Floyd County has regained a former (and admittedly dubious) distinction. We’re back in Georgia’s “Dirty Dozen.”
The title is the result of the Georgia Water Coalition attempting to bring stagnant issues back to the forefront of a conversation — and for good reason. We may not see pollution from coal ash reservoirs as we drive or even paddle out toward Coosa, but they say deep down it’s still there.
The coal ash reservoirs located at Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond near the Coosa River are the decades-long result of an economic boon to this area.
The plant, which recently closed down, was opened more than 60 years ago. At one point, over 200 employees worked there and the coal fire plant was the second-largest generating station among Georgia Power’s plants.
A lot of families were fed through the work supplied by Georgia Power. Birthday presents were bought for children and houses were paid for through working for the company. Lights came on; vacuum cleaners, televisions and street lights worked as a result.
The community benefit is unquestionable.
But now in 2019, most of those jobs are gone and, along with our downstream neighbors, we’re stuck with the legacy.
Currently on the property there are three unlined coal ash reservoirs containing the results of power generation through coal combustion. Those residuals — coal ash — contain non-biodegradable toxic metals.
What do you do with all that coal ash?
For Georgia Power’s part, they’ve complied with current environmental regulations and say their engineering practices will keep the public safe. Their long-term plan for dealing with the material is removing the water from the reservoirs and capping them.
They have a number of monitoring wells on the site and the company has pledged to monitor the site for the next 30 years.
But an environmental report, published by Geo-Hydro Inc. this year, stated that Ash Pond Three — located in the river’s flood plain — regularly comes into contact with water and the toxins will leak. Unless an impermeable liner is placed into the reservoir, that is.
This is the important point — the liner — so hold on to that for a minute.
That assertion is backed by soil samples taken at the base of the river. Coosa River Basin Initiative workers took those samples and they show coal ash contamination. The CRBI, which has been vocal on the issue, worries that if the liner isn’t installed soon, it just won’t be done.
In print it sounds easy: you pull it out, line those reservoirs with an impermeable layer, knock the dust off your hands and then go on about your day. You’ve completed a good deed and the toxic stuff can’t leach out into the environment.
But it’s not that easy.
One reservoir, Ash Pond Three, contains over a million cubic yards of material in relatively close range of the Coosa River.
If it’s not done — and there’s no sign it will be this point — we’re looking at a few possible ends to this saga. The best-case scenario is the company is totally correct and we’re safe. Another is a slow toxic leakage into the Coosa River. The worst-case scenario is a catastrophic failure that leads to the contents of the reservoir entering the river wholesale.
Unless it’s dug up and a liner is put in place, of course.
It’s easy to forget
If nothing changes with the toxic chemicals in coal ash ponds, we’ll just be continuing the cyclical contamination we’re already experiencing.
For example, this past July the Alabama Department of Public Health recommended people limit their consumption of certain fish from Weiss Lake and the Coosa River.
That advisory stated that largemouth bass should be avoided and no one should eat more than one meal of striped bass from the Coosa River near Weiss Lake because of potential mercury contamination.
The toxic metal accumulates as it goes up the food chain, becoming more concentrated.
The same advisory recommended limited consumption of blue catfish, channel catfish and black crappie in Weiss Lake because of accumulated polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.
Those chemicals — banned from use in 1979 — are thought to be byproducts from the General Electric medium transformer plant, which closed over 20 years ago.
However, just like Plant Hammond, the GE plant on Redmond Circle was an economic driver that provided good-paying jobs for many Rome residents.
Around what remains of that plant there are nature trails — and assurances that it’s safe to hike, ride your bike and walk your dogs. However, there will always be a portion of the plant that will remain closed because of its toxicity.
Looking at the structures behind the galvanized steel fencing, there’s a reminder of how what we once viewed as progress at one time can leave a stain.