ATLANTA — Legislation requiring all coal ash in Georgia to be stored in lined landfills died in this year’s General Assembly session without so much as a committee vote.
But the bill’s backers are vowing to reintroduce it this winter, citing among other things a lawsuit filed by residents of the small community of Juliette alleging an ash pond at Georgia Power’s coal-burning Plant Scherer nearby is polluting their drinking water.
“There will definitely be a continuing discussion on coal ash,” said Georgia Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a cosponsor of this year’s bill and one of the Democrats who will assume leadership on the issue from House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, who lost his bid for reelection earlier this month. “It’s a front-burner issue.”
Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal at power plants, contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water as well as air.
Georgia Power has been working on a multi-year plan to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds at 11 power plants across the state to meet federal regulations for handling coal ash as well as a stricter state rule. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clamped down on pollution from ash ponds in response to a 2008 spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash at a plant near Kingston, Tenn., that smothered about 300 acres of land.
While Georgia Power’s plan calls for removing the ash from 19 ponds and closing the other 10 ponds in place, environmental groups are calling for the Atlanta-based utility to excavate all 29 ponds.
Environmental groups say some ash ponds will be sealed in place forever without any protective lining, creating the potential for groundwater contamination. They point to reports released in August by the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center that showed ash has already leached into the groundwater around some ponds at Georgia Power plants.
Four ash ponds are located at Plant Hammond in Coosa and locally the concern has mainly rested with Ash Pond 3, which is unlined. The SELC study stated Ash Pond 3 lies in a floodplain and if left unlined will leak toxins into the Coosa River.
Fletcher Sams, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, cites Georgia Power’s Plant Branch near Milledgeville as an example. The ash pond there was originally scheduled to be closed in place, but Georgia Power later decided to excavate it.
“All we’re asking for is the same thing that happened at Plant Branch,” said Sams. “There’s no justification for leaving half of this ash in groundwater while you’re excavating the rest.”
Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said the company decides whether to excavate an ash pond or close it in place on a case-by-case basis.
"Federal and state rules specify two approved methods for closing ash ponds, closure in place and closure by removal, with the EPA determining both options are safe and protective of the environment," he said.
The General Assembly took some action on coal ash during the 2020 legislative session.
Lawmakers passed a bill increasing the fee for landfills receiving coal ash from $1 per ton to $2.50, matching fees charged for other items. The measure was intended to discourage an influx of coal ash being transported to Georgia from power plants in surrounding states.
Another bill tightens rules requiring Georgia Power to give advance notice before it carries out plans to dewater ash ponds in preparation for closure.
“The increase of the fee for dumping coal ash in a landfill was a positive step,” Oliver said. “But we didn’t pass any bills related to cleanup.”
Trammell’s bill requiring coal ash to be stored in lined landfills failed to gain traction in the legislation despite lobbying by a group of Juliette residents who brought their contaminated water with them in jugs to the state Capitol last February as the measure was being considered..
The residents subsequently filed a lawsuit during the summer claiming the storage of coal ash in an unlined ash pond at Plant Scherer has contaminated groundwater around the site.
Sams said Georgia Power’s plan for closing the ash pond in place would leave concentrated ash in an area where it would be subject to infiltration from a creek.
“You’re going to have a creek moving through the waste footprint in perpetuity,” he said. “It’s going to cause an issue. We don’t know when, but it’s going to cause an issue.”
Georgia Power officials have called the lawsuit without merit and vowed to defend the utility against the residents’ allegations.
Kraft said nothing above a state or federal drinking water standard has been shown leaving the company’s property.
Meanwhile, a second lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club set for a hearing in Fulton County Nov. 23 is challenging a decision by the state Public Service Commission (PSC) to let Georgia Power recover $619 million from customers to pay for its coal ash cleanup program.
“GPC (Georgia Power) customers cannot be required to pay for GPC’s coal ash cleanup because the cleanup is needed because of GPC’s imprudent, unreasonable and unlawful coal ash handling,” the Sierra Club declared in a legal brief filed Oct. 30.
Georgia Power argues its costs for cleaning up the ash ponds are reasonable, citing the PSC’s vote to approve those costs as part of a rate increase the commission granted the utility late last year.