Opinion: Make your voice be heard about toxic coal ash

December 31, 2021 5:00 am

Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond coal-fired units shut down in July 2019 after generating electricity in the Rome region since 1954. Coosa River Basin Initiative

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

The clock is ticking down for 2021.

The ticking is also for Jan. 10, 2022, the Georgia’s General Assembly’s opening day.

I have a request.

Make one of your New Year’s resolutions to contact your lawmakers, asking them to support stronger legislation to protect Georgia’s natural resources and environment. Specifically, I am talking about strengthening our laws pertaining to toxic coal ash. Specifically, I am referring to the historically futile attempts—by a few brave lawmakers—to force Georgia Power to do a safer job managing its industrial waste.

Coal ash is nasty stuff, loaded with lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic and selenium. These heavy metals have been tied to birth defects, lung disease and cancer.

Georgia Power has an estimated 90 million tons of this dangerous waste. And courtesy of our General Assembly—year after year—efforts to tighten management of toxic coal ash have been tamped down. The utility company’s lobbyists have their thumbs pressed on the right places.

Two pressure points are the House and Senate committees on natural resources and environment. Nothing—repeat: nothing—passes out of those committees that doesn’t have Georgia Power’s blessings. Too often proposed legislation just dies without discussion or debate. Georgia Power has that much control of the chairs of those committees. In the House, it’s Rep. Lynn Smith, a Newnan Republican. In the other chamber, Sen. Tyler Harper, an Ocilla Republican, wields the gavel.

Sen. Harper is running for state agriculture commissioner. Perhaps the next chair for the Senate will listen more to Georgians than utility-company lobbyists. As for Rep. Smith, I see little hope. In my opinion, she’s so deep in Georgia Power’s pocket that she can’t even see the threatening coal-ash mess left behind in her community’s backyard at Plant Yates.

Give Georgia Power credit for walking away from coal. Georgia Power, in so many ways, is an incredible company. But there’s an old saying, “Goodwill is earned by many acts; it can be lost by one.” I do not understand why a corporate giant that touts “a citizen wherever we serve” is so stubborn about doing the right thing with its poisonous coal ash. Well, I do understand one reason for the arrogance.


Why does Georgia Power choose to cap in place many of its coal-ash ponds? It’s cheaper. Evidence shows some unlined dirt pits are sitting in groundwater and leaking. Georgia Power’s remedy? Monitor the situations. Really? We aren’t talking about waste that will biodegrade. I’ve said before, “Time won’t heal toxic coal-ash sores.”

What is the safest and best management practice? I agree with the environmental experts. Remove the coal ash from watery ponds. Store it in lined pits, away from streams and wetlands. Georgia Power has plenty of property to do that.

In fairness to Georgia Power, the company says that it is meeting or exceeding state and federal guidelines pertaining to coal ash. Here’s my explanation of how that came to be. What happens in Atlanta happens in D.C., on steroids.

In 2015, lobbyists convinced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that coal ash was not a hazardous waste. (What part of lead or arsenic isn’t hazardous to your health?) Instead, coal ash was lumped into the same category as rotten apples, soup cans and household garbage. And which utility company has one of the largest lobbying budgets in its industry? That’d be Georgia Power’s parent, the Southern Company.

Do you think that passes the sniff test?

I’ve been to Washington and Atlanta to testify on toxic coal ash.

The way this issue has been handled, in both places—phew!

It’s past time for change.

But how?

There must be a bigger grassroots groundswell.

And how does that happen?

More of us must speak up, soon.




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Dink Nesmith
Dink Nesmith

Dink NeSmith is co-owner and president of Athens-based Community Newspapers Inc., publisher of more than two dozen newspapers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.