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Why the Nation's Biggest Environmental Distaster May Be About to Get Worse

Scientists fear that the TVA's plan for cleaning up its toxic sludge spill in Tennessee may do more harm than good.
 
 
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This is the second in a series of investigative reports on the fallout from the Tennessee coal ash spill. Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund atThe Nation Institute.

The Tennessee Valley Authority's efforts to clean tons of toxic coal ash are set to cause a "major toxic event" that could kill entire fish species and send a human health threat slinking up the food chain, according to scientists.

On December 22 the largest industrial spill in US history sent an earthen tsunami consisting of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash sludge roiling out of a man-made lagoon and into the Emory River, which flows into the Clinch and Tennessee rivers. The ash clogged a section of the Emory River's navigation canal, forming an underwater "dam" that state and federal officials say could soon cause a flood of toxic backwater. On March 20, in a race to beat spring rains, the TVA -- a federally owned utility company -- began sucking out the toxic-sludge dam with huge hydraulic machines, putting it on land to dry out and be hauled away by trucks.

A handful of scientists are saying that the river-clearing operation will unleash a deadly pulse of selenium, an element found in coal ash that's good for humans in small doses but toxic to people, fish and wildlife at high levels. Water-treatment plants can filter selenium out of drinking water, but humans may still ingest harmful doses by eating contaminated fish and wildlife.

The EPA's hazard summary cites long-term studies showing that exposure to high levels of selenium in food and water have led to discoloration of the skin, loss of nails and hair, excessive tooth decay and discoloration, listlessness and lack of mental alertness. The agency also labels selenium sulfide, a selenium compound, a "probable human carcinogen." The EPA summary says hazard summary: "Acute human exposure to selenium compounds via the oral route has resulted in pulmonary edema and lesions of the lung; cardiovascular effects such as tachycardia; gastrointestinal effects including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain; effects on the liver; and neurological effects such as aches, irritability, chills and tremors. Selenium's impacts on animals can also be severe."

"This isn't just about fish and wildlife," said A. Dennis Lemly, a biologist who studied selenium for three decades while working at the US Forest Service. Federal scientists have documented at least a dozen cases where selenium has killed off fish and animal species, the largest selenium-related environmental disaster in US history being at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California. "Fish were poisoned and there were massive deaths and deformities in waterfowl and other aquatic birds," Lemly recently wrote in a technical report. "This episode of contamination was extensively researched and documented by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey."

Problems of the Past?

As the dredging operation rolls toward its tenth week, a new scientific report by university scientists painted a picture of a river system that's already "loaded" with toxic levels of selenium. It also found that the unregulated, unlined structure that failed in December could have been the contamination source, quietly leaching selenium for decades. A study conducted at Appalachian State University (ASU) suggests that TVA's dredging operation will not only kick up large amounts of selenium-infused river sediment but will also bear down on a river that's already on a toxic edge. "Preliminary data suggest the selenium in the fish tissues may be the result of legacy selenium from decades of release of this metal from ash settling in ponds at the TVA Kingston plant," the study states. Tom Welborn, an EPA scientist, told The Nation that ASU tests and other studies indicate that the selenium contamination near the TVA's coal plant "appears to be a historic problem," meaning that the selenium contamination has been around for years.

The TVA says that the ASU study's claim is unfounded. In a written response to questions submitted by The Nation, TVA officials said that the authority, two state agencies and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are analyzing fish tissue for selenium, and that information about selenium levels in Tennessee rivers is slim. "While the Appalachian State University researcher's contention that selenium could have leached from the failed pond over the years is interesting, there is no data to support that contention," the statement said. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) said that the state has viewed the data from ASU. According to a TDEC statement: "We respect their views on this subject, but there is no evidence that materials have historically 'leached' from the ash ponds at the Kingston facility." Department officials also told The Nation that the TDEC had studied fish samples, finding that levels of selenium in their tissue "did not exceed EPA's draft national selenium criterion based on fish tissue concentrations." Federal and state officials say they are monitoring the dredging operation closely and will stop if the operation is found to kick up high levels of selenium from the sediment into the water column.

Pressure to Dredge

Despite warnings that the dredging may trigger a major toxic event, the TVA, backed by federal and state officials, is following through with its plans. "There apparently has been horrendous pressure to dredge at any costs," said Bryce Payne, an independent environmental consultant who has been working on fly ash for more than fifteen years. "But the fish and similarly vulnerable biota in the Emory and Clinch River system simply will not be able to tolerate additional selenium."

Payne, who is considered by some to be the nation's top expert on coal ash issues, has led a behind-the-scenes effort -- alongside some of the nation's top selenium scientists -- to convince the TVA that the selenium problem is a loaded gun, that the authority's water-monitoring plan is faulty on scientific principle and that alternatives to dredging may well help avoid serious damage caused by selenium.

In two recent conference calls with dozens of officials and experts, Payne laid out one alternate plan to avoid floods, by digging a bypass channel around the ash dam. Payne proposes alternate ash removal approaches, including one that calls for adding lime, a relatively inert substance that causes the ash to solidify in place in the river, then removing the ash in solid form, essentially locking in selenium loads. The downside: the technique has been demonstrated only on a smaller pilot scale. On March 20, Paul Sloan, deputy commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, sent an e-mail to Payne and over a dozen people, including TVA and federal officials, who had been on one of the conference calls. "We believe the risks of selenium contamination are manageable with proper planning and attention, and that the risks of delaying ash removal outweigh the risk that might associate with selenium," Sloan wrote. He said that the EPA and TDEC will carefully monitor river water near the dredge operation for selenium contamination and added that the agencies plan to "follow up on fish testing samples."

Federal officials, for their part, stress that they will monitor the river water closely, and shut down the multimillion-dollar dredging operation if too much selenium is found. "If selenium or other constituents we are monitoring exceed regulatory limits, the dredging will be stopped so we can determine appropriate next steps," said Dana Tulis, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Emergency Management.

Slippery Chemistry?

Scientific experts say that monitoring regimes put in place by the authority, as well as state and federal officials, may not be able to detect pulses of selenium, thanks to its odd chemistry, which may allow it to evade water monitoring.

Payne, who has a doctorate in soil science, told Sloan in an e-mail that the proposed water-monitoring scheme was of little use, since one of selenium's two relevant chemical forms is a toxic compound called selenite, which gets absorbed by secondary chemicals in coal ash and moves with the dredged ash, not in the water. Later, when exposed to more air, the selenite turns into selenate, another toxic form of selenium; it is not held by the secondary minerals and then moves on to take its toll on aquatic life. To make matters worse, according to Payne and others, the analytical methods used in the official monitoring efforts are simply not good enough to detect the trace amounts of selenium likely to be seen in the water. (The TVA said in an April 21 e-mail that official water-monitoring sites had detected no exceedances of selenium since dredging began. The statement also said the monitoring sites were designed to measure all forms of selenium.)

Payne, who has offered his consulting services to the TVA and state regulators, wants officials to understand why so many of the best-laid plans could be heading toward disaster. In the March 20 e-mail to Sloan, he questioned the TDEC's assumptions, pressed the agency to make its selenium data public and criticized Tennessee's water-quality standards as too permissive regardingselenium. He zeroed in on the state agency's pledge to follow up on fish tissue studies. The problem with fish tissue tests, he explained, is that selenium "bioaccumulates," inching its way into fish and animals over months and years, not days and weeks. If you find selenium in high concentrations in fish tissue, the theory goes, you're already in trouble. "[Fish tissue data] will not tell you how much more selenium may still come after you have finally detected that a threatening amount was there in the first place," he told Sloan. In a telephone interview, Payne said that the threat was hard to detect: "Selenium, by its nature and chemistry, will sneak up on us," Payne says. "It's like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water."

Among scientific experts, Payne is far from alone. "The folks in charge feel they don't have the luxury to consider other ways to clean the river out," said Joseph Skorupa, a biologist and selenium expert with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "But they should understand that letting loose selenium is a momentous decision."

Back Door Bills

Shockingly, with toxic questions hanging over the dredging, the coal industry and the Tennessee legislature have been pushing to give selenium a free pass in the state's waterways. Two bills proposed in February -- one in the Tennessee House and the other in the Senate -- sought to deregulate selenate by exempting it from emission limits. Experts were dismayed. "There is absolutely no scientific reason for this," said Skorupa. "Who benefits from this?"

Still, Joe McCord, a Tennessee state representative and sponsor of the House bill, saw fit to include the selenate exemption in the proposed law. Reached on his cellphone April 9, McCord said he did not know about the exemption and that he would have to speak with experts before commenting. He added that the legislation had been suggested by the state's coal mining industry and that a subsequent amendment had actually struck the selenate provision from the bill. "People might think that the TVA is the ghost in the weeds on this one," he said. "But I haven't talked to a single person at TVA about this." He added: "We're just trying to bring Tennessee's standards in line with the scientifically proven standards of the EPA," he said. (The sponsor of the companion Senate bill, Senator Ken Yager, did not respond to interview requests.

EPA Business

But EPA standards are at the heart of the problem, according to Lemly. The EPA originally published recommended water-contamination standards for selenium in September 1987, but the agency never codified them. In December 2004, the EPA proposed revising the agency's recommended criteria to make them less strict. Those proposed revisions were "based on a review of new data on the toxicity of selenium to aquatic life," said Tulis of the EPA.

But Lemly and at least three current or former government scientists have publicly said that the EPA's "review of new data" was anything but solid. In fact, Lemly has accused EPA regulators of grossly misusing one of his studies to justify the change in the proposed selenium standards, which is favorable to selenium-polluting industries but does nothing to protect fish, wildlife and, ultimately, human health. "The EPA's proposed standards are grossly underprotective," he said.

"The EPA has fallen down on selenium," said Brian Paddock, a water-quality consultant who represents the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club. "But the Kingston spill means it is finally going to get its day. The EPA will be under pressure to do something."

Hard EPA regulations seem anything but imminent. Tulis said the agency expects to make available a revised draft of selenium standards this summer. Experts say they are hopeful that the revised standards will be more protective than current ones.

Kelly Hearn is a correspondent to National Geographic News and The Christian Science Monitor. His work has been funded by The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and The North American Congress on Latin America. A former UPI reporter, he has published in The Nation, Grist, High Country News, The Washington Times and World Politics Watch. He is a frequent contributor to Alternet.
 
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