Knoxville News Sentinel: Op-Ed by Lamar Alexander: Water treatment plant to intercept mercury, make creek safer

Posted on June 1, 2013

If the words “mercury in the water at Oak Ridge” get your attention, as they do mine, let me give you the assessment I’ve gathered of the problem and what we can do about it.

The bottom line for what you can do: Don’t eat the fish in East Fork Poplar Creek, and even better, stay out of that water.

What the federal government can do about it in the short term is to construct a water-treatment plant to capture and clean the water where up to 80 percent of the contamination occurs.

Long term, the U.S. Department of Energy must clean up the source of the mercury, which is four buildings and the ground around them on the Y-12 reservation.

I’m not an expert. But I’ve talked to a lot of them, and here is how they explain what the problem is, and what it is not.

There are many sources of mercury in the environment. What we worry about here is mercury at the four Y-12 buildings and the ground around them — mercury that gets into East Fork Poplar Creek, and then into the fish swimming in the creek, and then into us when we eat the fish.

The National Institutes of Health has shown that when humans eat fish that have ingested mercury, it can cause severe brain and nervous system damage, particularly in unborn children. The specific place we’re worried about right now is the head of East Fork Poplar Creek, the place where most of the Y-12 mercury gets into the water.

Although Tennesseans can remain safe by simply not eating the fish and staying out of the contaminated water, mercury is one of the biggest cleanup issues we have in Tennessee. Children want to pick crawdads out of East Fork Poplar Creek, and Tennesseans of all ages want to eat the fish. But signs warn them off, and fishermen on the Clinch River into which Poplar Creek flows face a health dilemma over what to do with their catch.

East Tennesseans have been dealing with cleanup from making weapons during World War II and the Cold War for several decades. Many thousands of East Tennesseans got cancer while working around radioactive material. I’ve tried to help through legislation making it easier for those sick workers, and their families, to file claims.

President Barack Obama’s budget recommends $394 million this year for environmental cleanup at Oak Ridge. The current radioactive cleanup will soon be completed, and now is the time to move toward the next major issue, mercury.

The mercury we’re dealing with now arrived at Oak Ridge during the 1950s and 1960s. In total, about 200,000 gallons of mercury — enough to fill about 24 gasoline tank trucks — arrived at Oak Ridge’s Y-12 site for the production of nuclear weapons.

Of that, about 18,000 gallons have been lost to the environment or are otherwise unaccounted for. That’s like losing two of those gasoline tankers and not knowing what happened to their cargo. Experts suspect that roughly one truck’s worth has leaked into the environment, with about a third ending up in East Fork Poplar Creek.

The Y-12 buildings where this mercury contamination originates offer visual proof of the problem. On hot days, you can sometimes see the mercury form in pools on the floor and in beads on the walls.

Cleanup actions since the 1980s have dramatically reduced mercury levels, but we need to do more. So, on May 3, I joined officials with the state of Tennessee, Oak Ridge and the U.S. Department of Energy at the announcement of a water-treatment plant that will intercept most of the mercury before it makes this problem worse — a major step in addressing the problem. Now the DOE needs to keep the treatment plant on budget and on time.

Our goal should be that one day children can safely pick crawdads out of East Fork Poplar Creek and enjoy eating the fish they caught. And instead of signs of warning, there will be signs of welcome.