Environmental Groups Concerned Georgia Power Not Addressing Coal Ash Contamination

Mark Goolsby and Jenifer Hilburn say they want Georgia Power to acknowledge the problem and move on to a solution on coal ash disposalMark Goolsby and Jenifer Hilburn say they want Georgia Power to acknowledge the problem and move on to a solution. (photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

Coal ash is the one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the U.S. This is the first in a series by Rebecca Gaunt on coal ash disposal, important to Cobb County residents because Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson was previously a coal-burning plant, and has coal ash on its property alongside the Chattahoochee River.  According to the EPA,  “Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air.”  The issue came to national attention when coal ash spills in Tennessee and North Carolina in 2008 and 2014 caused serious environmental and economic damage.

The Natural Resources and Environment Joint Committee met at the capitol Thursday, leaving attendees, upset about a 2018 report on groundwater contamination caused by coal ash disposal by Georgia’s power plants, dissatisfied.

The report was a joint effort between the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. Due to federal regulations passed in 2015 regarding coal ash, utilities must now report groundwater monitoring data on their websites. Georgia Power owns all but one of the coal plants subject to this rule.

In order to complete the report, the two conservation groups sifted through thousands of pages posted by Georgia Power. They found groundwater contamination at 11 of 12 coal plants, and 10 of the 11 had unsafe levels of contaminants.

Examples of the findings include:

* Up to ten times the safe levels of boron and three times safe levels of antimony in the groundwater at Plant Bowen near Euharlee

* Arsenic levels up to 40 times the federal standard and molybdenum more than ten times the safe level at Plant Hammond in Floyd County

* Beryllium, boron and cobalt above safe levels in one or more wells at Plant Yates, near Newnan.

Due to the regulations, Georgia Power must close its 29 ash ponds at 11 power plants across the state. Five of the plants still burn coal, but two are scheduled to close. They will switch to dry handling of ash, rather than wet. According to a presentation by the Environmental Protection Division, closing the ash ponds “permanently eliminates water discharges associated with ash handling” and “reduces risk of accidents [catastrophic spills] such as in Tennessee in 2008 and North Carolina in 2014.”

Representatives from Georgia Power, MEAG and Oglethorpe Power addressed the committee regarding plans for closing the ash ponds.

Georgia Power will completely remove 19 ash ponds adjacent to lakes and rivers, and cap another 10 in place using advanced engineering methods. However, the environmental contamination report states that the capped ponds will continue to leech into the groundwater.

“We have approximately 500 groundwater monitoring wells around our ash ponds and landfills,” Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power, told the committee. “In addition, we have installed more wells than we are required by either federal or state regulations for one purpose: to insure that water quality is being protected and we are not impacting our neighbors.”

Jenifer Hilburn of Altamaha Riverkeeper was visibly perturbed during the meeting.

“I thought it was fairly unconscionable that they actually talk about their 500 groundwater monitoring wells, but not talk about the results,” she said, gesturing to a copy of the contamination report. “At Plant Branch, five years ago, they told me they would not be removing any of it. Three years ago they told me, after some samples were put forth…they said they would excavate the ponds next to Lake Sinclair, but not the big one. They were going to put all the ashes in the big pond. And then this fall they decided to go ahead and excavate the big one, so I think the plan is continually modifying, and as Georgia Power becomes at least conscious or aware of the fact that a lot of these leaks or seepages are probably putting them in noncompliance, then they will probably continue to move forward to excavating them.”

She wants to see all the sites removed and put it in a dry and lined facility, not a landfill. She also want to know how affected communities will be made whole again.

Mark Goolsby is a Monroe County building inspector from Juliette. He called Georgia Power’s presentation a smokescreen.

“Pictures don’t lie. I’ve got pictures of groundwater coming out of the ground like oil. I’ve got trees that are dead. I’ve got a pasture that the pH level was 4 and should have been 6.5. I know that’s air quality, but as far as the water goes, my mother’s well had boron, cobalt and hex chromium in it.”

Goolsby said his mother suffered from constant kidney infections and quit drinking the water two years before she died. She lived on the property near Plant Scherer for 64 years and it has been in his family for 168 years.

“Now we’re having to sell,” he said.

The full report on the contamination is available at https://earthjustice.org/features/coal-ash-contamination-georgia-groundwater.