Ga. House panel passes bill to require coal ash monitoring for decades

By: - March 2, 2021 7:43 pm

A bill moving through the Legislature would require Georgia Power and other owners of toxic coal ash ponds that are closed in place in unlined pits to monitor groundwater for 50 years. Georgia Power plans to cap in place ponds at Plant Scherer. Contributed/Altamaha Riverkeeper

The state’s largest electric public utility would have to monitor groundwater near toxic coal ash ponds for five decades under a revived proposal that cleared a Georgia House committee Tuesday.

And while the GOP bill has largely found support at the statehouse, environmentalists and residents living near the coal ash ponds have urged lawmakers to take additional steps to keep contaminants from the byproduct of coal-fired energy production from spreading underground.

Michael Petelle, who is a retired science teacher in Marietta, says he is concerned about Georgia Power’s plans to cap in place about 6.6 million cubic yards of ash in an unlined pit at nearby Plant McDonough.

“We all know that migration off site will occur so testing alone is not the solution,” Petelle said. “Action must be taken to prevent that migration. The only surefire solution is to fully line the coal ash disposal sites.”

proposal that would require coal ash to be stored in lined landfills, which is sponsored by Junction City Democrat Rep. Debbie Buckner, has gone nowhere this session. A similar bill, pitched as a Democratic priority last year, met the same fate.

“I still think we need that extra protection for our groundwater of a clay base and a liner at some point in the near future before we lose more people to illnesses,” Buckner said Tuesday.

Most Republicans have been reluctant to require Georgia Power and other coal ash pond owners to excavate the waste from unlined pits and move it to a lined landfill. Georgia Power has already been approved to charge $525 million to customers for its coal ash closure plans.

“Yes, liners are good if they never, ever, ever have a default and have some kind of crack, deterioration, anything in that liner itself,” said Rep. Vance Smith, a Pine Mountain Republican who is sponsoring the bill that advanced out of committee Tuesday. “So, you may have a liner that covers several acres and with one small pinhead of a crack in there, you lose the composition of what you’re supposed to be doing and containing.”

Smith’s bill mirrors a measure that passed last year but stalled in the Senate. The proposal requires monitoring and inspections of the closed-in-place coal ash ponds for 50 years, up from last year’s proposed 30 years.

The measure still needs approval from the House by Monday, which is the last day for a bill to clear one chamber in order to have the easiest path to becoming law.

In addition to Plant McDonough, Georgia Power plans to close in place coal ash at plants Scherer, Wansley, Yates and Hammond. All said, 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.

April Libscomb, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called Smith’s proposal a “good starting point.” But she noted that coal ash is being excavated in some of Georgia’s neighboring states, like Tennessee and South Carolina.

“When these ponds start contaminating groundwater – which they will – Georgia Power is going to go back to the Public Service Commission and ask permission to charge ratepayers even more money to come back and clean up their mess again,” she said.

Coal ash dominated environmental debate at the Gold Dome last session before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the session. Dozens of Juliette residents living on well water near Plant Scherer came to the state Capitol to demand lawmakers require Georgia Power to move the coal ash to lined landfills. Several of them brought water from home after tests found the presence of coal ash contaminants.

A Juliette resident, Gloria Hammond, told lawmakers Tuesday that she remained disappointed that the coal ash at Scherer would be left in unlined pits.

“My concern is what would happen if we had another flood of ‘94 or more severe? God hope that we don’t, but what about that earthen dam? That is 16 million tons of coal ash behind it. Who is going to protect me from that coal ash if that dam gives way?”

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Jill Nolin
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.