Results from a University of Georgia student study released this week did not show widespread heavy metal contamination in residential wells closest to a Monroe County coal-fired power plant.
But the study suggests further sampling is needed south and southeast of Plant Scherer, because thats the direction groundwater appears to flow from beneath a 900-acre, unlined pond of coal ash waste.
The sampling, most of the testing, and the analysis of well water and airborne dust were conducted by UGA students at the request of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. The project was part of field work for several classes to practice study design and testing. The club did not pay for the study, UGA officials said.
Seth Gunning, a conservation organizer for the Sierra Club of Georgia, said individual results from the study were sent back to well owners, although many said Thursday they had not yet received them.
The research was spurred by increasing concern from some Juliette residents who live near the plant, which is majority-owned by Georgia Power, about the potential effects of Scherers coal ash pond on their health. More than 30 Monroe County residents, many living southeast of the plant, have found unsafe levels of uranium in their water during the past 18 months.
Coal ash ponds and piles, where power plants place whats left after burning coal to make electricity, are known to contain heavy metals and uranium in varying amounts. Some of these elements also occur naturally in the rock beneath the Piedmont. But federal and state rules require no regular testing of ground water near the ponds.
In April, Georgia Power took four water samples on its property, which were all found to be safe for drinking.
The small UGA study tested 11 wells as well as small airborne dust particles found on 14 road signs near Plant Scherer.
Greater amounts of heavy metals were found on signs in the path of prevailing winds from the plant, the study found. In almost every case, the amount of metals in the dust samples dropped the farther away from the plant the sample was taken. The metal antimony showed the highest correlation with distance from the plant. Breathing high levels of antimony for a long time can cause heart, lung and stomach problems, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Sampling the air directly is recommended for a future study, the report states.
Repeatedly the report emphasizes that it cannot draw conclusions about whether pollution found came from Plant Scherer. The tests were done by students, not an accredited lab.
But Gunning was willing to go further.
The air results confirm what study after study has shown: Air emissions from Plant Scherer are affecting the Juliette community, he said.
Well water tests
UGA students tested 11 residential wells on Luther Smith Road and U.S. 87 opposite Plant Scherer for the heavy metals boron, chromium, strontium, cobalt, molybdenum, copper, zinc, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium, barium, cadmium, thallium and antimony.
We chose heavy metals because theyre a physical fingerprint of coal ash, said lead investigator James Bevington, a UGA graduate student.
Two wells had levels of chromium exceeding state and federal safe limits, with the highest measurement almost twice the safe limit, the study reported. Ingesting high levels of chromium may result in anemia or damage to the stomach or intestines, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
However, a Georgia Power map showing ground water flow in the area indicates the water flows south and southeast rather than north, toward Luther Smith Road, or east, toward the portion of U.S. 87 where tests were conducted, the report indicates. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that the source of these metals was operations at Plant Scherer, the study states.
The study doesnt rule out a connection, however. The well sampling report notes that metals could move upstream, and that Georgia Powers ground water flow information covers only part of the area where wells were tested.
Bevington recommended further well water sampling south of the plant and said a geologic survey would help identify natural sources of heavy metals in the soil and ground water.
Aaron Thompson, UGA assistant professor of environmental science, said one or more of the UGA students are interested in continuing the project, but a source of funding is needed.
Gunning said he hopes the Sierra Club will be able to arrange more well water testing south and southeast of the plant.
We are committed to working with communities affected by toxic coal-pollution to help residents gain access to necessary information to protect their families, Gunning wrote in an e-mail.
Gunning said he was glad the initial water tests came out mostly clean.
I was really concerned we were going to find a pervasive problem, he said. Hopefully some people in this area will find a little bit of relief.
Gunning said the UGA report will be shared with state public health officials who plan to conduct a scoping process this month about Plant Scherers health effects. That process seeks to identify what information is needed to gauge whether the plant could be harming its neighbors, and could lead to a broader public health study related to Scherer.
Both the scoping report and the results of a separate community health survey related to uranium exposure in Monroe County are expected to be complete near the end of June, said Jane Perry, director of the chemical hazards program in the state public health department.
To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.