response was that it was not a likely source of groundwater contamination.
I did not give it very much thought after that, because I thought, that (ponds) going to be lined anyway and be heavily regulated, Coley said.
But neither federal nor state rules require groundwater monitoring around the unlined pond.
After the massive 2008 failure of a coal ash pond in Harriman, Tenn., which buried homes and miles of river, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that would have required groundwater monitoring around coal ash ponds. But two years later, they still havent been finalized. Environmental groups have filed legal notice with EPA that they plan to sue to force the government to act.
EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young said the EPA could become further involved if state officials request it. For example, the EPA could require groundwater testing around the ash pond.
Harris-Young said the EPA involvement might partly depend on the outcome of a public health survey the state Department of Public Health recently conducted.
The surveys, which were distributed in Monroe County in February and March, asked residents to report on their health and health problems, focusing mostly on uranium and radon exposure.
Jane Perry, director of the chemical hazards program in the state public health department, said about 55 surveys -- or about 25 percent of those distributed -- were returned, which she called a very good response rate.
Perry said health officials have not yet reviewed the survey responses. They eventually will be included in the scoping document.
If survey results warrant it, the state could undertake a cluster investigation, which examines whether environmental factors are causing a cluster of illnesses.
Perry said significant triggers for a cluster investigation include high numbers of people experiencing the same specific complaint or symptom, such as dizziness; people with rare diseases or conditions; and people being diagnosed with a disease they wouldnt normally have, like young nonsmokers getting lung cancer.
She said the public health department could decide to conduct a second, more specific health survey focused on the people who live closest to Plant Scherer and on chemicals that are known to be produced by the plant.
Then wed see what chemicals are in the environment and what systems they affect, Perry said.
Coley said public health officials plan to start work on the scoping document June 1 and complete it in about a month. But any residents who want to share information or concerns can contact Margaret Gunter at the district health department any time by calling (478) 751-6113 or (478) 952-4703, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.