Clock ticking on Georgia Power plan for unlined coal ash storage

Our guest columnist says about 1.5 million Georgia households rely on well water and these rural families do not have any means of protecting their water source from coal ash waste contamination. People who live near Plant Scherer in middle Georgia worry coal ash toxins in the drinking water are making people sick. Contributed/Altamaha Riverkeeper

When Plant Harllee Branch near Milledgeville shut down in 2015 after more than five decades of generating energy from coal, it was anyone’s guess what Georgia Power might do with the millions of cubic yards of toxic coal ash left behind.

There were a few options being weighed at the time: recycle it, excavate and move it to a lined landfill, or leave it right where it was.

But state Rep. Rick Williams, a Republican in whose district the now-demolished coal ash plant sat near the area’s main tourist attraction, Lake Sinclair, saw only one satisfactory solution: storing it in a lined landfill.

“We put pressure on them and kept after them,” Williams said of Georgia Power.

The utility, which is in the process of closing 29 ponds at nearly a dozen current or former plants, has since announced that it would move the coal ash into a new, lined landfill.

But not all coal ash ponds in Georgia are getting the same treatment. Holly Crawford, a utility spokeswoman, says that while Georgia Power plans to excavate 19 ash ponds, 10 others will be “closed in place using proven engineering methods and closure technologies.”

What comes of these coal ash ponds in Georgia emerged as an unlikely focal point early in the legislative session after a proposal proponents like to call the “banana peel” bill was introduced under the Gold Dome. The measure would require coal ash to be stored in a lined landfill, as is required today for banana peels and other household garbage.

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell is sponsoring a bill that would require coal ash to be stored in lined landfills. The bill is seen as a priority for House Democrats, hence Trammell signing the bill from his hospital bed. Fletcher Sams/Altamaha Riverkeeper

The bill is seen as a priority for House Democrats, with the bill’s sponsor, House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat, signing the bill from a hospital bed after undergoing surgery. A version of the proposal has also been filed in the Senate.

But the proposal faces a tough slog in a Legislature where Georgia Power is a powerful force and Republicans maintain control.

“Georgia has to be part of the national discussion,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat. “We have the largest coal power plant in the United States of America in our state, and we know that there are issues of toxic coal ash residue reaching our wells. That is something that people care about, and we have a responsibility to protect our water sources.”

Oliver is referring to Plant Scherer in Juliette, which was recently the subject of an in-depth story by two non-profit news outlets, Georgia Health News and Grist. Residents there are so concerned about the plant’s impact on their health that they have stopped drinking water from their own wells.

“The remedy is clear: They have to be lined in order to protect our water sources,” said Oliver, adding that she is “looking for an honest discussion from representatives whose constituents are impacted by toxic coal ash residue.”

‘Racing the clock’

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm about the utility’s close-in-place plans for the currently unlined pits across the state, saying the proximity to groundwater threatens nearby residents’ well water, local farm production and the region’s rivers and streams.

The remaining coal ash is worrisome because it contains substances like arsenic and boron that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says can cause some forms of cancer in humans and neurological issues in children, not to mention the potential harm those toxins can cause to vegetation and wildlife along local waterways.

The utility recently convinced the state Public Service Commission to sign off on rate and fee increases, in part, to cover coal ash cleanup costs.

“They’re going to let the ratepayers pick up the whole tab, but they don’t want to do it the right way,” said Mark Woodall, conservation chairman for Sierra Club Georgia chapter. “Duke is doing the liners. It’s just nothing but short-sighted corporate think.”

Duke Energy in North Carolina announced this year that it has agreed to close its remaining coal ash basins and move most of its toxic waste to lined landfills, an ambitious plan that environmentalists say show it can be done.

Crawford with Georgia Power says the utility’s closure plans comply with state and federal rules. When asked why Plant Branch was chosen for excavation and relocation to a lined landfill and not others, she said the utility works with third-party engineers and geologists to design plans “on a site-by-site basis considering size, location and even the geology of the area among other factors.”

“We are aware of the bill and are reviewing it,” Crawford said in a recent statement.

Williams, the Milledgeville lawmaker, said he can rest a little easier knowing his local coal ash will sit in a lined landfill. But he said he’s also concerned about what will come of the coal ash in unlined pits elsewhere in the state.

Rep. Rick Williams

“I’m very, very much concerned about the coal ash and the poisons that are in it and how it might get into groundwater,” Williams said.

“All landfills are lined, so why not line all the coal ash ponds?” Williams added.

Rep. Dale Washburn, a Macon Republican in whose district the still-operating Plant Scherer sits, said he understands that argument but he wants more information.

“To me, it is just a major, major undertaking to start talking about putting liners in those coal ash ponds,” Washburn said. “We have to think about everything. We have to think about cost. It is just a very complex issue.”

Even Williams, who said he supports the concept, differs from Democrats in a significant way. Because of the expense of retroactively moving coal ash into lined landfills, Williams said he believes the situation warrants patience. Georgia Power, he said, should be allowed to cap some existing ponds as planned in the meantime, which he argued would at least ward off rain. Afterall, he noted, the coal ash ponds have already been sitting there for decades.

Proponents, though, say capping the ponds isn’t enough to protect Georgia’s groundwater and they are pressing for more immediate action.

There’s a reason for the urgency. Environmentalists and others hope lawmakers will intervene before the state Environmental Protection Division acts on Georgia Power’s permit applications. Under the bill, the utility would be blocked from acquiring a permit unless their plans envision a lined resting place for the coal ash.

“Georgia Power is in the process right now of submitting these closure plans. If they receive a permit to close in place, that’s what they’re going to do,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which monitors for pollution throughout the watershed and has been doing groundwater testing in the area near Scherer.

“It’s one of those things where we’re kind of racing the clock,” Sams said. “In other words, if they receive a permit to close in place, it’s all over.”