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Drinking Water Threatened: TVA Tries to Hide Information About Water Contamination from Massive Coal Spill

Third-party tests have found high levels of toxins in the river water and in private wells, while the TVA has assured residents the water is safe.

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But technical experts cite persistent, stark differences between water quality reported by independent parties and the reassuring reports offered by state and federal authorities.

Early in the disaster, for example, on January 9, the environmental group Appalachian Voices, working with a biology professor at Appalachian State University, took water samples from the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee Rivers, in which they found arsenic levels 300 times higher than the drinking water standard. The group documented wide differences between official TVA data and data collected by the group and other watchdog organizations. The TVA later reported data showing arsenic levels to be twenty times lower than safe standards. A little earlier, on December 30, two other environmental organizations -- the Tennessee-based United Mountain Defense and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington, DC, group founded by a former EPA regulator -- found arsenic in local river water to be eight times higher than safe levels. At another point, a Duke University test of standing water in a tributary of the Emory River showed arsenic was nine times higher than safe standards. Again, TVA tests were the only outliers. The authority's subsequent tests on January 14 found arsenic levels to be forty times lower than safe drinking water standards.

EIP and United Mountain Defense reported the results of further tests in February, which showed that water quality criteria for arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium and copper had all been violated and that drinking water standards had been exceeded not only for arsenic but also for antimony, beryllium and lead -- which are toxic at certain doses. Experts say that, given the dynamics of river flow and contamination, test results will often vary, sometimes greatly. "You expect to find fluctuations," said Jeff Stant, a trained biologist and EIP official. "What's troubling is that TVA's data is suspiciously consistent." Gregory Button, an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee, shares Stant's concern. "In disaster situations like this, science is always a point of contention," he said. "But the difference is so large in this case that there's no trust."

When asked about early reports showing water quality differences, TVA spokesperson Barbara Martocci, speaking during a December interview with The Nation , chose not to comment on the data, saying only that the TVA uses EPA-certified laboratories. (Data reported by EIP and United Mountain Defense also came from EPA-certified labs.) The TVA is "eager to review the findings of any reports or studies that might show differences between TVA's water quality reports, and we will take those reports seriously," said TVA spokesperson Gil Francis. "I don't understand why the TVA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the EPA aren't finding the same problems as these private groups," Francis added.

Fixing the Results?

Chris Irwin, a lawyer with United Mountain Defense, said, "The gap between our data and theirs strongly suggests that the TVA has practiced selective testing." He pointed out that the cenospheres tell the naked eye where the chemical contamination is. "If you want to test clean," he said, "then you simply go to the side where the plume isn't." Charles Norris, the senior geochemist with the Colorado-based environmental geology firm Geo-Hydro, said that Tennessee's state-approved program for representing river water quality "has demonstrably been unable to account for the variability that's being picked up by third-party sampling."

In recent weeks, an inquiry in conjunction with The Nation Institute's Investigative Fund uncovered satellite positioning locations for the authority's water sampling stations inside a TVA dredging permit application. The data were pinpointed on aerial maps and shown to independent experts in an effort to determine whether the TVA skewed its choice of water sample sites.

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