BY KEN LITTLE
Groundwater testing will begin in October at four sites near the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) property and the Nolichucky River in Erwin in the aftermath of a massive sinkhole that recently opened close to an elementary school.
Park Overall, a Greene County environmental activist who is part of a movement opposed to the NFS operation, said she and several others met with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) commissioner recently in Nashville and received assurance that groundwater testing will be done soon at the four locations.
TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart confirmed Wednesday that Overall and other TDEC officials recently met "to discuss groundwater concerns in various areas, and a potential plan of action has been discussed."
"This plan of action does include a potential sampling event," Lockhart said in an e-mail response to questions.
The sinkhole "is outside of the wellhead protection area for the Erwin Railroad Well, which serves as a part of the public water supply for the town of Erwin," Lockhart said.
"TDEC staff also confirmed that the school and the sinkhole are up-gradient of the Nuclear Fuel Services facility.
"It should be noted that 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.
NFS officials have denied that the Unicoi County plant has anything to do with the opening of the giant sinkhole that developed Aug. 18 on the grounds of Love Chapel Elementary School less than a mile away from the facility, but uphill from it.
Dye placed in groundwater in the 120-foot-deep sinkhole before it was filled in migrated several days later to a site near Linear Park, close to the NFS property and the Nolichucky River.
CRACKS IN SCHOOL
The Unicoi County school is closed, and its students have been relocated.
An engineering report on the sinkhole says cracks have formed in the school building.
The sinkhole was filled in with rocks shortly after it appeared. Yellow dye placed in the groundwater that had collected at the bottom of the sinkhole showed up several days later in water downhill from the school near the Nolichucky River.
Overall and others maintain the groundwater contains radioactive materials from NFS and its predecessors. The nuclear fuels plant has operated at the Unicoi County site since the 1950s.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is also showing "extensive interest" in the monitoring process, Overall said.
The TDEC testing should begin in October, she said.
"Where we will test is where the dye is coming out," Overall said.
PONDS A CONCERN
Three decommissioned ponds on the NFS site that are below river level and unlined are of particular concern, Overall said.
"The three ponds in question are known to contain sludge and sediment contaminated with uranium, thorium, plutonium, lead, and nitrates. Formal characterization of sediments to qualify and quantify contaminants will no doubt result in a more extensive listing.
"These ponds have a direct connection to ground water, are adjacent to a major spring source (Banner Spring Branch), and are of dubious integrity if subjected to a major 20-year storm event and are upriver of Jonesborough's domestic water intake," according to 1986 Tennessee Department of Health and Environment office correspondence obtained by NFS critics.
In an e-mail Tuesday, NRC official Alan Blamey responded to Overall about comments she made last month about the sinkhole.
He answered a question asking why the NRC did not take a water sample from the sinkhole and analyze it for radioactivity.
"As you know, due to safety considerations associated with the sinkhole, local officials expedited filling and repair of the sinkhole," Blamey said.
NFS is located "down-gradient" from the sinkhole, Blamey said.
"Consequently, groundwater from the NFS site does not flow in the direction of the location of the sinkhole. Officials were able to inject a yellow dye into the sinkhole on (Aug. 18) in an attempt to monitor the water pathway. Subsequent detection of the yellow dye in local surface water confirmed that the NFS facility is located down-gradient from the sinkhole," Blamey said in the e-mail.
Opponents of NFS remain unconvinced.
NFS manufactures nuclear fuel for U.S. Navy submarines and surface ships. It is located near the Nolichucky River, 28 miles upstream from Greeneville. The river is the primary water supply for Greeneville.
That the NRC is still not testing groundwater "is beyond unacceptable. Where were all your on site inspectors?" Overall said in an e-mail to Blamey.