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Ecological health of East Fork Poplar Creek continues to improve

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Aquatic biologists have continued to document long-term improvement in the ecological health of East Fork Poplar Creek. The stream originates within the Y‑12 National Security Complex and flows through the City of Oak Ridge.  During the Cold War era, it sustained substantial contamination as a result of nuclear weapons production at Y-12.

Substantial increases in the number of fish and other aquatic life, especially those that are more sensitive to pollution, have been found in the latest studies performed. This year marks the first time a regionally rare fish species, the tangerine darter (Percina aurantiaca), has been found in the creek. In 2002, the federally threatened spotfin chub (Erimonax monachus) was collected.

The most recent detailed study of the status of the creek, conducted by researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), was reported Tuesday evening at the State of the Creek presentation held at Y-12’s New Hope Center. ORNL biologist Mark Peterson reported information from the 2011 study, showing multiple positive trends.  

The ongoing recovery of East Fork Poplar Creek can be largely attributed to the numerous environmental improvement projects, pollution prevention measures and remedial actions undertaken at Y‑12 since the mid-1980s. For many years, there has been a special emphasis at Y‑12 to reduce the impact on receiving streams of legacy contaminants, particularly mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Since the mid-1980s, ORNL researchers associated with the Y‑12 Biological Monitoring and Abatement Program (BMAP) have monitored the health of stream fish and benthic communities in East Fork Poplar Creek. This long-term biological monitoring program has been successful over the years in documenting the effects of Y‑12 remedial actions in restoring the ecological health of the stream and indicating areas where further improvement is needed.

These data are reported to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and other regulatory agencies, as stipulated in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit that became effective December 1, 2011.

Although the improvements in the biological communities of East Fork Poplar Creek are welcome news, challenges to further recovery in the creek remain. For example, mercury levels continue to be elevated in East Fork Poplar Creek fish, despite significant reductions of mercury concentrations in water. As with other mercury contaminated sites across the nation, reducing mercury concentrations in fish to acceptable levels will continue to be a challenging task.

With effective environmental programs at Y‑12, such as the BMAP and Environmental Officer Program, which involves every organization within the site in achieving environmental objectives, and with various large-scale environmental remediation, decontamination and decommissioning activities planned in the future, further recovery of the creek is anticipated.

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B&W Y-12, a limited liability enterprise of The Babcock and Wilcox Company and Bechtel National Inc., was selected to operate the Y-12 National Security Complex for the National Nuclear Security Administration in 2000. Y-12 maintains and enhances the safety, security, effectiveness and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile; reduces the global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and provides expertise and training to respond to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad. Visit http://www.y12.doe.gov/ for more information.