Cancer rate near Vogtle questioned

WAYNESBORO, Ga. - A North Carolina environmental group unveiled a study Wednesday that showed significantly higher cancer deaths in the counties surrounding the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and its allies say that's all the more reason to oppose adding more reactors there. But the study author stopped short of saying the cancers are caused by radiation and not other factors.

Vogtle fired up two reactors in the late 1980s, and the Southern Co. is seeking regulatory approval to start up new units there. The Blue Ridge group opposes that move and commissioned the cancer death study late last year.

It found that since the reactors went online there has been a 25 percent increase in the cancer death rate in Burke County, while nationally the death rate has declined by 4 percent, said Louis Zeller, nuclear campaign coordinator for the group.

"There is an increase in Burke County that goes contrary to what is happening in the rest of the country," he said.

An Augusta Chronicle analysis of data from the Georgia Division of Public Health found a cancer death rate of 225 per 100,000, slightly below the group's rate of 231, but data for three years were not available. The U.S. cancer death rate is slightly below Burke's, at 207, and Georgia's was slightly below that for the same period, at 204.

Study author Joseph J. Mangano, the executive director of the New York City-based Radiation and Public Health Project, noted the area's higher rates of poverty and higher percentage of minorities, who traditionally have suffered higher death rates from many cancers.

"My point is this area has always been poor and high-minority," he said in a phone interview from New Jersey. "If you look at the period before Vogtle began operating, some of the death rates are actually low. The Burke County death rate was well below the U.S. And afterwards it was high. One would have to look at it further, but it's not apparent that the poverty status changed drastically in Burke County from the late '80s until now."

The Chronicle analysis also noted higher cancer death rates than Burke's in some surrounding counties, such as Wilkes.

"The more-populated counties and the less-populated counties, there are some differences," Mr. Zeller said. "But the overall trend is very plain. And that is that cancer deaths have increased, particularly as compared with the overall trend in the United States going down."

But Mr. Mangano said the report does not provide proof that radiation, whose emissions had increased, is the culprit.

"This report is really just a beginning, but it does raise, I believe, serious questions that should be answered," he said.

Georgia Power spokeswoman Carol Boatright said the company would review the report, but government studies around nuclear plants found no cancer link.

Judy Stocker, of Keysville, a member of the Women's Action of New Directions group, said the report has spurred her to try to stop any expansion of the plant.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.