Coal ash monitoring switch from feds to state could limit transparency

Georgia Power's Plant McDonough near the Chattahoochee River northwest of Atlanta is home to coal ash ponds. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Jesup newspaper publisher Dink NeSmith has churned out 101 opinion columns and 103 editorial cartoons on the subject of coal ash in Georgia since January of 2016, when word first got out that a South Carolina subsidiary of the waste company Republic Services planned to haul up to 10,000 tons of the toxic substance daily by train down from North Carolina to a landfill near the small southeast Georgia town. 

“None of this was known,” NeSmith said by phone this week, until a local resident’s casual check of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ website turned up a notice that a 30-day comment period was already winding down for a permit to lay tracks through the Wayne County wetlands.

Dirk Nesmith. Dorothy Koslowski/Community Newspapers Inc.

“That was a poor way to let the people of rural Georgia know they were about to get 10,000 tons of coal ash a day,” NeSmith said.

Now, NeSmith and environmental advocates in Georgia fear plans for removing and sealing shut some coal ash disposal sites could evade the public eye under a new state-managed program, unless more opportunity for input is created. They want to know how much input they will get before permits to close disposal ponds are issued in the coming months by newly-empowered state regulators.

Coal ash, the carcinogenic byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity, has long been stored at more than two dozen sludge ponds at power plants in Georgia. Georgia Power is steadily closing the ponds. The company plans to remove many of the ponds entirely, while it will sealed others where they are. Going forward, the state’s largest energy supplier will store coal ash in dry landfills.

Environmentalists complain Georgia Power’s seal-in-place plans could permanently expose groundwater to coal ash in a handful of unlined ponds, according to a 52-page letter and engineering reports the Southern Environmental Law Center released earlier this month. Critics of the closure plans want more opportunity to raise objections before state regulators grant Georgia Power permits to shutter the ponds.

“You’re disenfranchising communities who clearly have the most at stake and not giving them an opportunity to weigh in on something that will have real ramifications for a very long time,” said Jennette Gayer, the executive director of the advocacy group Environment Georgia.

If the state ash permitting program earns federal approval, an Aug. 7 hearing in Atlanta might have been the only opportunity the public had to comment in person before state regulators decide on pond closure permits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deadline to OK Georgia’s permit application is mid-December.

Public hearings are not required ahead of five-year permits for ash storage in landfills, Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokesman Kevin Chambers said this week in an email. The state agency would “seriously consider” holding hearings in a local community if “there is significant public interest expressed,” Chambers said.

Georgia Power has held several public meetings and posted detailed information on its website since the company first rolled out plans for closing its ponds in 2015, said Holly Crawford, a company spokeswoman. It is unclear if the company plans to hold site-specific meetings in the future.

Public meetings ought to be held near coal-fired plants before state regulators approve permits allowing ash ponds to be closed where they sit, said state Rep. Mary Frances Williams, a Marietta Democrat. But formally expanding public input for ash pond closures or other disposal practices is probably a job for the Georgia General Assembly, she said. 

And that could be tough to do without new support from the Republican majority, Williams said. She sponsored a House resolution in the 2019 legislative session calling for coal ash to be removed from Georgia Power’s plant along the Chattahoochee River near her district. It never gained traction.

“We need more at the legislative level,” said Williams, who sits on the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. “There’s just so much pushback, and from my perspective we’re going to need to have help from across the aisle.”

State Rep. Jeff Jones, a Republican from Brunswick, filed several bills since 2017 to open coal ash disposal plans to more public input. Two require public notice before coal plants can drain water from ash ponds or store ash in landfills. Permit approvals “should require a full public hearing in the communities in which the activities are occurring,” Jones said. “I agree with that one hundred percent.”

However, Jones said, tacking on a public review process might make his legislation an even tougher sell.

Ultimately, the ash-bearing rail line through Wayne County was scrapped in 2017 amid public backlash, NeSmith, the Jesup publisher, said this week. But he says he worries a similar situation could crop up again without more public input.

“We’ve been so frustrated trying to get new laws enacted in Georgia that would get more public awareness, more notice,” NeSmith said. “We haven’t had any luck, but we’re going to stay on it for however long it takes.”

 

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.

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