DOE monitoring possible spread of waste

Jones Road residents given bottled water while site monitored

Bailey Johnson fills a glass with water supplied by a Department of Energy vendor Tuesday near Lenoir City. The DOE plans to run water lines to Johnson and other residents because of concerns that their well water has been contaminated by nuclear material buried on nearby DOE property.Bailey Johnson has always savored the sweet taste of well water, shunning whenever possible the chemically treated city stuff.

Now Johnson and his family members drink bottled water. It's delivered free of charge - courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy - to their farm on the Clinch River, and Johnson sees the irony.

"At one time we didn't want to drink anything but our groundwater," he said. "Now we want to drink anything but our groundwater."

The sudden change is because of concern that hazardous waste from DOE's Oak Ridge property on the other side of the Clinch could be moving in their direction, perhaps using cracks or fissures in underground rock formations to travel beneath the waterway.

That's mostly conjecture or theory at this point. However, there's enough circumstantial evidence, including radioactive contaminants found in "sentry" monitoring wells on the DOE side of the river and some anomalies in residential well-water samples on the other side, to get the attention of environmental regulators. It's prompted DOE to not only provide bottled water to residents in the short term but to pay for commercial water lines to be extended to about a dozen residences in the Jones Road area at the juncture of Loudon and Roane counties and to make plans to install new monitoring wells on the non-DOE side of the river.

A flurry of action is expected in the coming few months as officials try to better understand the situation.

John Owsley, the state official responsible for overseeing DOE's environmental activities in Oak Ridge, said nothing found to date indicates there's an immediate health threat for local residents, but he said the issue is top priority for his office.

"Anytime we have the potential for off-site contamination, that's where we place our highest emphasis," Owsley said. "That is our highest priority, and we expect the Department of Energy to answer the question: Has their contamination moved under the river?"

David Adler, who manages environmental projects for the Department of Energy, emphasized there is no "direct evidence" of any material moving from DOE property - where vast tons of radioactive waste were buried over the past 60 years - to groundwater on the other side of the Clinch River.

But he acknowledged it is theoretically possible.

"If there were a fracture in the bedrock that runs underneath the river and was subsequently subject to aggressive pumping on the far side of the river, you could transfer groundwater from one side to the other," Adler said.

Owsley said the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation decided to start monitoring drinking wells across the river a couple of years ago after so-called picket wells near the edge of DOE's property showed contamination had migrated toward the Clinch from Oak Ridge National Laboratory's nuclear-waste burial grounds.

Nothing found to date exceeds the primary drinking water standards, but there have been "constituents of concern" in some residential wells along Jones Road, including elevated pH readings and unexplained levels of fluoride, lead, chloride and aluminum. None of these is an obvious tie to contamination at DOE's Oak Ridge waste yards, but Owsley said there could be a relationship and that's what the state wants to find out.

A key marker would be the presence of strontium-90, a radioactive element found in much of the Oak Ridge waste. Strontium is known to be fairly mobile in the environment, and it's a concern if ingested by humans because it tends to concentrate in the bones.

Adler said strontium-90 has been found in monitoring wells on DOE's side of the river, but he said he's unaware of any strontium being detected in residential wells on the other side of the Clinch.

Owsley, however, said he's not sure. He said more than one sample from the residential wells has indicated the possibility of strontium, but the level was at - or very near - the lowest detectable limit. Therefore, it was not considered confirmation, and more analysis is needed, he said.

Johnson's family has four residences on the 100-acre farm, which his grandfather purchased in three parcels back in 1919-20.

He said he had the well water tested eight years ago when his son was born, and he said he believes his son's teeth were discolored by excess fluoride in the water.

As for the possible health threat, Johnson said he's more concerned than alarmed. The worst thing, he said, is getting different stories from different officials.

"They don't seem to really know about our wells," he said. "It's kind of like 'lawyer talk.' "