MARIETTA — Though Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson in south Cobb retired its coal-fired technology nearly a decade ago, officials with several environmental groups Thursday said the waste created remains a problem that must be addressed.

It’s a heavy problem that, in Cobb, totals some 6.3 million tons of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal in power plants, but also one that could threaten the health of many across the state living near 29 unlined ponds storing 92.2 million tons of coal ash.

“If you are exposed to elevated levels of these components, you could be facing some serious health impacts,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, who spoke to an audience of nearly 100 in the Cobb County Civic Center on the overall problem of coal ash and the potential for components of coal ash to leak from the ponds.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash contains pollutants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air, the EPA says.

Health impacts from various coal ash components can range from minor effects such as diarrhea and skin irritations to far greater effects such as neurological damage, various forms of cancer and other detrimental conditions.

“We can’t say that these components are in water that people are drinking, but we think it’s important that we be testing drinking water,” Gayer added.

In Cobb, Plant McDonough-Atkinson has four coal ash ponds of various sizes, according to Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

“These are unlined, and so the material can just continue leaching into the ground until it hits groundwater, and then can migrate through those groundwater plumes anywhere that groundwater plume is going to go — offsite, into the Chattahoochee River, under the communities nearby,” Jeselnik said. “We can’t predict where these groundwater connections are going to take the material that comes into contact with groundwater.”

Georgia Power announced plans to permanently close all of its 29 ash ponds at 11 sites in September 2015 and is working toward that goal in compliance with state and federal rules for handling coal ash, company spokeswoman Holly Crawford previously said in an email to the MDJ.

In April, the company announced it was in the process of completely excavating 19 ash ponds located adjacent to lakes and rivers with the remaining 10 being closed in place using advanced engineering methods and closure technologies.

“Statewide, the ash will either be relocated to a permitted landfill, consolidated with other closing ash ponds or recycled for beneficial use,” Crawford said Friday. “More than 60 percent of the coal ash Georgia Power produces today is recycled for various uses such as Portland cement, concrete and cinder blocks.

Georgia Power retired its coal-fired technology at Plant McDonough-Atkinson in 2011, and the plant now produces energy through natural gas, supplying power to about 1.7 million homes, according to its website. Coal accounts for most of Georgia Power’s generating capacity, and the company has five sites across the state that utilize coal.

“At Plant McDonough, we are currently in the process of completely excavating and consolidating one ash pond with another ash pond onsite,” Crawford said. “The three remaining ash ponds will be closed in place using advanced engineering methods and closure technologies to ensure water quality is protected. The ash ponds have not been used since the plant’s conversion to natural gas.”

The Cobb plant’s ash ponds were targeted earlier this year by House Resolution 257, introduced by state Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta. It urged Georgia Power to remove the coal ash waste and relocate it.

“One of the questions I asked (Georgia Power) is what is the closest drinking water to the coal ash,” Williams told those in attendance. “The Cobb-Marietta Water Authority actually has pipes that are on Plant McDonough property through an easement. I can’t draw any conclusions from that, but I don’t like it, and I don’t think a lot of Georgia Power people knew that, because they seemed surprised when I mentioned the easement.”

Co-sponsors of the resolution from the Cobb delegation included state Reps. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs; Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, and Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, but the bill failed to get a vote on the House floor. Williams said she was not able to get House Republicans to support the bill, but says she will continue pushing for the resolution next year when the Georgia General Assembly reconvenes for the latter half of its two-year session.

“It needs all of you, too,” Williams said, asking those in attendance to contact their legislators to support HR 257.

Attendees were also urged to attend an Aug. 6 hearing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency focused on Georgia’s coal ash program. The event, set for 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the Georgia Environmental Protection Division Tradeport Training Room, 4244 International Parkway in Atlanta, requires attendees to pre-register by July 31 if they wish to speak.

Follow Jon Gargis on Twitter at twitter.com/JonGargis.

Recommended for you