Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond closed earlier this year after more than half a century of providing electric power to Georgians. Its coal ash ponds, left behind between Ga. 20 and the Coosa River, remain a major source of controversy between environmentalists and the utility.
The Southern Environmental Law Center penned a letter claiming that the utility’s plans to close the coal ash ponds don’t go nearly far enough to protect the groundwater and public health.
A letter from Mark Hutson of Geo-Hydro Inc. to the SELC dated July 29 states, “Coal ash that is left in unlined basins will be capable of leaching toxic metals into Georgia’s groundwater at any time in the present, the near and distant future for as long as soluble metals in the ash are allowed to come into contact with water.”
Ash Pond 3, which lies south of Alabama Highway just east of Pisgah Baptist Church, is at the heart of the environmentalists’ concerns. The impoundment is a 25-acre site originally constructed more than 45 years ago. It is located within the flood plain of both the Coosa River and Cabin Smith Creek.
Hutson also points out that the closure permit application was dated November 2018, but that the actual physical closure of the ash pond was completed in the second quarter of 2018.
The SELC is asking that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division reject Georgia Power’s solid waste permit application to dispose of coal combustion residuals in place at the plant. The SELC is also asking that similar applications be denied at four other Georgia Power plants, specifically Plant Scherer, Plant Wansley, Plant Yates and Plant McDonough.
The plan for Ash Pond 3 called for dewatering of the site with the remaining dry ash capped on site.
In its letter to the EPD, the SELC alleges that evidence exists to disprove Georgia Power’s misleading characterizations that the proposed closure of these coal ash ponds will be protective of groundwater, and disproves the safety and effectiveness of so-called “advanced engineering” to protect the environment.
The SELC argues that a permit cannot be issued for Plant Hammond because Ash Pond 3 is partially submerged in groundwater and is unlined, with groundwater flowing within and through the ash and underlying unconsolidated soils in the direction of adjacent wetlands and/or creek.
The letter also claims the unlined impoundment will continue leaching toxic metals after closure, and placing a cap on top won’t change that. The waste is fed by buried streams and springs. These flows become polluted as they infiltrate the waste and then exit the basin.
Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said the company remains committed to the transparency of its ash pond closure plans and groundwater monitoring process.
“Our plans continue to be in compliance with both federal and state laws and regulations,” Kraft said.
Kraft also claims the letter from the SELC to the Georgia EPD contains incorrect assumptions and “several critical inaccuracies that mislead the public.” He said the company stands by the data from groundwater monitoring wells. “Based on that extensive data collected so far we have identified no risks to the public health or drinking water.”
The SELC claims that putting a cap over the disposed coal ash will not appropriately deal with existing saturated ash exposure to the groundwater. As far back as 2016, Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power, said the covers of the ponds that are closed in place would be more than just a cap.
“These will be subsurface, designed specific to each of the ponds where we install these methods,” Mitchell told the Rome News-Tribune. “They will be designed to isolate these ponds from groundwater. No two will be alike.”
Kraft said the SELC and others have been critical of the “advanced engineering methods” for the ponds that have been closed in place. The SELC alleges that Georgia Power’s methods are unfounded and lacks technical merit. Kraft said Georgia Power has conducted in-depth engineering investigations through third-party professional engineers to determine appropriate designs of its closure plans.
“The proposed AEMs are proven technologies, accepted by regulatory agencies in other applications, that are designed to enhance the closures to be more protective.” He said their methods are site-specific and can include consolidating the ash to a smaller footprint, installing slurry walls, adding cover system enhancements and other engineering methods to ensure that the closure is stable, properly maintained and protective of the environment.
The SELC also alleges Georgia Power has not tried to determine the amount of ash that remains submerged in groundwater post-closure and has not made an effort to predict how far downstream water quality may be impacted after closure.
Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said that soil samples taken from the base of the Coosa River do contain constituents of coal ash, “So we know that it is migrating from these sites into the river.” He said that if something isn’t done to correct leakage right now, “There is very slim likelihood that it will ever be addressed in the future unless there is a catastrophic failure of the ash pond.” He did say a catastrophic failure at Hammond does not seem likely.
“In Hammond’s case it’s more like death by a thousand cuts. You’ve got an ash pond that is leaking by their own well data, and that’s a permanent closure plan. We think downstream residents deserve better.”
In the July 29 report and letter from Geo-Hydro, Hutson also points out that a sinkhole developed at Ash Pond 3 almost 40 years ago.
“If a sinkhole opened below the impoundment in the past, it can likely do so again in the future,” Hutson said. “GAEPD must request a full accounting of the disposition of the March 1980 sinkhole investigation.”
It is significant to point out that an Earth Justice report from December 2018 points out relative to Ash Pond 3, “If the ash is in contact with underlying groundwater, toxic contaminants will continue to leak indefinitely into the groundwater after the cap is installed.”
The EarthJustice report sites groundwater wells at Hammond have shown high levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, molybdenum and sulfate.
The SELC also argues that Ash Pond 3 lies within the 100-year floodplain of Cabin Smith Creek and the Coosa River, subjecting the unlined impoundment to future water infiltration during flood events.
“Our top priority is to protect water quality every step of the way,” Kraft said. “Of course the monitoring will continue for at least 30 years beyond the closure of these ponds,” Kraft said.
The Georgia Power spokesman said the company has been committed to being open with its communications regarding the ash pond closures and has had information available on its website at least a year-and-a-half in advance of the time frame they were required to make such information available.
All sampling of groundwater monitoring wells, laboratory analysis and data interpretation has been performed by qualified independent, third-party contractors and accredited independent laboratories, Kraft said.