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Water testing for uranium expanding in Juliette

New water testing is under way in the Juliette area, where radioactive uranium contamination has been found in some residential wells.

University of Georgia graduate students are testing additional homes’ wells for heavy metals, and the Georgia Department of Public Health is starting broader radioactivity sampling Thursday at wells known to contain uranium or radon.

Tests in the last few years have revealed unsafe levels of these elements in well water or high levels of radon in the air of some Juliette 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 leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, the EPA says.

Juliette residents now rely on well water for drinking, although Monroe County is seeking a grant to help extend water lines to the area with the help of special purpose local option sales tax proceeds.

Since winter, the state public health department has been studying the uranium problem, as well whether some water contamination problems in Juliette might be related to a neighboring coal-fired power plant. The department is expected to release a “scoping report” on the possible health impacts of Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer within the next few days.

Uranium occurs naturally in the bedrock of the Piedmont region. Uranium and other heavy metals can also be a byproduct of burning some types of coal.

Preliminary results are now available from a public health survey conducted in February and March. Juliette area residents were asked to report on their health and health problems, focusing mostly on uranium and radon exposure.

Survey results

Jane Perry, program director for the department’s chemical hazards program, said preliminary health survey results do not indicate any clusters of illnesses or symptoms. The exception is that almost half of respondents reported high blood pressure.

About a quarter of respondents reported breathing or other respiratory problems.

Fewer than 10 reported cancer diagnoses, and only two were under age 50, Perry said. The kinds of cancer reported varied, and they tended to be the most common types.

Of the 52 survey participants, only about half had tested their well water for uranium, Perry said. She emphasized that all Juliette-area residents need to test their water for uranium.

About half of those whose water had been tested found more uranium than the government considers safe, Perry said.

Public health officials are in the process of analyzing the surveys geographically and for multiple factors. Final results are expected by the end of July, and participants who provided their addresses will receive a brief summary of the results.

Although the state’s analysis of the responses is wrapping up, Perry said the state has decided to reopen the survey period until Sept. 1 to get more data. Perry said the survey will be re-posted online at the end of the week at www.health.state.ga.us/programs/hazards.

Juliette resident Donna Welch expressed surprise that the surveys haven’t shown patterns in health problems among her neighbors, because she has heard multiple people complain of skin irritations, nosebleeds, scalp sores, and respiratory and kidney problems. But she also said she knows many people who never returned their surveys this spring.

“I think it’s great they’re giving people a second chance to do the survey,” said Welch, whose well water has more than 20 times the safe limit for uranium. She has become a community activist, encouraging neighbors to get their water tested, too.

New water testing

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has offered free testing on wells where uranium or radon has already been identified, Perry said. These tests will check for a broader array of radioactive isotopes. The samples will be taken through July by public health workers and analyzed at an EPA lab.

Dana Lynch, the Monroe County cooperative extension agent, said that more than 700 Monroe County residents have now had their water tested for uranium. Of those, 34 were above the safe level, and 53 more had detectable levels of uranium.

So far, 23 homeowners have taken the offer for more extensive testing, but Perry said she expects even more. Resources are available to conduct 50 of the tests, but Perry said the state could probably find the resources to squeeze in more if there is interest.

Welch is one of the residents whose water will be tested Thursday. She said she is curious whether the drought may concentrate the contamination and whether her well contains unusual radioactive isotopes. She already knows it is tainted not only with uranium but radon, and the family switched to bottled water a year ago.

Radon in water can become breathable when water turns to steam, so Welch’s family must open the windows every time someone showers -- not a cheap proposition in summer heat.

Some University of Georgia graduate students are conducting separate water tests for heavy metals at other residential wells in the vicinity of Plant Scherer. Perry said she expects the results to be provided to the Georgia Department of Public Health afterward.

UGA students conducted about a dozen of these tests earlier this spring at the request of the Sierra Club, which had been contacted for help by some Juliette residents who live nearest to Plant Scherer. Those residents were concerned that the plant or its unlined coal ash pond were causing or worsening local water contamination.

Initial samples taken at homes nearest the 750-acre coal ash pond found just a few cases of slight metals contamination, according to the report released last month by the UGA researchers. But those wells were north and east of the plant and its pond, and the report recommended further testing to the south and southeast because that is the direction of groundwater flow.

In the meanwhile, Monroe County officials await news on a grant before proceeding with water line extensions to the affected area.

Chan Layson, senior government services specialist for the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, said he expects to hear by September whether Monroe County will receive a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to provide water service to residents of Old Dames Ferry Road.

If the county receives the grant, it would likely sell bonds to afford extending pipes across the county first, allowing others with contaminated water to tap on, said county administrator Anita Cauthen. The county would likely pay off the bonds using the proceeds from a SPLOST that begins in 2014.

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

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