published Monday, January 11th, 2010

Health report on ash spill disputed

Kingston ash spill health assessment findings

* No harm to the community's health is expected from touching the coal ash, though it could cause local skin irritation.

* Using Kingston and Rockwood municipal drinking water, or well or spring water within 4 miles of the spill, will not harm people's health.

* Using the Emory River at the site of the ash release could result in harm to residents "from physical hazards associated with cleanup efforts", but no harm should result from recreational use of the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers below the cleanup area.

* Breathing ambient air near the ash release is not expected to harm people's health "as long as adequate dust suppression measures are in place," and no harm is expected from occasionally breathing coal ash if it should become airborne for short periods of time.

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

A UT disaster researcher with expertise in environmental health issues said he has "serious questions about the integrity" of a recent state and federal health assessment of the Kingston, Tenn., ash spill and its aftermath.

Dr. Gregory Button, a faculty member in the University of Tennessee's Department of Anthropology, especially questions "TVA's role in writing the report," which was prepared by the Tennessee Health Department and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The Tennessee Valley Authority supplied much of the data for the report, and independent data was dismissed, Dr. Button said. Additionally, TVA was allowed to review the final report draft and make changes.

"There is a conflict of interest here, and there has been all the time," Dr. Button said Sunday. "One of the reasons why I and other advocates for this assessment by the ATSDR was because we wanted an independent process."

TVA spokesman Mike Harris said the agency would not comment Sunday on Dr. Button's criticisms.

"We won't have any comment about how the state Department of Health processed its report," Mr. Harris said. "TVA and the (Tennessee) Department of Health are doing everything possible to safeguard the public health."

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Department of Health spokeswoman Andrea Turner did not respond Sunday to several messages left on her cell phone seeking comment.

In Dr. Button's response, to be published today or Tuesday in Counterpunch, an online political newsletter, he questions the assessment and its motives.

"Now, skeptics wonder if TVA's past tendency to adopt a litigation strategy over accountability may have played a role in the issuance of the health assessment report which basically downplays any present or potential health threats," he said.

Dr. Button said the Tennessee Department of Health concludes that the data collected by non-governmental organizations was "of limited usefulness" in establishing the long-term health implications of the coal ash release.

That nongovernmental data includes research studies done by Duke University as well as Appalachian State University and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.

Duke's study raised serious concerns about long-term dangers from breathing airborne ash. Ongoing Appalachian State and aquarium research has found high levels of toxic-laden ash in fish tissues and in water, conflicting with TVA and state findings and raising questions about how and where TVA and the state environmental regulators are sampling for their studies.

Dr. Button also took to task the ATSDR, a federal agency, which farmed out the assessment to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Dr. Button said ATSDR "seems to be avoiding its mission."

Officials with the ATSDR, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, also did not respond Sunday to requests for comment.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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