State health officials recommend further tests on home wells

The Georgia Department of Public Health released a “scoping report” late last week that gathered available research about the possible health impacts of Plant Scherer on its Monroe County neighbors.

The report found that groundwater contamination near the plant from uranium and other heavy metals probably occurs naturally. But because there is little data available, it calls for further residential well water testing.

The report also says that public health officials will consult with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and other experts about modeling and sampling that could help determine “whether a potential air exposure pathway exists at levels of health concern.”

The report was compiled after some Juliette-area residents voiced fears about health risks posed by the plant or its unlined coal ash pond, both of which are among the largest in the country. The plant is operated and partly owned by Georgia Power.

Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said the company will be providing comments on the report to the state public health department this week. Georgia Power officials saw the draft of the report before it was finalized, he said, but did not suggest changes. Robert Uhlich, the state environmental health director, said the report is final and the company’s comments won’t affect it.

During the past 18 months, dozens of 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 leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, the EPA says.

Uranium (and radon, which is created when uranium breaks down) is common in the underground rocks of the Piedmont region, the report notes.

But coal ash, a by-product of burning coal to make electricity, also concentrates the heavy metals and uranium contained in the source coal.

The scoping report indicates that there is not enough information available for the health department to determine whether illnesses are happening as a result of exposure to contaminants in air or water near the plant.

“The limited data available do not indicate that humans are being or have been exposed to levels of contamination that would be expected to cause adverse health effects,” the report states.

The report also states that when additional groundwater data become available, the state will conduct a “health consultation” -- a thorough investigation of an environmental exposure route, in this case groundwater. State health officials will produce a document detailing all available groundwater sampling results, plus health outcome data and community concerns, said Jane Perry, program director for the department’s chemical hazards program.

Additional groundwater data will likely come from well water tests being conducted at an EPA lab for radioactive isotopes of uranium and radium, as well as any other reliable water test results that come in, Uhlich said.

The health consultation will combine that information with health outcome data, such as the results of a community health survey the public health department has conducted related to uranium and radon, Perry said. While initial survey results are being analyzed now, the department plans to soon reopen the survey to get more responses.

The consultation would also include information culled from a state database that tracks the incidence of certain diseases and treatments, such as cancer diagnoses or emergency room visits related to kidney problems, Perry said.

Uhlich said the consultation will likely be completed early next year.

Types of pollution

The report states that at the time of the 2010 Census, 1,385 people in 582 households were living within a mile of the perimeter of Plant Scherer, including 248 women of child-bearing age, 206 elderly people and 120 children younger than age 6.

The report focuses more on groundwater contamination, which is a known problem in the area, than on air pollution. It notes that Georgia Power is in the process of adding more pollution controls to reduce its output of ozone-forming gases and mercury. But it does not really address fine particle pollution, another major form of air pollution that can cause heart and lung problems.

Perry said this is partly because detailed information about that would require sophisticated monitoring and wind modeling. That would probably have to be supplied by the EPA or another federal partner, she said. The closest fine particle pollution monitor is 20 miles away in Macon.

The report states that residents concerned about air pollution from the plant should contact the state Environmental Protection Division or their physician.

Seth Gunning, with the Sierra Club, said he thought the air pollution from the plant received short shrift in the report.

“That was the one thing I was a little taken aback by,” he said.

He said the Sierra Club provided ample research to the public health department about the effects of air pollution, particularly fine particles, from burning coal.

“It’s a very well-researched topic,” he said. “And for people who live around Plant Scherer, it’s very obvious that some kind of particulate matter is coming onto people’s properties.”

New information on environmental sampling

Public health officials compiling the scoping report received a tour of Plant Scherer from Georgia Power officials and reviewed groundwater sampling data the plant has submitted to regulators.

Neither the state nor the federal government requires groundwater sampling around the unlined coal ash pond, but sampling is required around a landfill Georgia Power built in 2009 to hold mostly wet gypsum, another by-product of energy generation at the plant. The report indicates there has been regular water sampling at 20 locations around the gypsum storage area, which is south of the coal ash pond and appears to be in the trajectory of groundwater flowing from beneath the pond.

Steve McManus, an advanced geologist in the EPD industrial waste unit, said, “The data from the landfill monitoring system may be somewhat useful, but I don’t think it would be appropriate to draw conclusions from it with confidence as you could if you had a monitoring system designed for the coal ash pond.

Early rounds of sampling at the landfill wells found that the amount of 13 heavy metals, such as vanadium and lead, were within Georgia’s standards for safe drinking water, the scoping report states.

The wells are now tested twice a year, said Mike Kemp, manager of the EPD industrial solid waste unit. The most recent samples were in compliance.

Georgia Power spokeswoman Valerie Hendrickson said the company also monitors three drinking water wells on the plant property for inorganic metals and other man-made contaminants every three years.

Surface water points around the gypsum landfill are monitored semiannually for some contaminants, and surface water is also checked for inorganic and organic pollutants every five years as part of the company’s wastewater discharge permit, she said.

(More frequent surface water monitoring also occurs for water characteristics such as temperature and acidity, and more frequent groundwater monitoring covers bacteriological and other contaminants such as lead, Hendrickson said. These types of contamination have not been widely reported in Juliette wells.)

The scoping report summarizes other environmental sampling, studies and test results. Among them, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s environmental radiation program sampled five drinking water wells on Georgia Power property around the plant. The samples were tested for gross alpha particles and radioactivity.

One sample taken at Dames Ferry Park on Lake Juliette found both, but in amounts far less than the amount the government considers unsafe, the report states.

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

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