For Several Georgia Counties, an Invisible Flint-level Water Crisis (UPDATE 1)
(APN) ATLANTA — National outrage has turned to the City of Flint, Michigan, where murky, discolored water is coming out of residents’ faucets, with lead and iron to blame. This was caused by changing the water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which was in order to save money.
Here is Georgia, many communities are struggling with dangerous pollutants in their water, but there is no spectacle of brown water for television news B roll; instead, invisible pollutants, some radioactive, are a silent, invisible danger.
Dr. Yolanda Whyte, a pediatrician who specializes in environmental health, testified at a press conference at the Georgia Capitol, on March 14, 2016, about the rise in neurodevelopmental disorders, cancers, and other pollution related diseases in children.
“When we examine the root cause, we find that contaminated water is a clear source of toxic chemicals. That is why I recommend purified water for my patients,” Dr. Whyte said.
Georgia’s 2014 Water Compliance Report, prepared by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD), identifies problems in water systems throughout the state that have violations of heavy metals; carcinogens; and radionuclides like mercury, arsenic, chromium, benzene, cyanide, uranium, and radium
Many people in rural areas drink from wells, and it is left up to property owners to have their wells tested.
“People in Georgia need to be warned they are drinking arsenic, lead, and uranium in their water,” Janet McMahan from Ocilla, in southeast Georgia, said. Ocilla is in Irwin County and has a population of 4,414.
Her son died of cancer two years ago, in 2014, and McMahan has documented cancer clusters in her area due to arsenic and other heavy metals in the well water.
Cairo, Georgia, residents also have a problem of drinking water contaminated with arsenic. Located in Grady County, in the central part of south Georgia, quite close to the Florida border, it has a population of 9,607.
After Aline Rundle tested her tap water and found out it had high levels of arsenic, other neighbors began a mass testing of water in Cairo.
Cairo residents organized a citizens’ movement and got the City of Cairo to install a water treatment system to remove arsenic from their drinking water. It is the first plant in Georgia to have arsenic treatment capabilities.
Waycross, Georgia, residents are experiencing a high rate of cancer, and fear environmental pollutants in the air and water contamination are to blame. Waycross is in Ware County, Georgia, with a population of 14,725, in southeast Georgia.
Joan Tibor lived in Waycross for 35 years, but was forced to move because, “Doctors told me I would die if I did not move,” Tibor said.
Tibor is co-founder of Silent Disaster, a community group concerned with escalating health problems in the Waycross area.
State Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Waycross) is so concerned about a cancer cluster around the Waycross region, he reached out to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate cancer rates in Ware County.
In addition to the high rate of cancer in the Waycross area, several children have been diagnosed with very rare cancer. Three were diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma that only affects 350 cases annually in the United States. Another child was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, which affects only one in a million each year.
Annie Laura Howard Stephens, who lives in Shell Bluff, Georgia, which is downwind and downstream from the Savannah River Site and Vogtle nuclear plants, has witnessed many in her family and community die from cancer.
“Prior to 1976, we had a below average rate of cancer in Burke County. Today, the cancer rate is 25 percent above the national average”, Stephens said.
In 2008, Atlanta Progressive News first reported on the statistical correlation between high rates of cancer and other diseases, and proximity to a nuclear power plant.
In the same article, APN reviewed several hundred pages of Draft Environmental Impact Statement, as prepared for Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, to reveal that the U.S. government is well aware of the radioactive pollution to air, water, and soil, as a result of nuclear power operations in Georgia.
Part of the problem in Georgia is lack of monitoring for contaminants in the water, air, and soil.
EPD once conducted radiological monitoring between 1976 until 2002 in nine sites in Georgia, including Shell Bluff.
“The EPD’s last test in 2002 showed elevated levels of tritium, cesium 137, strontium 90, plutonium, cobalt 60 in the Shell Bluff area,” Becky Rafter, Executive Director, Georgia Women’s Action for New Direction (GA WAND) said in a teleconference.
“There are plumes of contaminated groundwater beneath the SRS… It’s a problem for drinking water downstream. They found elevated levels of tritium in the Savannah Water Treatment plant the last time Georgia did monitoring,” Rafter said.
People in Jesup, Georgia, are worried about becoming a dumping ground for coal ash. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals are known to be in the coal ash from coal fired power plants. Residents fear all of those contaminates will end up in the Altamaha River and in their drinking water.
State Rep. Jeff Jones (R-Brunswick) wants a ban on the injection of groundwater into the aquifer.
“The problem is that oxygenated water creates a chemical reaction with the limestone. It creates a leaching of the heavy metals, particularly arsenic, that would leach into the ground water. Once that process begins, it can not be stopped or reversed,” Rep. Jones said during the telepress event.
“Many interests value the dollar more than the safety of our citizens,” Jones said.
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, SB 36, the Underground Water Supply Protection Act, as proposed during the 2015-2016 Legislative Session, would have helped protect Georgians from contaminated water, but was being held hostage in the house Natural Resources Committee. It was authored by State Senator William Ligon, Jr. (R-Brunswick).
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the pollution in Flint was “almost certainly due to fracking.” As noted above, it was pollution of iron and lead due to the changing of Flint’s water source.