Coal ash imports at Georgia landfills prompt push for disposal fee hike

Georgia's environmental agency charged with regulating air polluters is dealing with budget woes in part caused by lost fees from a shift from decreased use of coal for energy. Plant Bowen near Cartersville is one of a few coal-fired plants Georgia Power still operates in the state. File/Georgia Recorder

Wary of a coal ash influx in Georgia, environmental groups and some local officials are pushing for a bill in next year’s legislative session to hike fees charged to store coal ash at landfills.

The bill proposes to raise the fee for dumping coal ash from $1 to $2.50 per ton. That’s what dumping all other kinds of landfill garbage cost since July. In 2018, state lawmakers raised the fee for all solid waste except for coal ash, which got a carve-out in the law to keep the lower $1 fee.

The aim is to discourage coal-fired power plants outside Georgia from sending more of the toxic ash to landfills in the state, said state Sen. William Ligon Jr., the Brunswick Republican sponsoring the bill.

“What we’re doing is we’re subsidizing the importation of coal ash from other places to put in our ground and potentially impact our water sources,” Ligon said last week. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Millions of tons of coal ash have poured into five landfills located in rural parts of Georgia since state environmental regulators began permitting the practice in May 2017. Much of that ash arrives from power plants in Florida and North Carolina, according to permit records from the state Environmental Protection Division

And more could be on the way. A landfill in Mauk, a small town outside Columbus, recently appeared on a list of potential sites to receive tons of coal ash from a shuttered power plant in Memphis, Tennessee, according to a Tennessee Valley Authority report.

Several local environmental groups argue that the 2018 fee measure created a loophole in state law that could lead to Georgia becoming a net importer of coal ash. They back Ligon’s bill as a way to discourage out-of-state ash.

“We don’t want to make Georgia more attractive as a dumping ground,” said Mark Woodall, the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter conservation chairman. “And for what dumping there is, we don’t want to make these poor Georgia counties ground zero for it.”

Coal ash contains toxins that can pollute groundwater if not contained in lined storage areas. Local environmentalists have called for more transparency over how ash will be stored as oversight switches from the federal government to state regulators later this month. More coal ash is poised for landfill disposal as Georgia Power works to close dozens of ash storage ponds at its coal-fired plants in the coming years.

The amount of coal ash compared to other kinds of garbage brought to landfills in Georgia varies widely, permit records show. Coal ash makes up a tiny fraction at a few landfills, while more than half of the waste hauled to the R&B Landfill outside Homer in the second half of 2017 was coal ash.

It’s unclear whether Georgia landfills have already been collecting more coal ash since the fee change took effect in July. The state EPD tracks the total amount of coal ash sent to landfills in annual reports that were most recently completed in June.

Texas-based Waste Management, which runs four of the five landfills in Georgia permitted for coal ash, declined to provide details how much coal ash its landfills have received since the July fee change. The company opposes increasing the fee for coal ash to $2.50, said spokeswoman Marla Prince.

“For coal ash that cannot be beneficially reused, disposal in fully permitted landfills is a benefit to the environment, communities and the entire region,” Prince said in an email Friday.

Landfill operators set their own limits for how much coal ash they can handle when applying for permits, said William Cook, the EPD’s solid waste manager. They need state approval to change how much coal ash they can receive.

Many rural Georgia residents are growing more concerned as coal ash heads for landfills near their homes. In 2016, public outcry helped derail Arizona-based waste company Republic Services’ plans to send up to 10,000 tons of ash daily to the small southeast Georgia town of Jesup.

More recently, people in Banks County wondered what the future holds for the Waste Management-operated landfill near Homer. The site recently accepted more than 1.5 million tons of coal ash from North Carolina over the course of a year and a half, permit records show.

Meanwhile, officials in Butts County are questioning the low disposal fee’s fairness even though the local Pine Ridge Landfill run by Republic Services is not permitted to receive coal ash. If the landfill starts taking the ash, it ought to pay the higher fee to at least help offset declining property values near the landfill, said Ken Rivers, chairman of the Butts County Board of Commissioners. 

“It isn’t just regular trash,” Rivers said last week. “It’s our understanding that if this gets into a water system or something like that, that could be detrimental to our entire community.”

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.