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Rarity Ridge

Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

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The broken promises (or dreams?) of Rarity

Rarity Properties came to Oak Ridge promising wonderful new residential developments that would be built in an environmentally sustainable manner, first at Rarity Ridge on the Clinch River at the far western perimeter of the city (west of K-25) and later at Rarity Oaks (west of the Oak Ridge Country Club). Those promises (or should I say dreams?) are  not being kept. It’s no secret that I questioned their claims of sustainability and objected to various other aspects of their proposals (all this before I was on City Council), but once they were approved I have had to hope for their success. With that background, it gives me no pleasure to see the company’s financial troubles with its development near Chattanooga — and now serious environmental troubles here in Oak Ridge.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) has sent a formal complaint to the state of Tennessee against Oak Ridge Land Company (an LLC related to Rarity Properties) for its development of Rarity Ridge, documenting chronic failure — over several years — to comply with legal requirements intended to prevent soil erosion and sediment runoff. TCWN’s photos show failures and absence of silt fences and other controls and large amounts of mud washing onto roads and drainageways — and ultimately into the Clinch River.  Not only is this harmful to the natural environment, but it is damaging the road infrastructure that is supposed to be dedicated to the city — and may already belong to the city. According to TCWN’s letter, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) issued a consent order in May 2005 about these that was supposed to resolve violations like these, but the violations are continuing four years later.

Rarity also is under another enforcement order from TDEC, issued in 2007, that initially carried total financial damages and penalties of up to more than $180,000 (but was reduced on appeal to $108,000, of which all but $33,000 will be waived if Rarity complies with the requirements of the Order)*. for clean water violations at Rarity Oaks — where plenty of earth has been moved and roads are in place, but no homes have been built yet (as far as I know). The Rarity Oaks consent order cites violations including altering waters of the state by starting to build a bridge without a permit to do so, excavating a spring-fed stream, and discharging sediment (a pollutant under the law) into East Fork Poplar Creek and its Pinhook Branch tributary.
*edited on September 1, 2009

I hope that Rarity has the financial resources to repair at least some of the damage it has done to the local environment and that the company will make good on its promises to create quality residential communities.  I also very much hope that the city and the citizens won’t get stuck with a mess at either of these sites. And I hope that my fellow city leaders will be a little less trusting the next time a smart businessman shows up and promises a dream of a deal…

Added on September 1, 2009: It wouldn’t be so bad if Rarity was the only local developer violating environmental rules, but that’s not the case. As Tuesday’s Oak Ridger pointed out, at least one of the development projects north of Edgemoor Road was also fined a much smaller amount in 2008 ($4,000 immediately and $27,000 to be paid if the situation was not remediated by certain deadlines) by TDEC for clean water violations. The newspaper article and the state order posted on the TDEC website identify different developers as the responsible party, so there’s no value in my naming names —  I’m just feeling ashamed that some of these violations have happened while I have been in a leadership role in the city government that OKed these developments.

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