BY KEN LITTLE
The results of groundwater testing done in October by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) at two sites, including one in Greene County, show no "demonstrated cause for concern to human health or the environment," a TDEC spokeswoman said this week.
The TDEC findings are strongly disputed by Park Overall, a Greene County environmental activist.
The testing was done at the request of Overall and other members of a local citizens group connected to the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network (ECAN) to see if contaminants from the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) facility can be linked to areas along the Nolichucky River downstream from the plant.
The locations of the TDEC samples taken were in Greeneville, in the backwater-tributary area near the intersection of the Asheville Highway and Victory Boulevard; and in Erwin in Unicoi County, at a backwater-tributary area of the Nolichucky River at the linear trail crossing.
SOIL, WATER SAMPLES
For comparison reasons, TDEC staff also collected radiological soil and water background samples on the Nolichucky River at the Chestoa Recreational Area, TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said in an email response to questions.
Five sample analytical results were reviewed, two of which were collected at locations under the citizens group's direction, Lockhart said.
"TDEC can report that none of these analytical results, nor other historical Nolichucky River water samples, indicate waste water discharge levels at or near regulatory legal limits or above regulatory guidance levels where regulatory limits have not been established," Lockhart said.
"Because these results are below regulatory limits and guidance levels, there is not a demonstrated cause for concern to human health or the environment," she said.
A third site near NFS in Erwin 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.
Overall said Wednesday in a telephone interview that the TDEC findings are inaccurate.
Samples collected from the same sites by a private professional water consultant and analyzed in a Colorado lab showed the presence of uranium-234, Overall said.
"My very extensive testing showed highly-enriched uranium-234. There is no amount of that that is acceptable, " she said.
"Why TDEC didn't find that is a little peculiar to me. The proof is, there is uranium-234 in these tests."
There is no standard method among government agencies of measuring the amounts of substances such as uranium-234, Overall said.
"No one's limit matches," she said. "Control measures each lab uses are different."
Lockhart said that in September 2012, TDEC met with Overall and several citizens connected to ECAN to discuss their concerns about alleged pollution discharges to the Nolichucky River and other areas.
Their specific concern is radionuclide discharges from the NFS facility.
"In particular, Ms. Overall indicated that sampling results generated by a third party have shown pollution from NFS in water and sediment extending 75 miles downstream to Douglas Lake.
"Unfortunately, those results were not shared with TDEC, and staff could not verify information. Nor could the results be produced upon request due to an ongoing lawsuit," Lockhart said.
U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer dismissed a civil lawsuit in December that included 143 plaintiffs. This was the suit to which Lockhart referred.
The lawsuit, filed in 2011, alleged that NFS and prior owners of the company had released or were releasing hazardous and radioactive substances into the environment, resulting in health problems and property damage.
Of 11 claims made in the lawsuit, Judge Greer dismissed 10 on the basis that state law is pre-empted by the federal Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act -- a federal law that defines and addresses the liability of all U.S. non-military nuclear facilities.
"The Act limited the civil liability of nuclear plant operators and provided federal funds to help pay damages caused by nuclear accidents," Greer's Dec. 21 ruling states.
The remaining claim was dismissed by Greer because plaintiffs failed to "prove a breach of the federal numerical dose limits," the judge wrote.
Overall said Wednesday that new lawyers will be hired to further the legal action.
Information in the lawsuit dismissed by Greer indicates that there is radioactive pollution related to NFS 100 miles downriver from the Unicoi County facility, she said.
"It's highly-enriched uranium, and it's been found all the way to the French Broad River," Overall said.
SAMPLING DONE OCT. 22
TDEC agreed to a sampling effort to address concerns of the local citizens group, Lockhart said.
The actual sampling event took place on Oct. 22, "and was conducted as a good-faith effort in response to the group's complaint," she said.
"It is important to note that NFS is allowed to legally discharge treated waste water per their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, including radionuclides.
"The permit establishes discharge levels that are considered protective of human health and the environment, the levels of which are established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and TDEC," Lockhart said.
NFS has denied that its Erwin operation causes any adverse health affects to the surrounding population.
"We remain committed to operating safely and securely, protecting our employees, the public, and the environment," Joe Henry, NFS president, said in late December in a news release in response to the dismissal of the civil lawsuit by Judge Greer.
Both water and sediment samples were taken at various locations, Lockhart said.
Two "split" samples were collected by both parties at locations selected by the citizens group.
TDEC's testing was for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and radionuclides, Lockhart said.
"As we've noted before, TDEC has conducted surface Nolichucky River water samples in proximity of NFS for a number of years and those results have not indicated contamination issues relating to the NFS facility," she said.
TDEC's samples were sent to the state Department of Health's Environmental Laboratory, Lockhart said.
"These results were collected, packed and shipped following appropriate method protocols and chain of custody procedures," Lockhart said.
The analyses were conducted and reported by the Tennessee Department of Health Laboratory, which is certified by the EPA, she said.