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By DAMON LAWRENCE
TVA was allowed to review the Tennessee Department of Health’s draft health assessment of the fly ash catastrophe before it was released to the public on Tuesday. TVA is not mentioned among the agencies that reviewed the assessment in the state’s press release.
“The draft ... has already undergone government review by Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, TDEC, ATSDR and EPA to ensure accuracy of the data and science used in the report,” the release states. “Also involved in the review of the assessment were the Tennessee Poison Center and Oak Ridge Associated Universities.”
Officials with the Department of Health said changes were made to the health assessment after TVA reviewed it, but they described the changes as minor and not substantive.
“It was ‘did I miss any of your data,’” explained Bonnie Bashor, the state’s lead epidemiologist on the project. “On one set of data I got it one day off, the dates the samples were taken, so to correct that we moved the date one day. It was just little stuff like that.”
A dike failure at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008, released 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into the environment. The ash contains constituents such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium and zinc, which are hazardous substances.
Health has been a major concern among locals, but the disaster is not expected to cause any long-term health problems, according to the state.
“The Tennessee Department of Health concludes that no harm to the community’s health is expected from touching the coal ash,” the assessment states. “This includes children who might touch the ash while playing.”
Municipal drinking water is safe, according to the state.
“The Tennessee Department of Health concludes that using municipal drinking water from the Kingston and Rockwood water treatment plants will not harm people’s health because the raw and finished water have continuously met drinking water standards,” the assessment states.
The catastrophe also failed to compromise well and spring water, according to the state.
“The Tennessee Department of Health concludes that using well or spring water within four miles of the coal ash release will not harm people’s health from exposure to coal ash or metals in the coal ash because no evidence has been found for groundwater contamination by coal ash,” the assessment states.
Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described the catastrophe “as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history.” Bashor said there hasn’t been a way for the ash to get inside people, which is why the state doesn’t believe it poses a serious health threat.
“The chemicals have to get inside somebody before they could hurt them,” Bashor said. “Think of a small pollution problem with, say, a small dump somewhere. The stuff would have to get into a person before it could hurt them.”
“It really hasn’t been any way for it to get into people,” Bashor added. “It didn’t get into the drinking water, and it hasn’t gotten in the air.”
Even ingesting a small amount of ash would not pose a serious health problem, according to the state.
“The Tennessee Department of Health concludes that no harm to people’s health is expected from accidentally eating a small amount of coal ash,” the assessment states.
The Department of Health’s entire assessment is available online at http://health.state.tn.us/coalashspill.htm.
Bashor said TVA’s critique of the report before its release is not uncommon.
“We want to make sure that we understand everything right,” she said. “Also, they’re a government agency, so when it went out for government review, they are part of the government.”
Bashor said TVA also supplied a lot of the data that the state used to put together the health assessment.
That was another reason TVA was allowed to review the report, she said.
“If somebody supplied a good bit of data, we want to make sure we understood that data,” Bashor said. “That we got it straight.”
The Department of Health plans to participate in a community meeting in Roane County about the draft health assessment in January. The department is also taking comments on the assessment through Feb. 9.
Comments can be e-mailed to EEP.Health@tn.gov
Comments can also be mailed to the following address:
Environmental Epidemiology Program
Tennessee Department of Health
1st Floor, Cordell Hull Building
425 Fifth Avenue N.
Nashville, TN 37243