For The Record

The Dirty Dozen: Coal ash and shipwreck on infamous water polluter list

By: - December 14, 2021 9:08 pm

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

Massive amounts of toxic coal ash will be left in unlined pits – where they sit submerged in groundwater at five sites – under Georgia Power’s current plans for the toxic waste left behind after decades of burning coal to generate electricity.

Those plans, which state regulators are reviewing, were flagged again as one of the worst offenses to Georgia’s water in the Georgia Water Coalition’s Dirty Dozen report released Tuesday.

“While other states have forced power utilities to remove toxic coal ash from unlined pits at coal-burning power plants, Georgia’s leaders, through the state Environmental Protection Division, are poised to allow the company to keep its ash in unlined pits where it is making groundwater unfit for human consumption,” said Joe Cook with the Georgia River Network.

The state issued a proposed permit earlier this year for Plant Hammond, drawing sharp criticism and objections from the public over plans to leave coal ash in place. At Hammond and the other four plants, the coal ash is submerged at varying depths in the groundwater.

The state agency is expected to issue more close-in-place permits for larger coal ash ponds next year, which is later than earlier expected.

“EPD thoroughly reviews all permit applications, taking the time necessary to ensure a complete evaluation,” spokesman Kevin Chambers said in a statement when asked Tuesday about the delay.

“For the (coal combustion residuals) surface impoundment permits, in addition to the information submitted by the applicant, EPD is also assessing the numerous comments received from members of the public,” he added.

The state’s largest electric public utility is moving forward with its coal ash plans as it continues to shift away from coal. Its parent company, Southern Co., announced last month it plans to close about 55% of its coal fleet by the end of the decade.

The water coalition’s report accused the utility’s plan of running afoul of federal regulations and urged state regulators to reject the permits and require Georgia Power to remove the coal ash and store it in lined landfills away from state waters.

When asked about a delay in the permitting process, Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said Tuesday the company continues to respond to comments and data requests from state officials.

Kraft shrugged off a question about whether the utility anticipated any changes on the federal level that could impact the company’s plans for coal ash disposal. President Joe Biden recently named Georgian Daniel Blackman to lead the Southern region for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Georgia Power’s ash pond closure plans are designed to fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule, as well as the more stringent requirements of Georgia’s state CCR Rule. Our plans have always been, and continue to be, in compliance with all federal and state laws and regulations,” Kraft said.

The report also highlighted several other threats to the state’s waterways, such as the aftermath of the capsized Golden Ray on Georgia’s coast. The bulk of the car carrier is gone two years after it overturned in St. Simons Sound, but concerns remain.

“The long-term impacts of the maritime disaster remain unclear,” said Jennette Gayer, executive director of Environment Georgia.

The state recently proposed a $3 million fine against a South Korean logistics company for polluting the sea and salt marshes along the coast.

Coastal advocates are pressing the state to request a natural resources damage assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The process would involve a thorough evaluation of the damage done to the sound and surrounding areas and hold responsible parties accountable,” Gayer said.

The advocates also dinged state officials for one thing they are not doing: Focusing on climate change.

“Our elected officials have been mostly silent and inactive on this problem,” Cook said.

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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.