A mercury research facility at creekside

A Field Research Station where Oak Ridge scientists can study mercury in East Fork Poplar Creek is still in the works, even though the Department of Energy recently pulled back its proposal to construct the facility at a natural area in Horizon Center.mercurycreek-thumb-310x175-24360.jpg

“We are currently in the process of identifying alternatives that will meet the needs of the Department of Energy and the City of Oak Ridge,” Mike Koentop, the executive officer of DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, said.

The research facility will be relatively small and cost in the range of $1 million, according to estimates. But it’s important that it be located adjacent to the lower stretches of East Fork — the creek that was historically polluted with tons of mercury discharged during Cold War operations at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.

Mark Peterson, an environmental scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said  methylmercury concentrations in water and fish are higher downstream than in the creek’s upper stretches near Y-12, where East Fork originates.

Methylmercury is the most toxic form of mercury and of most concern about bioaccumulation in fish and other critters in the food chain.

The East Fork winds through much of Oak Ridge’s west side after leaving Y-12, eventually joining Poplar Creek and downstream reservoirs, and Peterson said scientists want to evaluate ways to stop the formation of methylmercury or keep it from migrating downstream.

“The work we’re proposing is for a technology development program,” Peterson said.

He said researchers may evaluate ways to remove mercury from the water.

The Oak Ridge lab has conducted major studies of mercury in the environment, especially what causes elemental mercury to convert to more toxic forms.

“We want to look at potential water chemistry changes,” Peterson said.

According to Peterson, scientists know that the form of mercury can be altered by many factors, such as nutrients in the water or the amount of algae. Peterson said experiments at the creek could help scientists assess techniques to spur those ecological changes. As an example, native mussels could be introduced at the site to reduce the mercury risks, he said.

Koentop said the research facility is part of DOE’s comprehensive plan for addressing mercury contamination in Oak Ridge.

The proposed Field Research Station is a planned collaboration between DOE’s Office of Environmental Management and Office of Science. It would be constructed by EM, but it would be staffed by environmental scientists at ORNL.

“We’re excited about it,” Peterson said, “and what we might be able to do to make a positive difference.”

What’s learned could be beneficial in future cleanup projects at Y-12.

DOE also is developing a new $148 million treatment facility at Y-12 to remove mercury from the creek’s headwaters.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.