BY KEN LITTLE
Groundwater testing was done this week by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) at two sites, including one in Greene County, at the request of a local citizens group.
The testing was done in an attempt to see if contaminants from the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) facility in Erwin can be linked to areas along the Nolichucky River downstream from the plant, Greene County resident Park Overall said.
A third site near NFS was tested by an environmental consultant from Nashville hired by the citizens' group, but not by TDEC.
TDEC officials were accompanied by members of the local citizens group concerned about potential contamination coming from NFS, which is located near the Nolichucky River about 28 miles upstream from Greeneville.
Drinking water for Greeneville and Jonesborough is drawn from the river.
NFS manufactures uranium fuel for the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships.
Critics of the facility claim that radiological contamination has leached into groundwater and soils well downriver of the plant, contributing to high incidences of some types of cancer.
NFS officials maintain that the operation is safe and has not contaminated surrounding areas.
GROUP ASKS FOR TESTS
TDEC consented to do groundwater testing after requests by the citizens group.
One of the sites where samples were taken was on a private property off the Asheville Highway, on land near the Davy Crockett Lake dam, Overall said.
The site is a "backwater/tributary area near the intersection of the Asheville Highway and Victory Boulevard," TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said in an e-mail.
The other two sites were in Erwin.
One of the Erwin sites was at a backwater/tributary area of the river at the Linear Trail crossing, where dye from groundwater migrated from a giant sinkhole that opened up in August on the grounds of Love Chapel Elementary School.
The other site was near Martin's Creek, which is close to the NFS property, Overall said.
Samples were not taken by TDEC at the Martin's Creek site, but the private environmental consultant did testing at all three sites, Overall said.
The consultant should be able to provide his findings within a few weeks, Overall said.
"Monday's TDEC samples will be sent to the (state) Department of Health's Environmental Laboratory. It will take several weeks for those results," Lockhart said.
TDEC had planned to test four sites, but time ran out on Monday. TDEC will return for more testing, Overall said.
Previous testing has turned up radioactive material off the NFS site, including near the Nolichucky River dam in Greene County, Overall said.
"We've already found highly-enriched uranium," she said.
She said she is confident the tests done Monday will turn up evidence of other radioactive substances, including plutonium and thorium.
NFS officials have said that there is no contamination offsite.
"We weren't involved, so I would defer to TDEC for comment," NFS spokeswoman Lauri Turpin said Thursday in response to an e-mail request for comment.
Lockhart explained that the TDEC sampling "was conducted as a good-faith effort in response to a complaint.
"We were approached by Park Overall and a local citizens group regarding their concerns about contamination in the Nolichucky River from the NFS facility. TDEC agreed to this sampling effort to address those concerns," Lockhart said.
She said that water and sediment samples were taken at various locations chosen by the citizens group.
"The samples will be 'split' with the citizens group's own consultant," Lockhart said.
She noted that only two split samples were collected by both parties, not including the Martin Creek site.
On Tuesday, TDEC officials collected radiological soil and water background samples from the Nolichucky River at the Chestoa Recreational Area "for comparison reasons," Lockhart said.
"TDEC's testing (Monday) was for Volatile Organic Compounds and radionuclides.
"As we've noted before, TDEC has conducted surface water samples in this area for a number of years, and those results have not indicated contamination issues relating to the NFS facility," she said.
Other sample locations were proposed, Lockhart explained, but several factors, including proposed sites being on private property, the absence of water flow, and heavy vegetation prevented other split samples from being collected.
Also this week, the go-ahead for a pilot study to determine cancer risk in the population surrounding the NFS plant was given by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The NRC action followed up a recommendation by a National Academy of Sciences committee, to determine cancer risk in populations surrounding the NFS plant and six commercial U.S. nuclear power plants in other states.