State: Uranium in Juliette wells is from nature, not Scherer

mstucka@macon.comJune 30, 2013 

A draft state report places the blame for uranium-contaminated drinking water around Juliette squarely on Mother Nature rather than Plant Scherer.

The Department of Public Health report says wells around Juliette are more likely to have high levels of uranium than the rest of the state, and the highest levels found anywhere in Georgia have been found in Juliette.

The state agency said it looked at land use, water tests, lists of hazardous materials, industry regulations, geology and research before it “determined that uranium is naturally occurring at elevated levels in some areas of Georgia, including the Juliette area.”

The Telegraph received the draft report through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Some Juliette residents are working with attorneys from Macon and New York to sue Georgia Power and the owners of Plant Scherer, a large coal-fired plant that uses unlined ash storage ponds. They say the plant’s waste effectively concentrates uranium and other contaminants, which can then work their way into nearby wells, air and soil.

Brian Adams of Macon, an attorney working on the lawsuits, said the report doesn’t explain how the state is certain that the uranium is naturally occurring, which his own tests dispute. His cases involve numerous contaminants, not just uranium.

The report says that state tests of water discovered uranium at a level 97 times higher than allowed, alpha radioactivity at levels about 219 times higher than allowed, and radium 18 times higher than allowed.

Uranium is a naturally occurring element that emits radiation as it breaks down. Among the byproducts are radon, a radioactive gas that isn’t safe to breathe in concentration.

About two-thirds of Monroe County residents who had their indoor air tested had radon at undetectable levels. Of the others, however, high levels were found both around Juliette and across Monroe County, leading the state to recommend that all residents of Monroe County and even Georgia get their homes tested.

The state said there’s not enough uranium to cause non-cancerous health effects. The biggest cancer danger is with children 1 or 2 years old, or between 12 and 17, the report said. The state estimated the water from the wells outside contamination standards would cause more cancer -- perhaps between 1.2 and 53 cancers for every 10,000 people drinking it. The risks of dying from those cancers ranged from 0.8 deaths to 35 deaths for every 10,000 people.

The state found significantly higher cancer rates for men in Monroe County than the state average. The state reported that “People who consume water over a lifetime (70 years) from private wells with the highest level of radium found in Juliette may have an increased risk for developing cancer related to this exposure. Several cancer incidence rates were elevated for Monroe County; however, there are no cancer cases that can be attributed to radium or radon exposure.”

Water filtration can address the uranium contamination, but the state said few residents had been using filtration, bottled water or regular retests. A county sales tax and federal grant are helping build municipal water line extensions to residents in the area.

The report says the Georgia Environmental Protection Division tested drinking water wells at Plant Scherer for 27 metals, including uranium. None tested above the limits, with uranium in one case being found at about one-tenth the permitted rate. A separate test of the five wells run through the University of Georgia labs detected no uranium at all.

Adams said the uranium found in the well water isn’t like the uranium found in Juliette’s kinds of rocks.

“The isotope composition is not characteristic of it being naturally occurring here,” Adams said.

The lawsuits also complain about a wide range of contaminants concentrated by Plant Scherer, which it says is causing a broad variety of health problems.

“This stuff can affect your entire nervous system. It’s related to lung cancer, kidney cancer,” and plenty of other problems, Adams said.

The lawsuit claims Plant Scherer injects hazardous waste into the air and into the water by way of the unlined 750-acre ash disposal pond. That pollution includes heavy metals such arsenic, mercury, lead and uranium, the lawsuit says. The lawsuit also targets a Vulcan Materials Co. quarry in Juliette, which it says spreads pollutants including uranium.

Adams and other attorneys are fighting efforts to move the lawsuits to Monroe County. A judge may decide next week whether to leave the cases in DeKalb County State Court.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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