Tennessee Health Department, TDEC, confirm toxic waste at Anderson County playground

By: - April 14, 2022 7:14 am
A staff member from Civil and Environmental Consultants collecting a surface soil sample inside the playground, in the central area near the playground entrance where children would play or run to other playground equipment. TVA staff observe the sampling process. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)

A staff member from Civil and Environmental Consultants collecting a surface soil sample inside the playground, in the central area near the playground entrance where children would play or run to other playground equipment. TVA staff observe the sampling process. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)

State regulators have confirmed the presence of Tennessee Valley Authority radioactive coal ash waste at a playground in Anderson County — confirming the findings last year of a Duke University study that first revealed the threat to children playing there.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Department of Health issued a report Tuesday that confirms the presence of TVA’s toxic waste at the Kids Palace Playground in Claxton and that children exposed to coal ash are more likely to develop cancers than those not exposed to radioactive waste. 

The report backs up the findings of a Duke University study, published in July 2021, of coal ash contamination at the playground. The report says coal ash, the radioactive waste produced by coal-burning power plants, was detected in soil samples collected underneath the park’s swings in December.

The state study confirmed the presence of radioactive materials and toxins, including radium, cobalt, and lead, and unsafe levels of arsenic in the soil beneath the swings. But the Tennessee health department wrote that the risk to children of “excess cancers” from the waste is low, and children playing there can be kept safe with additional layers of dirt and mulch.

“The most conservative excess cancer risk (from arsenic) was about two excess cancers in one million children,” the state report said. “The total risk for combined radium 226+228 would be estimated to be … about four excess lifetime cancers in one million people… Although this estimated additional excess cancer risk is not zero, the additional risk is very small, especially in comparison to the normal risk of people developing cancer during their lifetime.

“This estimated excess cancer risk should not result in a significant increased excess risk of cancer to children playing at the playground and there should be no harmful health effects from amounts of arsenic found in the soils of the park or playground,” the report stated.

“Proper maintenance designed to keep any coal ash residuals below the geofiber layers and mulch will ensure that there is no exposure,” the report continued. “The Tennessee Department of Health, as a prudent public health action and to eliminate any possibility of exposure, recommends repair of areas of soil beneath the swings and the addition of new mulch over the entire playground.”

TVA did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.



TVA lab used

The playground is immediately adjacent to a massive mound of TVA’s radioactive coal ash waste at the utility’s Bull Run power plant, and TVA officials admitted — after the Duke University study was made public — that coal ash was used as “fill material” in the construction of the playground in 2000. TVA also used radioactive coal ash in the construction of an athletic field next to the playground.

TVA still owns the playground and athletic field property but leases it to Anderson County.

TDEC, which is tasked with regulating TVA’s storage of radioactive coal ash in Tennessee, was alerted more than two years ago that the toxic waste piled up at the Bull Run plant was blowing onto the playground but did nothing to test the soil or air.

Duke University’s coal ash expert, Dr. Avner Vengosh, included the Claxton playground in a 2020 study he and his researchers were already conducting in North Carolina.

After the Duke study revealed the presence of TVA’s coal ash waste at the playground last year, the Anderson County Commission refused to close the playground but asked TDEC to conduct its own study.

Although TDEC hired a private firm to conduct its sampling, TVA played an active role in that process, the state’s report revealed.

“TVA split (or shared) soil samples with TDEC,” the report stated. “A large portion of soil was collected from five distinct points at each location. After the sample was mixed thoroughly, TDEC took a portion of soil for testing and TVA was given another portion for testing.”

The report reveals TDEC and TVA used the same lab – TVA contractor R.J. Lee Group Laboratory in Pennsylvania – to examine the samples for the presence of radioactive coal ash waste.

“The laboratory reported most samples were at least 98 percent free of coal ash,” the state report stated. “Two samples had a coal ash content of six percent and nine percent (and were) collected

beneath swings in the northeast and northwest areas of the playground.

“These locations were where worn areas beneath the swings were observed,” the report stated. “These worn areas have exposed deeper soils beneath the top layers of mulch, soil, and torn and worn geofabric material used to cover the deeper soil sub-base of the playground. It was noted during sample collection the geofiber layers were worn away in areas beneath the swings.”

The sampling was conducted in December. Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank was present when both TVA and TDEC observed and photographed the erosion under the swings, according to the report. But the park remained open until February, when the county temporarily shut it down to repair “torn and worn landscape fabric,” according to a news release. It was reopened in March and remains open.

“We would like to thank Anderson County for already taking action to repair the worn areas beneath both sets of swings, and at the slides, tire swing and monkey bar areas at the playground,” the report released Tuesday stated.

“The Tennessee Department of Health also recommends Anderson County Parks prepare and follow an operations and maintenance plan to regularly inspect the playground, repair damaged areas, and add

additional mulch to areas where the mulch has been worn away,” the report continued.

“(Through maintenance) the Claxton Community Park and Playground can continue to be a place for children to play and their families to enjoy,” the report concluded.


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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.