Georgia Power coal ash cleanup plans might bypass public meetings

Georgia Power's parent company says it expects to reach 'net zero' emissions by 2050. Plant Scherer near Macon has long been one of the country's biggest carbon polluters. Contributed/Altamaha Riverkeeper

As the state’s largest electric utility seeks state approval to close its toxic coal ash ponds, a key question remains: How involved will residents be in decisions that will could affect their community for decades to come?

Georgia Power will close its 29 coal ash ponds in the state, with 10 of them proposed to be kept where they sit in unlined pits. Residents can submit a written comment for the state’s consideration, but a public hearing – where residents could come together to voice their concerns or ask questions – is not required.

Environmentalists, though, are pressing the state Environmental Protection Division to hold local public hearings anyway. They argue that such a forum – held once public health officials get the COVID-19 outbreak under control – is particularly necessary when the state agency is weighing requests from Georgia Power to leave coal ash where it can pollute ground water.

Chris Bowers, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said it’s a “glaring loophole” to not require a public hearing for coal ash waste when one is required for municipal solid waste.

“There’s just no question that people who will be asked to live with these consequences should be able to come together and give their verbal comments,” Bowers said this week.

“And these people – a lot of these people have lived there near these plants for generations – they may have useful insights for EPD and for George Power concerning issues that neither may be aware of,” he said.

This month, the state EPD issued two draft permits for Plant Hammond in Rome, where Georgia Power plans to close a coal ash pond in place. But the two pending permits are only for smaller ash ponds that the utility plans to excavate and store in a landfill. A permit to remove ash from a small pond at Plant McIntosh near Savannah was approved last year.

If residents want to weigh in on the Plant Hammond draft permits, they can submit a written comment now. And since EPD has limited the public’s on-site file review opportunity in its Atlanta office to one day a week due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the comment period has been extended to 60 days.

Hammond is one of five plants in Georgia where the utility wants to be able to leave coal ash in unlined pits, and its close-in-place permit could be the first test for state officials who are coming under increased pressure from residents worried about their drinking water.

The state agency hasn’t yet issued a draft permit for the utility’s plan to close in place 1.1 million tons of coal ash at Plant Hammond.

The state EPD does not currently plan to hold public hearings, but it also hasn’t ruled it out for future permits.

“Since the two Plant Hammond permits are for closure by removal, they are considered to be noncontroversial,” said EPD spokesman, Kevin Chambers. “As such, we are currently not planning on holding a public hearing, unless there is a specific request to do so at which time we would give it serious consideration.”

If the state does decide to hold a hearing, Georgia Power will participate, says spokesman John Kraft.

“Georgia Power is and will remain committed to the open communication and transparency of our ash pond closure plans,” Kraft said Thursday. “We will participate in any public process held by EPD related to our permits.”