Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image


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.


Obstructionism isn’t fiscal responsibility

2013-03-31_19-19-49_598I’m sitting in a City Council meeting right now, hearing one Council member (initials are T.B.) announce that she is going to block some needed city contracts because she is trying to save the city money through her actions. In fact, her actions are going to increase the cost of doing business for the city government — and ultimately every taxpayer and ratepayer.

The action being discussed is approval of several resolutions to pre-authorize city staff to contact pre-qualified contractors when a need arises for particular services, obtain price quotes, and get the best-priced services to meet the immediate need. These resolutions require unanimous approval. The council member who is obstructing these resolutions insists that she is saving the city money, but the bid processes that she is insisting on will cost the city money.

She is digging in her heels against any contract related to meeting the requirements of the EPA order to upgrade its sewer system to eliminate wet-weather overflows. She is doing this because she says (as she has said repeatedly in recent months) that the city’s current sewer issues are related to some sort of technical “failure” in the past. In fact, the city’s only failure was not spending enough money to keep pace with the need.

For about two decades, the city had an aggressive program to rehabilitate and maintain sewers. The city spent as much on sewer maintenance and rehabilitation as city leadership thought the ratepayers could  afford — typically $1 to $1.5 million each year. Significant progress was made in eliminating infiltration and inflow. This was an expensive program and it greatly reduced the number of overflows, but the annual expenditures weren’t big enough to keep up with the problem. The city’s public works staff and consultants knew that the city wasn’t spending enough money to keep up with the deterioration of aging sewer systems.

Failure to authorize the required expenditures now won’t solve the problem. At best, it simply delays the needed work, but more likely it will end up costing the ratepayers more money, not less.