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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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Donna Lisenby, a river monitor for Appalachian Voices, said the location data gave critics a smoking gun. "You can skew the data by putting testing points in odd locations, such as behind a sandbar or far upriver away from the spill," she said. "The GPS locations show that that is what the TVA has been doing." Bob Gadinski, a former hydrologist for the State of Pennsylvania, said that the TVA's use of only five testing locations was "too few." He said the agency planned to test at a single depth for each location rather than at multiple depths and pointed out that at least three locations were placed at points in the river where contamination was less likely to reach (for example, one sample location should have been in the main channel of the river and was instead placed near the bank). After reviewing the GPS data, Gadinski concluded that "the TVA isn't interested in properly mapping the contaminants in that river." Representatives from EIP and United Mountain Defense, as well as a biology professor at Appalachian State University, all viewed the site locations; all agreed the locations were "intentionally biased for nonsignificance" in ways that would not give a true reading of the contamination map. In addition, Norris said the river monitoring programs of independent groups are "better programmed" to find and map contamination than the authority's testing program. According to Stant, "They either didn't know that this testing scheme was poorly designed, or they knew and didn't care."

At a March 5 community meeting, state and federal officials again reiterated that government testing shows air and water near the site to be safe. Meanwhile, Rick Cantrell, a member of Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors, an advocacy organization formed in the wake of the disaster, told the Associated Press that his group's water quality data has "either been disregarded or just brushed off by TVA." Button shares Cantrell's assessment. TVA officials, he said, "make these global statements and avoid having to answer real questions about the data discrepancies." At the minimum, he said, the authority should be more forthcoming about its science protocols.

Further Health Risks

Another issue raises concerns: the TVA's claim that cenospheres are inert. A study conducted in the 1970s by Alex Gabbard, now a retired scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, seems to show that the TVA misrepresented what is known about these particles. "It's true that cenospheres by themselves are harmless," said Gabbard, but his research determined that metals including uranium bind to the otherwise benign cenospheres, potentially turning them into a vector for toxins. "A main question, is," he said in an interview with The Nation , "What about all the other stuff in the ash?"

A cloud also hovers over the TVA's approach to well water sampling. By February 3 TDEC had sampled more than 100 private groundwater wells within a four-mile radius of the plant, announcing that all sample results were within safe drinking water standards. But, again, critics suggest the data lacked credibility.

"Our data showed all kinds of heavy metals in private wells," said Jeff Stant of the EIP. "I don't understand how official data can show otherwise." Stant told The Nation that while his team was not able to test wells at the spill site because they had been sealed off by the TVA, the wells EIP tested showed high levels of sodium, which poses a risk for people with heart problems, as well as the metals aluminum and manganese.

TDEC has issued an enforcement order against the TVA for violating water quality standards that protect aquatic wildlife, but an agency spokesperson said that "results to date have not indicated exceedances of the primary drinking standards for metals."

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