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Kingston Fossil Plant and Oakridge Nuclear Facility – an unholy alliance of radioactive pollution

While no one was killed by the 2008 coal ash spill itself, dozens of workers have died from illnesses that emerged during or after the cleanup. Hundreds of other workers are sick from respiratory, cardiac, neurological, and blood disorders, as well as cancers.

The apparent mixing of fossil fuel and nuclear waste streams underscores the long relationship between the Kingston and Oak Ridge facilities.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, so much cesium-137 and mercury was released into the Clinch from Oak Ridge that the Department of Energy, or DOE, said that the river and its feeder stream “served as pipelines for contaminants.” Yet TVA and its contractors, with the blessing of both state and federal regulators, classified all 4 million tons of material they recovered from the Emory as “non-hazardous.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis confirms that the ash that was left in the river was “found to be commingled with contamination from the Department of Energy (DOE) Oak Ridge Reservation site.

For nearly a century, both Oak Ridge and TVA treated their waste with less care than most families treat household garbage. It was often dumped into unlined, and sometimes unmarked, pits that continue to leak into waterways. For decades, Oak Ridge served as the Southeast’s burial ground for nuclear waste. It was stored within watersheds and floodplains that fed the Clinch River. But exactly where and how this waste was buried has been notoriously hard to track.

A Legacy of Contamination, How the Kingston coal ash spill unearthed a nuclear nightmare, Grist By Austyn Gaffney on Dec 15, 2020  This story was published in partnership with the Daily Yonder.

In 2009, App Thacker was hired to run a dredge along the Emory River in eastern Tennessee. Picture anindustrialized fleet modeled after Huck Finn’s raft: Nicknamed Adelyn, Kylee, and Shirley, the blue, flat-bottomed boats used mechanical arms called cutterheads to dig up riverbeds and siphon the excavated sediment into shoreline canals. The largest dredge, a two-story behemoth called the Sandpiper, had pipes wide enough to swallow a push lawnmower. Smaller dredges like Thacker’s scuttled behind it, scooping up excess muck like fish skimming a whale’s corpse. They all had the same directive: Remove the thick grey sludge that clogged the Emory.

The sludge was coal ash, the waste leftover when coal is burned to generate electricity. Twelve years ago this month, more than a billion gallons of wet ash burst from a holding pond monitored by the region’s major utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA. Thacker, a heavy machinery operator with Knoxville’s 917 union, became one of hundreds of people that TVA contractors hired to clean up the spill. For about four years, Thacker spent every afternoon driving 35 miles from his home to arrive in time for his 5 p.m. shift, just as the makeshift overhead lights illuminating the canals of ash flicked on.

Dredging at night was hard work. The pump inside the dredge clogged repeatedly, so Thacker took off his shirt and entered water up to his armpits to remove rocks, tree limbs, tires, and other debris, sometimes in below-freezing temperatures. Soon, ringworm-like sores crested along his arms, interwoven with his fading red and blue tattoos. Thacker’s supervisors gave him a cream for the skin lesions, and he began wearing long black cow-birthing gloves while he unclogged pumps. While Thacker knew that the water was contaminated — that was the point of the dredging — he felt relatively safe. After all, TVA was one of the oldest and most respected employers in the state, with a sterling reputation for worker safety.

Then, one night, the dredging stopped.

Sometime between December 2009 and January 2010, roughly halfway through the final, 500-foot-wide section of the Emory designated for cleanup, operators turned off the pumps that sucked the ash from the river. For a multi-billion dollar remediation project, this order was unprecedented. The dredges had been operating 24/7 in an effort to clean up the disaster area as quickly as possible, removing roughly 3,000 cubic yards of material — almost enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool — each day. But official reports from TVA show that the dredging of the Emory encountered unusually high levels of contamination: Sediment samples showed that mercury levels were three times higher in the river than they were in coal ash from the holding pond that caused the disaster.

Then there was the nuclear waste. According to a 2011 TVA report, the river-bound coal ash and sediments contained higher radiation levels than the holding pond. Half of the river sediment samples taken contained cesium-137, a highly soluble compound with a 30-year half-life that can contaminate large bodies of water for well over a generation. It’s best known as the predominant source of radiation in the fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and death. Exposure also increases the risk for cancer.

Cesium-137 also happens to be a byproduct of the nuclear reactions and weapons testing that began in the 1940s at the 35,000-acre Oak Ridge Reservation, which is roughly 30 miles upstream from Kingston. The federal facility is infamous for its role in the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the U.S. dropping twin atom bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, demonstrating the horrific effects of radiation exposure to the world.

The Kingston coal ash spill was the nation’s largest industrial disaster to date, releasing five times as much toxic material as the 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Workers like Thacker now wonder what they were really exposed to during the cleanup. Coal ash is toxic in its own right, but additional radioactivity may have made the dredged material more dangerous than the ash alone.

An email exchange between TVA and Thacker, who inquired repeatedly about the cause of work stoppage, indicates that the discovery of this additional contamination was responsible for the order demanding that all the dredges abandon the coal ash in the area, leaving roughly 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated material behind. Eventually, with the blessing of state and federal regulators, TVA opted for a “monitored natural recovery” of the Emory River. The utility left the ash to mix naturally with the sediment and preexisting contaminants in the riverbed, promising to monitor the process for up to 30 years to ensure that concentrations of ash-related contaminants decline over time.

While no one was killed by the 2008 coal ash spill itself, dozens of workers have died from illnesses that emerged during or after the cleanup. Hundreds of other workers are sick from respiratory, cardiac, neurological, and blood disorders, as well as cancers; the jury in a 2018 court case determined that many of these ailments could have been caused by long-term coal ash exposure. Whether or not the coal ash alone was responsible for the deluge of illnesses — and whether or not TVA was aware of exposure to additional hazards that it did not disclose to workers — remains an open question.

In response to inquiries from Grist and the Daily Yonder, a TVA spokesperson wrote that the utility’s “recovery plan was informed by the best available science on how to perform the work safely.” He did not respond to specific questions, alluding to the fact that much of the cleanup was contracted out to a firm called Jacobs Engineering. In an email to Grist and the Daily Yonder, a Jacobs spokesperson confirmed that cesium-137 was present in the lower Emory River and precluded further ash removal. She added that state and federal regulators “approved all cleanup actions” and that “comprehensive testing of water, soil, and air” directly after the spill informed a safety plan the firm distributed to workers.

The apparent mixing of fossil fuel and nuclear waste streams underscores the long relationship between the Kingston and Oak Ridge facilities.  When TVA was created by the federal government in 1933 — to control regional floodwaters and provide electricity to seven states including Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi — the utility immediately got to work industrializing a region that was still, by many standards, premodern. Massive dams sprang up seemingly overnight. The natural pathways of rivers were diverted, and abandoned towns were buried beneath new lakes that fanned out like blood vessels. Hydroelectricity illuminated the surviving towns for the first time in their history. Soon after, the first of 12 coal-fired power plants rose along the newborn shorelines.

One of these was the Kingston Fossil Plant, which was constructed in 1955 to supply energy for the Oak Ridge nuclear facility. While a row of stacks spewed sulfur and carbon dioxide into the air, 10 percent of the burned coal collected at the bottom of the stacks as ash. To keep this extremely fine and feather-light material from becoming airborne dust, TVA mixed it with water and stored the resulting sludge in makeshift ponds.

Three days before Christmas in 2008, one of those ponds burst under the pressure of over half a century of accumulated dumping. More than 5 million cubic yards of ash — a mass roughly equivalent to the amount of concrete in the Hoover Dam — overflowed into the adjacent waterway. Thick charcoal spears of it stabbed through the surface like Antarctic ice floes, except they smelled like Clorox. The coal ash pond that burst bordered a kidney-shaped section of the Emory River heavily used for recreation. TVA immediately prioritized unclogging the river, and the fleet of flat-bottomed boats Thacker worked on started dredging downstream. Time was of the essence: The spill had contaminated a river system that hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans rely on for drinking water.

Just a few miles downriver from this site, the Emory meets up with the Clinch River in a wide oxbow. Because of the spill’s proximity to the Clinch River and Oak Ridge, TVA knew the disaster could have stirred up not only coal ash — which federal guidelines do not classify as “hazardous” waste, despite its dangers — but also material that the government considers unambiguously hazardous as well. Between the 1950s and 1980s, so much cesium-137 and mercury was released into the Clinch from Oak Ridge that the Department of Energy, or DOE, said that the river and its feeder stream “served as pipelines for contaminants.” Yet TVA and its contractors, with the blessing of both state and federal regulators, classified all 4 million tons of material they recovered from the Emory as “non-hazardous.” It took six years to clean up the entire site, during which workers toiled in the ash unprotected, without the gear routinely required at hazardous waste sites…………….

Sworn declarations from two different workers who dredged the river between January and August 2009 say that they “personally observed barrels being removed from the river” and “personally observed approximately two hundred fifty (250) blue metal barrels stored near the wash bay.” Both workers claimed that they saw more than a dozen barrels marked with nuclear hazard symbols lined up on the river’s bank. According to the workers, the remnants of at least one rusty blue barrel with a failed seal were lifted out of the waterway with a dredge head. They were informed that the dredge was tested with a Geiger counter, and then the entire machine was taken out of service and anchored far from shore. The workers also claimed that they asked for dust masks, Tyvek suits, and clean water but were never given any. They had to wash their hands and boots with contaminated river water. (The declarations were part of a lawsuit that county officials filed against Jacobs and TVA last year; Jacobs argues that the suit’s claims “lacked merit,” but ultimately the case was dismissed on procedural grounds.)

Thacker believes no dredges ever returned to the river section where the work stoppage occurred. He says the dredges also weren’t cleaned after hitting this material. The coal ash left behind was never removed from the river, either. Instead, operators like Thacker re-dredged different sections of the Emory for another year until enough material was removed for Jacobs to receive almost a million dollars in bonuses from TVA.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis confirms that the ash that was left in the river was “found to be commingled with contamination from the Department of Energy (DOE) Oak Ridge Reservation site. Oak Ridge Associated Universities conducted independent medical screening and concluded there were no adverse health impacts caused by the coal ash spill.” According to a TVA memo, roughly 510,000 cubic yards of ash were left behind across 200 acres of Tennessee waterways, an area roughly two-thirds the size of Chicago’s Grant Park.

“I can take you, a jury, or anybody else on a pontoon boat with a 20-foot stick of PVC pipe and shove in anywhere down there and pull you out a sample,” Thacker told me flatly. “It’s still there.”

For nearly a century, both Oak Ridge and TVA treated their waste with less care than most families treat household garbage. It was often dumped into unlined, and sometimes unmarked, pits that continue to leak into waterways. For decades, Oak Ridge served as the Southeast’s burial ground for nuclear waste. It was stored within watersheds and floodplains that fed the Clinch River. But exactly where and how this waste was buried has been notoriously hard to track……………..

Consider the legacy waste in the riverbed as a handful of sand. After it leaves the river, the ultra-fine material encounters Kingston’s long assembly line: First, it’s dredged by operators like Thacker. Then long pipes shoot it from the river into a series of canals and holding ponds, further mixing it in with the coal ash. Massive machines like dump trucks and trackhoes disperse it onto a plateau that TVA called the Ball Field. There, the tiny particles dry in pancake-like piles across the plain. On particularly windy days, they spin into dust devils with the ash, covering the sky like curtains 100 feet in the air. Once it’s dry enough, the combined coal ash and nuclear material is scooped onto a rail line for shipment to a solid waste landfill 350 miles south in Uniontown, Alabama.

Between the Emory and this landfill, hundreds of workers handled the ash. Fugitive dust escaped to nearby communities across two states. Nearly 40,000 train cars eventually dumped the ash in Uniontown, a low-income, 90-percent-Black community near Selma. Prior to the first shipment in June 2009, the ash was tested for radionuclides to make sure it fell below Alabama’s threshold for radium. Samples showed radium levels up to two times the Alabama Department of Public Health’s limit. But the company that owned the landfill argued it should be exempt from the limit, because its own evaluation determined that workers were safe at exposure levels over eight times Alabama’s limits. The state’s public health department granted its request, doubling the threshold for radium exposure. …….

Within four years, workers were sharing stories of plummeting testosterone levels, a symptom that multiple studies have linked to radiation exposure like that experienced by male cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy. Men in their 30s and early 40s started taking testosterone injections. Brewer, the truck driver, had his levels plummet by 75 percent. Now, at 46 years old, he takes a shot for his testosterone every other week. Thacker, the dredge operator, was told by his doctor that he had the testosterone levels of a man twice his age. When he reported this symptom to Jacobs, however, Thacker says he was laughed out of their offices…………

If hazardous materials were found co-mingling with the coal ash, Superfund law could trigger a change in how the site was managed, officially recategorizing Kingston as a hazardous waste site. The entire cleanup operation would fall under more stringent, more expensive, and more time-consuming guidelines. Cleanup workers, for example, would be required to wear respirators and limit their exposure time. TVA could be vulnerable to new legal claims in both Tennessee and Alabama for initially treating the waste as though it were non-hazardous. (An EPA spokesperson declined to answer specific questions, but he confirmed that the agency approved all cleanup procedures and claimed that TVA was the “lead federal agency” implementing the order.)

Understanding the EPA order requires jumping down a legal rabbit hole. In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, which separated household and industrial waste into two separate categories: hazardous and non-hazardous. The mining industry, fearful that increased regulation of its waste materials would run up costs, lobbied Congress for a loophole. Four years later, lawmakers approved an amendment that essentially excluded mining waste from being deemed hazardous, even though much mining activity involves materials considered hazardous under RCRA law. Coal ash, in particular, contains dozens of constituents the EPA considers hazardous.

While the EPA does not list coal ash or coal-fired power plants as a typical source of radiation or radioactive waste, the ash can contain elements emitting radioactivity at 10 times their naturally occurring levels…………..

Additional internal documents obtained by Grist and the Daily Yonder demonstrate that TVA was aware that worker exposure to cesium-137, or other forms of legacy contamination, could be a financial and legal nightmare. In July 2009, two months after the CERCLA order, TVA officials gave a confidential internal presentation in which they said that one of the most severe risks to their bottom line would be stopping or altering the cleanup plan they’d already put into place…………..

During TVA’s 2009 presentation in the wake of the CERCLA order, the utility worried that the number of health problems could rise if levels of radiation and heavy metals in the coal ash “are deemed to be higher than first reported.” Such radiation levels could lead to another risk: class action lawsuits.

According to recently reported documentation that dates back to the year after the spill, radiation levels were, in fact, much higher than first reported…………………….

For residents who have lived in the region for generations, however, the illicit off-site dumping of nuclear waste from Oak Ridge is an open secret. Doug Bledsoe, a former cleanup worker, told me that his father worked at Oak Ridge and dumped nuclear waste at the bottom of a coal ash pond. (Bledsoe died of brain cancer in August.) When Angie Thacker worked in a hair salon in town, she recalls old men coming in and telling her that they dumped barrels of nuclear material into the Clinch River. A lifelong resident of Oak Ridge, she remembers learning at an early age not to play in the rivers. (The DOE, which manages the Oak Ridge facilities, did not respond to Grist and the Daily Yonder’s requests for comment.)

Now Angie’s husband is another of the hundreds of examples of people with snowballing health issues tied with Kingston. After the dredging operation ended, App Thacker started operating machines around the Ball Field, but the continual dust exposure led to new skin lesions, high blood pressure, and bronchial infections he couldn’t kick. He eventually cracked his ribs from coughing, and today both Thacker and his wife have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He has since developed depression and anxiety, which he still takes medication for today.

Thacker never stopped asking questions while he worked at Kingston. Eventually, he says he was called into a meeting with a TVA supervisor. r. Thacker told him of the open secret that workers whispered about throughout the site: Radioactive material was dredged from the river and mixed into the coal ash they handled unprotected. (Though the supervisor could not be reached for comment, he confirmed that he’d heard about the dredging of radioactive material from other workers in a 2018 deposition.)

After hearing his story, Thacker remembers the supervisor throwing a rock and saying, “I guess what you’re trying to tell me is we loaded all that shit to Alabama.”

“Yes,” Thacker replied. He was laid off a few weeks later.  https://grist.org/justice/tva-kingston-coal-ash-spill-nuclear/

 

 

December 29, 2020 - Posted by | employment, environment, history, legal, PERSONAL STORIES, politics, Reference, safety, secrets,lies and civil liberties, USA, wastes

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