Coal ash decisions need more public scrutiny, environmentalists say

    Georgia's environmental agency charged with regulating air polluters is dealing with budget woes in part caused by lost fees from a shift from decreased use of coal for energy. Plant Bowen near Cartersville is one of a few coal-fired plants Georgia Power still operates in the state. File/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia regulators ought to hold more public meetings before issuing state permits for power plants to dispose of toxic coal ash, local environmentalists said during the only public hearing scheduled to discuss the state’s new ash-disposal rules.

    The hearing, held Tuesday at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Atlanta headquarters, came a day after several environmental groups slammed Georgia Power’s plan for closing 29 ash ponds, which hold millions of tons of the metal-laden coal byproduct. The Georgia Recorder reported Tuesday that many of those ponds are unlined and would potentially expose groundwater to contamination under the company’s plan, according to a 52-page document the Southern Environmental Law Center released Monday.

    “Significant closure construction activities” have wrapped up at 14 of the company’s total 29 ash ponds so far, according to Georgia Power’s spokeswoman, Holly Crawford. The company plans to leave 10 ponds in place and seal them with “advanced engineering methods and closure technology,” such as slurry walls, Crawford said. Local environmentalists contend the closure methods fall short.

    Monday’s letter called for the state Environmental Protection Division’s enforcement division to deny Georgia Power permits to close ponds at five plants unless the company commits to completely excavating the ash.

    Tuesday’s hearing gave environmental groups a chance to air their grievances publicly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It might be the only opportunity for the public to express an opinion in person before state regulators decide whether to approve permits. 

    That small window for public input has irked many environmentalists, who argue the state should hold hearings for each pond closure in the local communities.

    “People who are directly affected … ought to have the opportunity to comment,” said Stephen Stetson, an Alabama attorney representing the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

    The Environmental Protection Division’s website shows regulators so far approved pond-closure plans for six of the 11 coal-fired plants Georgia Power runs.

    The state “does have provisions for public participation” on permit decisions for ash-handling facilities like landfills that are required to obtain state solid-waste permits, said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Division. State law requires the local government where the landfill will be located to hold public hearings before the permit can be granted.

    The state agency has approved permits for dry ash to go to five landfills, which last year took in 1.4 million tons of ash, Chambers said. The solid-waste permits needed to dispose of coal ash must be renewed every five years.

    Beau Evans
    Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.

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