Scherer report omits student study results

hduncan@macon.comJuly 22, 2012 

A “scoping report” by the state Department of Public Health includes all previous research about the possible health effects of Monroe County’s Plant Scherer -- except for the results of a small air and water study conducted this spring by University of Georgia students at the request of the Sierra Club.

Before finalizing the report on one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country, state officials removed the UGA study. Ryan Deal, director of communications for the public health department, said this was because the study was part of a class project and did not meet the same level of scientific rigor as the other research in the report.

“We look at the scientific viability of the data,” said Scott Uhlich, the state environmental health director, noting that the results weren’t analyzed by a certified lab.

The students checked for -- but did not find -- clusters of heavy metal contamination in well water. State health department officials found the study’s air pollution testing inconclusive.

The exclusion of the data didn’t change the state’s recommendations or conclusions, Uhlich said.

Before the report was finalized, Jane Perry, program director for the department’s chemical hazards program, had said the same students were conducting additional sampling this summer that would be the basis for her department’s next step: a health consultation.

She noted the need for samples to be taken both upstream and downstream of groundwater flow from the plant, because this would clarify naturally occurring levels of heavy metals compared with anything the plant’s large coal ash pond might be contributing.

Uhlich said the health consultation would include results from current Environmental Protection Agency tests for radiological contaminants. He said if UGA student samples this summer turn up contamination problems or patterns, then that could indicate the need for someone else to pursue a formal research project with scientifically valid protocols and certified lab testing.

UGA researcher James Bevington said in any e-mail that graduate students will continue groundwater sampling through September.

He and Seth Gunning with the Sierra Club said the club is not involved in the project this time.

Gunning said he would like to know why the existing UGA research was left out of the scoping report.

Uhlich said the exclusion of the results had nothing to do with the Sierra Club’s involvement.

Some residents whose well water was tested as part of the study said at the time that they did not feel they could trust the UGA results because they believed Georgia Power had too much influence at the university.

The founding dean of the UGA College of Public Health, Phillip Williams, holds the Georgia Power Professorship of Environmental Health Science. He is also one of nine members of the board that governs the Georgia Department of Public Health, along with Robert Harshman, the medical director for Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Co.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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