By Kristin M. Hall
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
KINGSTON, Tenn., Dec. 29 -- Some water samples near a massive spill of coal ash in eastern Tennessee are showing high levels of arsenic, and state and federal officials Monday cautioned residents who use private wells or springs to stop drinking the water.
Samples taken near the spill slightly exceed limits for toxic substances in drinking water, and arsenic in one sample was higher than the maximum level allowed for drinking water, according to a news release from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
Jim Allen, a spokesman for the TVA, which operates the power plant where the spill occurred, said the agency should have test results this week from the four private drinking-water wells in the area affected by the spill.
"I think they were beyond the actual slide point of the material," EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles said of the wells. "There shouldn't be direct impact, but that's why they are sampling."
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, but elevated levels can cause ailments ranging from nausea to partial paralysis, and long-term exposure has been linked to several types of cancer, according to the EPA.
The TVA's environmental executive, Anda Ray, said the arsenic levels were high because of the type of measurement that the EPA used, which included soil mixed in with water.
"Those samples were not dissolved arsenic," Ray said. "The dissolved arsenic, which is what you look at for drinking-water samples, are undetectable in all the cases. The elevated arsenic that the EPA is referring to is the data that we collected when it was stirred up. It is routinely filtered out through all water treatment plants."
Authorities have said the municipal water supply is safe to drink.
The warning came a week after a retention pond burst at the Kingston Steam Plant, spreading more than a billion gallons of fly ash mixed with water over roughly 300 acres of Roane County and into a river. The deluge destroyed three homes and damaged 42 parcels of land, but there were no serious injuries.
But environmental concerns could grow when the sludge containing the fly ash, a fine powdery material, dries out. The EPA and the TVA have begun air monitoring and Monday advised people to avoid activities that could stir up dust, such as children or pets playing outside.
The dust can contain metals, including arsenic, that irritate the skin and can aggravate conditions such as asthma, Niles said.