More transparency called for in Georgia Power coal ash cleanup

Georgia Power is transitioning away from heavy carbon-emitting facilities like Plant Bowen at Euharlee. Photo by Beau Evans

Georgia Power’s request for customer rate increases starting next year includes $525 million through 2022 to clean up potentially toxic coal ash ponds, a remediation process environmentalists say needs more transparency.

The state’s largest electricity provider is preparing to plead its case to state regulators for a three-year overall rate hike of $2.2 billion. That amount includes money to pay for closing the company’s 29 ash ponds. Ratepayers would cover of $158 million of that cost in 2020, $140 million in 2021 and $227 million in 2022.

If approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission later this year, the rate increases would chip away at Georgia Power’s estimated $7.6 billion cost to close ponds and some landfills that store coal ash over three decades, company spokeswoman Holly Crawford said by email Thursday. Construction projects to close ash ponds, monitor groundwater quality and other compliance measures required by state and federal law are built into the cost estimate, Crawford said.

As Georgia Power’s rate case undergoes hearings this fall beginning Sept. 30, local environmental groups are poised to protest the company’s request that ratepayers shoulder the burden of $525 million in coal ash cleanup costs, said Mark Woodall, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter. Utilities seeking to recoup ash cleanup costs in other states like Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia recently faced objections from customers and local officials opposed to paying for those expenses.

Environmental advocates object to the numerous redactions in documents Georgia Power filed in support of the proposed rate hike with the PSC in late June. Those redactions shield details about the company’s ash cleanup plan that would let the public determine if it goes far enough to protect waterways and community health, and whether the company is making the best use of the ratepayers’ money, Woodall said Thursday.

“I certainly don’t think ratepayers should have to pay for [Georgia Power] doing the job incorrectly,” Woodall said. “But how the heck is anyone supposed to know whether or not something should be allowed if they don’t even know where the money went?”

The company argues in a filing last month that its estimates of future costs to close ash ponds and landfills constitute trade secrets that, if revealed, would complicate contract negotiations with vendors bidding on construction projects to close ash ponds. The company also redacted large portions of a spreadsheet that lists cost breakdowns for each plant that hosts ash ponds and landfills set to be closed, according to PSC filings.

Georgia Power is sharing some unredacted documents with the Sierra Club, according to Dori Jaffe, a senior attorney for the nonprofit Sierra Club’s Washington D.C. office. Her staff signed a confidentiality agreement and she declined to discuss details.

Duke Energy, which stirred controversy in 2014 when it spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into a North Carolina river, has disclosed ash remediation cost details in the past, she said.

The PSC requires parties that intervene in rate cases like the Sierra Club to sign confidentiality agreements before accessing anything considered a trade secret, said Georgia Power’s Crawford.

Claiming trade secrets to withhold information from the public is not unusual for companies like Georgia Power when appealing to state regulators for rate increases, said Liz Coyle, the executive director of Georgia Watch, a nonprofit consumer watchdog. Companies cite trade secrets as reason to redact documents, she said. The PSC has final say on what remains redacted, Coyle said.

“If any party has questions about why something should be marked trade secret, they can inquire,” Coyle said by phone Wednesday. “We certainly have.”

Environmentalists in recent weeks have also criticized the Georgia Power’s plans to seal in place a handful of ash ponds at coal-fired plants in ways that could permanently expose groundwater from unlined storage structures, according to a 52-page letter and engineering reports the Southern Environmental Law Center released last month.

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.

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