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TVA Health Assessment Report on Coal Ash Raises Troubling Questions About the Agency

The Tennessee Department of Health’s (TDH) recently released health assessment raises serious questions about the integrity of the report and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) role in writing the report.

On one level the report raises several basic questions. For instance, in many people’s mind rather than quelling health concerns over the TVA ash spill disaster the report perpetuates long-standing concerns about the TVA’s credibility and their role in the clean-up efforts as well as the appearance of a questionable relationship between the TVA and TDH.

Perhaps, more importantly, beyond these basic questions loom larger ones that call into question how defensible is an environmental science without a transparent review process or for that matter, a government-controlled science that collaborates with environmental polluters and goes out of its way to avoid directly confronting potential harm while dismissing a community’s concern and downplaying threats to human health? In short, how valid is a science that seeks reassure the public that little or no harm has been done while serving to protect the interests of a select few?

In the aftermath of the disaster, the TVA was placed in charge of the clean up. Since then some people have been concerned about “the fox being placed in charge of the chicken coop” largely because the TVA’s control over access to the site and research data appears to be a conflict of interest given the numerous legal challenges the TVA faces as a result of the spill. In the weeks and months following the spill, many people in the public and the media were skeptical of the information that TVA was releasing. An internal report released by the TVA’s Inspector General in early summer raised serious concerns about TVA’s lack of transparency and confirmed the suspicions of some. The TVA’s Inspector General report insinuated that the TVA was prioritizing its legal defense over the public’s right to know.

Now, skeptics wonder if TVA’s past tendency to adopt a ligation strategy over accountability may have played a role in the issuance of the TDH health assessment report which basically down plays any present or potential health threats. The TVA not only supplied much of their own data on which the report was based but actually was given the “courtesy” of reviewing the draft of the report and making changes which are depicted by the TDH depicts as “minor.” After TVA’s review comments and changes were made other agencies were also allowed to comment. In an interview with the Roane County News, the TDH spokesperson could not say what specific changes were made by the TVA.

The health assessment report raises other serious questions as well. First of all, while the report basically mirrors statements made by the TDH in the early hours following the disaster (prior to their having conducted any substantial testing) by stating in affect that TDH doubts any adverse health effects occurred. TDH’s report also seems to imply that there is little threat of long-term health threat even though in many cases it can often take years to detect clues of the deleterious effects of such toxins and longer to document the effects. While one cannot predict that there will, or will not be, long-term health effects it is nevertheless premature to dismiss the possibility of such deleterious effects.

One of the most astonishing statements contained in the report states, “The Tennesssee 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”. However, ironically, the report continues by stating the “non-governmental data confirmed data collected by governmental agencies.”

First, it needs to be noted that the TVA, in the early weeks after the tragedy TVA did everything within its power to prevent independent researchers from gaining access to the site. Despite this deterrence some organizations did have limited success in obtaining and analyzing test samples.

Although, the report somewhat coyly states that some of this data confirmed governmental data it seems to dismiss the fact that such independent testing also raised valid concerns about the health and environmental impacts that were at variance with what the TVA and some other agencies were reporting.

This apparent dismissal of non-governmental research raises the question of, what was the criteria used by TDH to dismiss the usefulness of independent testing and was this same criteria also used to evaluate the tests conducted by the TVA?

Equally important is, if the TDH admitted even limited value of the non-governmental research, why weren’t those organizations given the same “courtesy” that the TVA was given of previewing and amending the report? In other words, why were independent researchers who had conducted research on the spill, who have no ties to the EPA, allowed to review and comment on the report prior to it being released for public comment?

The report also glaringly ignores the findings released by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) highlighting a much grimmer picture of the amount of toxins released in the spill (See also the report issued by Earthjustice on the health effects of coal ash).

Among other assertions the EIP reports states that an analysis of the TVA’s own data show that a total of 2.66 million tons of 10 toxic pollutants-arsenic, barium, chromium, cooper, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, vanadium and zinc- were released by the spill when an estimated one billion gallons of coal ash were released into the environment. EIP compares this release with the fact that only 2.04 million pounds of such toxins were discharged from all U.S. power plants into surface waters in 2007. These findings are troubling since many of these metals bio-accumulate and can pose significant risks to human health. This concern raises a serious red flag about the potential adverse effects of the TVA disaster. One that, at least in some skeptic’s minds questions TVA’s continued downplaying of potential long-term health and environmental effects (http://www.earthjustice.org/library/reports/earthjustice_waste_deep.pdf).

Of equal importance is the fact that in 2007, EPA itself, published a draft risk assessment, which found extremely high risks to human health from the disposal of coal ash in waste ponds and landfills, let alone uncontrolled catastrophic releases into the environment.

The failure of the TDH review to consider the above findings also underscores the point that the report ignores any discussion of the potential short and long term synergistic effects of being exposed to all, or some combination, of these toxins found in the coal ash. In the past, synergistic effects have been too long ignored in environmental health research. The TVA spill provides the scientific community with an ideal opportunity by which to explore these potential effects and correct this oversight.

It is also curious that the TDH acknowledges, as it did in an earlier report, the stressful mental health affects of the disaster on affected residents. However, it does not appear that the TDH made any attempt to probe this finding. So, while the report recognizes the role of stress it does not seem to investigate its potential impact in any significant manner. A shortcoming which is profoundly disturbing since the mental health affects of disasters are well documented and recognized as playing a significant role in the lives of disaster victims. An oversight that is also ironic — since the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has in the past devoted considerable attention to the psychosocial impact of environmental disasters.

It is essential to point out that originally the impetus for this health assessment was the request from members of the public and many NGOS to have the ATSDR, a federal agency, not TDH, conduct the assessment. However, as has so often been the case in the past, the ATSDR, while involved in the report, handed it off to the TDH to conduct.

This is noteworthy since testimony by independent scientists and a U.S. Congressional report have in the recent past criticized the ATSDR for relegating the role of such investigations to third parties rather than employing the independence and expertise of the agency.

The Congressional report, reminds the ATSDR that the agency’s mission “is to serve the public by using the best science, taking responsive health actions, and providing trusted health information to prevent harmful exposures and disease related to toxic substances.” It would appear that once again, the Agency seems to be avoiding its mission by commissioning a state public health agency to conduct investigation, in this case of great national importance, for which the ATSDR is better equipped to investigate and mandated by Congress to conduct.

The same report also observes “across the nation community groups often believe that ATSDR has failed to protect them from toxic exposures and independent scientists are often aghast at the lack of scientific rigor in its health consultations and assessments”. Some eastern Tennessee residents (especially those whose lives were most affected by the spill) are beginning to voice similar complaints.

It is especially notable that among its findings the House committee report argues that ATSDR repeatedly seems to “avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities.” Instead, the report contends, the agency seems to trivialize and ignore legitimate health concerns and health considerations of local communities and well-respected scientists and medical professionals. One ATSDR scientist even told the House committee, “It seems like the goal is to disprove the communities’ concerns rather than actually try to prove exposures.” Almost one year after the Congressional hearings similar criticisms are now being raised with the release of the draft of the TDH report.

As noted social scientist Lee Clarke has observed, researchers have long recognized that the determination of acceptable risks is more often than not a political and not a purely scientific process. Risk assessments are made within organizations and agencies, which attempt, in Clarke’s words, “to shape and form what constitutes an acceptable risk, and bargain among themselves as to what is acceptable to them”. Too often the end result is not a bargain for that portion of the public that bears the disproportionate burden of such risk assessments. Instead, as in this case, the very government agencies established to protect the public and the environment end up dismissing public concerns while at the same time protecting the interests industrial polluters under the guise of “pure science” thereby leaving open the question of how the public can obtain a science that serves their interests above and beyond the interest of corporate polluters.

Gregory V. Button is a disaster researcher with an expertise in environmental health issues and is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He spearheaded a campaign, with the support of numerous NGOS, to have the ATSDR conduct the above mentioned health assessment report. He can be reached at gregoryvbutton@mac.com

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Gregory V. Button is a former faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and has been researching and writing about environmental health and disasters for over three decades. He is the author of Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe (Left Coast Press).

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