Juliette residents leave Capitol frustrated by coal ash politics

Karl Cass, a Juliette resident, holds a jug of his well water with the results of a recent water test written on it. Photo courtesy of Riley Bunch/CNHI

Gini Seitz is a lifelong resident of conservative Monroe County who identifies as a Republican, and yet there she was Monday, standing in the halls of the Gold Dome advocating passionately for a Democratic proposal.

Seitz was among the dozens of Juliette residents who live near Plant Scherer who boarded charter buses with jugs of their contaminated well water and “Save Juliette” shirts to make the hour or so drive north to Atlanta. They came to show lawmakers why they believe the state should require Georgia Power to move all of its coal ash waste to lined landfills.

Georgia Power has argued that there is no evidence that its coal ash ponds are compromising the drinking water in Juliette or elsewhere in Georgia. The public utility is in the process of closing 29 coal ash sites across the state, with 10 of them left enclosed in unlined pits.

Gini Seitz, a lifelong Monroe County resident, brought a jug of her contaminated well water to the state Capitol Monday. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

“I am very disappointed in our Republican leadership,” said Seitz, who relies on bottled water and who now questions whether her daughter’s fight with cancer at a young age is the result of drinking contaminated well water.

“And while I am a very proud Republican, I can be convinced really easily to go to the other side to get the help that we need. If that’s what it takes, that’s what we have to do,” Seitz said.

That fiery sentiment was repeated often Monday, as Juliette residents tried desperately to press their Republican leaders to support a measure that would require toxic coal ash to be stored in a lined landfill, just as household garbage is treated today.

Monroe County, by the way, backed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp with 72% of the vote in 2018 – a show of support that residents emphasized as they dropped off a petition and bottles of their contaminated well water at the governor’s office Monday.

“I’m a 40-year Republican. This is Mr. Kemp’s office here. We put him here,” said Dan Gosline as he stood in the lobby of the governor’s office. “You better get on it. Republicans are going to lose because I won’t support a Republican party that sits on their hands while this happens.”

The residents, who worry about the effect years of drinking contaminated water has had on their health, arrived days after county officials coordinated with the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency to bring in large tanks of clean water for residents.

Juliette residents say they are also pushing for water lines that will bring clean water to their homes and for lawmakers to pass the Democrats’ bills requiring coal ash to be stored in lined landfills.

State Rep. Dale Washburn, a Macon Republican who represents Juliette, said Monday that he was working on his own proposal that would go even further. But the first-term lawmaker said he has decided to hold off for now so individual water test results can be verified and independently analyzed.

The nonprofit Altamaha Riverkeeper, whose mission is to protect the river and its tributaries from pollution, has used grant money from Patagonia to test the water in the homes near the still-operating plant. The group also received anonymous donations through the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta to help pay for charter buses and other expenses.

Most of the riverkeeper’s tests have 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.

Washburn said county officials are also doing their own tests.

State Rep. Dale Washburn, a Macon Republican who represents Juliette, talks to residents at the Capitol Monday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“We must have sufficient evidence to be able to pass the legislation that you want passed,” Washburn said to residents Monday.

Crossover Day, which is the deadline for a bill to clear one chamber to have the clearest path to passage, is still two weeks away. But as of today, the Democrats’ bills have not received a hearing.

Residents were clearly frustrated by the requests they were hearing from lawmakers Monday for additional information about the contaminants in their water. John Dupree, who lives in Juliette with his wife and five kids, said lawmakers were overly focused on the well test results. The coal ash pond’s reach into the aquifer should be reason enough, he argued.

“That aquifer that’s under Georgia Power’s plant and flows under my home does not belong to Georgia Power. It belongs to us,” Dupree said. “We want it cleaned up.”

 

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.