Duke University researchers said Wednesday they found elevated levels of radium and arsenic near TVA's Kingston Steam Plant which "could have severe health implications."
Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said samples taken Jan. 9-10 found higher-than-normal radioactive readings in the ash and in a river inlet below where an ash pond spilled more than a billion gallons of sludge and ash on Dec. 22. The study also found arsenic levels in one of the ponds near the coal plant at levels nearly 10 times above federal standards for drinking water.
"The main river seems to be safe as long as there are no other changes," Dr. Vengosh said. "However, the water in the standing pond (in one of the inlets of the Emory River) appears to be contaminated, and the question is what are they going to do with this water."
If the fly ash dries and becomes airborne, Dr. Vengosh said, the ash could create air pollution issues for people with respiratory problems.
Arsenic and radium can contribute to cancer if people ingest or repeatedly are exposed to elevated levels, according to health experts.
Despite the higher levels of toxic substances in the ash, tests of public water systems and mobile air monitoring tests in the area have shown no chemical or radioactive levels above acceptable EPA levels in the air or in drinking water, according to results published by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and municipal water systems.
TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said state regulators recognize the potential inhalation hazard presented by the ash and continue to monitor the water and air for potential health risks.
Anda Ray, TVA's senior environmental executive, said after the spill that most of the fly ash "is inert" unless it becomes airborne. She said the ash contains arsenic levels similar to the soil in East Tennessee.