Emergency water trucked to community fearing coal ash toxins

Fletcher Sams, executive executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, shows Tiffany and Adam Bertram test results Friday from water samples taken at their Juliette home. The tests revealed elevated levels of the toxin hexavalent chromium. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

JULIETTE, Ga. — Heather Ethridge has been doling out money for bottled water and refilling jugs for months. The extra money and hassle beats the alternative: Drinking the contaminated water flowing from her well in Juliette.

That’s why the 600-gallon tank of water that appeared outside the downtown Juliette fire station Thursday was a welcome sight. Local officials coordinated with the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency to ship in tanks of free, clean water after residents living near the massive coal ash pond at Plant Scherer aired frustrations over the troubling state of their well water.

Ethridge, who lives next to the fire station with her husband, three kids and dog, hopes a long-term remedy will come in the form of a water line that will import clean municipal water from outside the community.

“That is the only for sure option to help us at this moment, other than for the temporary water that heaven sent on its own,” Ethridge said. “But you still worry about taking showers, washing clothes, washing dishes.”

The large water tanks parked outside Monroe County fire stations last week will have to do for now, though. It costs the county about $5 to fill up a 1,000-gallon tank that provides some help in the meantime.

Ultimately, county leaders say they are brainstorming ways to pay for the 96 miles of water lines needed to bring clean water to Juliette’s residents. The project is expected to cost about $27 million – which is nearly the equivalent of the county’s entire budget last year.

Monroe County officials are eying possible funding sources, including federal programs, bonds, state grants or using some of the special sales tax revenue that’s not already allocated for specific projects.

“We, as commissioners, don’t have any purview over Georgia Power or Plant Scherer’s coal ash pond and all those rules and regulations,” County Chairman Greg Tapley said Friday. “But what we can try to do is try to get clean water to the people whose wells are contaminated.

“And so that’s where we have been zeroed in,” Tapley said.

The Republican county leader says he hopes locals aren’t left to shoulder the cost alone. However, Tapley said the county isn’t counting on Georgia Power, which operates Plant Scherer, to offer to pay for some of the water lines.

“The problem is Georgia Power very quickly will tell you that have adhered to all the state and federal guidelines regulations as they have been handed down to them,” he said. “And so, because they at least have that footing to stand on… we can’t assume that they’re going to pay anything.”

‘We need to do something’

Rumors about the local water have circulated for years, but a local environmental group, the Altamaha Riverkeeper, has recently used grant money to test the water flowing into the homes near Plant Scherer.

Most of the results turned up coal ash contaminants, such as boron, strontium, vanadium and hexavalent chromium, which is a known carcinogen at the center of the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, according to the group’s executive director, Fletcher Sams.

Sams acknowledges, though, that directly linking the toxins found in the residents’ well water to the coal ash pond is a challenge.

And Georgia Power maintains that its monitoring wells “show no detections above state or federal standards for drinking water,” spokesman John Kraft said Friday. Georgia Power plans to enclose 10 coal ash ponds, leaving them in unlined pits; the utility will excavate 19 other coal ash sites.

“To reiterate, there is absolutely no evidence that our operations at Plant Scherer are causing impacts to our neighbors’ drinking water in Juliette, the Monroe County area or elsewhere in the state,” Kraft said in a statement Friday.

“Furthermore, if our operations were causing harm to residents, we would take every action necessary to resolve the situation,” he added.

Juliette residents, though, have grown increasingly wary of the coal ash pond, which sits submerged in an aquifer, and there is growing pressure on state lawmakers to take action. That will likely intensify Monday when busloads of Juliette residents plan to converge on the state Capitol.

Coal ash had already emerged this session as a dominant issue. The Senate is set to vote Monday on a bill that raises the fee to import coal ash waste into Georgia, putting the fee on par with other garbage. A House committee has also revived a holdover measure from last year that requires local governments to be alerted when a coal ash pond is being dewatered, a process that is already underway at some sites.

And Democrats pitched the so-called banana peel bill that would require toxic coal ash waste to be stored in lined landfills, just like banana peels and other household trash. A similar bill was filed last year by a Republican lawmaker, Rep. Rick Williams, and never had a hearing.

Even so, Williams, who represents the now demolished Plant Branch in Milledgeville, was able to push Georgia Power to agree to move the coal ash pond left behind to a lined landfill. He said he believes the Juliette coal ash should receive the same treatment. Tapley, the county officials, agrees.

“I want to see something happen,” said Williams, who is also the sponsor of the dewatering bill. “We need to do something, especially for the citizens down there around Lake Sinclair (in Milledgeville) and Lake Juliette. We need to do something.”

Free, clean water

A handful of Juliette residents on Friday were unaware of the free water tanks but said they were grateful they were there. The tanks’ popularity is expected to rise as news of their arrival spreads and as the already stocked-up household water supplies are depleted in the coming days.

Other places in Monroe County are chipping in as well. A local Wal-Mart and some churches have been providing some free cases of water. And this weekend, the county also gave away free cases.

But on Friday, Sams with the Altamaha Riverkeeper group delivered more residents bad, although expected, news.

Among them were Adam and Tiffany Bertram, who pondered if his persistent stomach problems and any of his roughly 20 joint surgeries could have been caused by years of consuming contaminated water.

Bertram, who moved to Juliette at the age of nine, said he’s worried about his kids who have been drinking the water for years.

“In the last year I’ve developed an asthma that I’ve never had before,” he said. “I’ve really struggled with that.”

The Bertrams said the new water tanks provide some respite to families who do not want to continue forking over money for bottled water.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.
Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.