Require coal ash plan transparency in Georgia Power’s rate hike request

Georgia Power is proposing a rate hike that would raise the average residential customer’s bill by 7% in 2020, or about $9.85 a month. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Power wants customers who pay the company for electricity to also pay to clean up its $525 million environmental mess. And that’s about all the company wants to tell Georgians about it.

Georgia Power wants its 2.5 million ratepayers to cough up that half a billion over the next three years to seal about a dozen toxic ash ponds at coal-fired plants scattered around the state. The Georgia Public Service Commission is set to hear the company’s pitch for an overall $2.2 billion rate hike at a Sept. 30 hearing, the first in a series this fall. Georgia Power says it will spend just under a quarter of that money on ash pond cleanup.

As its first order of business, the PSC should emphatically deny Georgia Power’s claim that their plan for dealing with the coal ash problem is a “trade secret” that must be hidden from the public. The company wants its disclosure requirement to be limited only to the names of the plants involved. Its argument: transparency about its plans would allow potential cleanup contractors to tailor bids to fit the estimated budget.

But the business of undoing years of ground pollution near aging coal-fired plants is a national growth industry with lots of public market information. By the time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established national standards for closing coal ash ponds in 2015, disastrous spills in Tennessee and North Carolina created new demand for skilled handling of the carcinogenic byproduct of coal plants. Workers for a contractor hired in 2009 to clean up a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., are now sick and dying and are still trying to get contractor Jacobs Engineering to pay their medical bills.

What’s more, all the secrecy with ratepayers is only designed to make it harder for customers to get the information. Much of it can be found by enterprising citizens who know to dig into records of the state’s Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the environmental impact of Georgia Power’s operations. For example, EPD records that show that a coal ash pond at the 25-acre Plant Hammond is home to 1.1 million tons of coal ash. That ash is partially submerged in groundwater, and the land is subject to flooding. Georgia Power’s plan is to seal the unlined coal ash pond where it sits. That’s something Georgians need to know—and they shouldn’t have to jump through extra hoops to get access to public information about pollution that could harm human health.

Ash ponds at Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond are already leaking toxins, according to a letter the Southern Environmental Law Center sent to the EPD last month. It cites a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation into an ash pond leak at the plant that contaminated groundwater with arsenic.

It’s not only Georgia Power trying to make coal ash information harder to come by. The EPA is considering a request from Georgia’s EPD to give the state agency control over Georgia Power’s coal ash cleanup process. If federal regulators agree, Georgia’s EPD will decide how much outreach the power company must offer to communities that surround toxic ash ponds. And the company makes no promise it will hold hearings in those communities.

The PSC has an opportunity to increase transparency related to coal ash ponds. Commissioners owe the company’s ratepayers a solid accounting of what they’ll get for their money that Georgia Power wants to charge them to address the company’s coal ash mess.

They should demand Georgia Power unveil its plans to ratepayers—or tell the company to find another way to pay for the $525 million cleanup tab.

John McCosh
John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.

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