The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, May 01, 2001

DOE safe site report called vague
The study of the Paducah plant's neighbors found no apparent hazard.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

A new study concluding there is "no apparent public health hazard" at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is marked by qualifiers and apparently doesn't assess the cumulative effects of toxins, said the chairman of the plant's citizens advisory board.

"My main concern is that I don't see how they can really assess what the potential health effects may be," said Mark Donham of Brookport, Ill. "I hope we find out all this has a very minimal impact, but I'm not convinced from this report."

Carol Connell, lead health assessor for the study done by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, said researchers did consider the aggregate effects of exposures to various contaminants. She said the word "apparent" means that people near the plant might be exposed, "but not at a level that a health hazard would exist."

She and Donham, a longtime critic of the plant's environmental practices, encouraged people to attend tonight's public meeting and ask questions about the study. The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Paducah Information Age Park Resource Center.

"If they object to some of the things we have in our report, now's the time for them to comment on that," Connell said. The public comment period ends May 14.

The report — available at four area libraries and on the Internet at www.atsdr.cdc.gov — says that under "normal operating conditions," the plant has been safe since 1990. That was when the Department of Energy began permanently replacing contaminated residential wells with municipal water, Connell said.

The plant will stay safe, assuming the effectiveness of warning signs and fencing at contaminated ditches and creeks; fish advisories at some ponds in the wildlife management area around the plant; and existing regulations on air and surface-water discharges, the report says.

Donham said the study is too broad and vague to be meaningful, and he hopes the registry, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will return for a more specific look at the health of plant neighbors. Connell said another study isn't justified, but the group will offer to better educate the public on the current findings.

Many plant neighbors interviewed by researchers worry about plant contamination and the incidence of cancer, but studying small groups can uncover illnesses just as likely to be random as exposure-related, Connell said. She explained that most of the sicknesses seen in the recent study were quite varied and unrelated to the same cause.

"It may be cancer," she said. "But it might be 20 different types of cancer."

Despite the study's conclusion that the plant is safe, some federal lawsuits allege the plant's sampling data is fraudulent and neighbors' health remains in jeopardy. Connell said her group reviewed not only plant findings, but sampling results from the state and research universities — a total of more than 840,000 current computer data points. The study compared data of various pathways to be sure the levels made sense, she said.

Connell said her researchers are "very much aware" that the public has been deluged with conflicting reports, lawsuits and studies regarding plant safety, particularly in the past few years. But unlike most of those, which focused on worker exposures, the registry work centered on pathways and levels of exposure to plant neighbors. She said some plant neighbors expressed distrust of the federal government because of the plant's track record.

Past use of trichloroethylene (TCE), a common cleaning solvent, has contaminated huge quantities of groundwater beneath the plant. Groundwater exposure to vinyl chloride, a degradation product of TCE, and acute air exposures to uranium and hydrogen fluoride "are an indeterminate public health hazard for past and potential future exposures," the study says. "This means that the information available is incomplete."

Federal law mandated the public assessment because the plant is a Superfund site. The work reviewed chemical and radioactive materials, their known health effects and potential pathways to humans, and community reports of injuries, disease and death.

Besides the Internet, the reports are available at the Paducah Public Library, Paducah Community College Library, Metropolis Public Library and Murray State University’s Waterfield Library.