Environmental groups call for federal action after regulators OK Georgia Power coal ash permit

Georgia Power sign at Plant McDonough-Atkinson in Cobb County accompanying article about restory powerGeorgia Power sign at Plant McDonough-Atkinson in Cobb County (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder, [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

November 18, 2023

Environmental advocates are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act after state regulators issued a final permit signing off on Georgia Power’s plans to leave coal ash partly submerged in groundwater at Floyd County’s Plant Hammond.  

The permit is the first to be finalized under Georgia’s state-run coal ash disposal permitting program. More than 1 million tons of toxic coal ash sit at the site in an unlined pit near the Coosa River in northwest Georgia.

The decision can be appealed within 30 days.

The state’s decision came nearly two years after the Biden administration pushed back on the utility’s plans to dispose of massive amounts of coal ash using a close-in-place method at five locations where the ash is in contact with groundwater. Toxic ash is the waste left behind after decades of burning coal to generate electricity.

In January of last year, the federal agency announced it planned to enforce an Obama-era rule designed to limit the chances of coal ash toxins leaking into groundwater or waterways. The state EPD director at the time called it a “new interpretation” of the federal rule.

Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, who is the executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said the Rome-based organization was “profoundly disappointed” by the state agency’s decision.

“We now look for EPA’s response,” Demonbreun-Chapman said. “A few miles downstream of Plant Hammond, the Coosa River crosses into Alabama, where EPA just rejected (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s) bid to manage coal ash pond closures specifically for approving these types of cap-in-place closures that threaten groundwater.”

The federal agency is in the process of denying the state of Alabama’s plan to allow Alabama Power to continue storing coal ash in unlined ponds, arguing the state left groundwater infiltration inadequately addressed. 

In Georgia, the Plant Hammond permit has been closely watched because it is considered a bellwether for how the state may handle other – and larger – coal ash sites around the state, where some observers now expect draft permits to emerge soon. The state received nearly 2,000 public comments on the Plant Hammond permit.

Critics had also warned that the karst landscape at Plant Hammond, which was retired in 2019, also makes the site vulnerable to sinkholes.

State regulators countered many of the concerns in a written response issued this month. They argued that the regulations target water – like rainfall – that moves down into the soil, not groundwater that moves laterally. The cover installed over the pond, they reasoned, protects against such vertical threats.

And they said other safeguards are in place. 

“The groundwater monitoring system and required reporting is designed to detect any migration of contaminants before there are offsite impact on human health or the environment,” the state agency wrote. “If contaminates are present above regulatory thresholds, corrective action will be taken. Corrective action may include a variety of remedies up to and including removal of the waste.”

In response to the public comments and what the state agency called the EPA’s “modified interpretation,” the state added a couple conditions to the permit, including a requirement that the utility update the groundwater model to show elevations and the amount of ash in groundwater every five years.

A Georgia Power spokesperson defended the utility’s approach to storing coal ash at Plant Hammond. The utility is capping nine ash ponds where they are while excavating 20 ash ponds, including three others at Plant Hammond, and moving that waste to a lined landfill. 

“Georgia Power continues to work in compliance with state and federal regulations to close its 29 ash ponds across the state,” Kelly Richardson said in a statement Friday. “At Plant Hammond, as we have at all our ash ponds across the state, we are utilizing proven engineering methods and technologies as part of customized, site-specific closure processes. This permit issuance is an important step as we continue our ash pond closure efforts at Plant Hammond.”

‘The gauntlet has essentially been thrown by Georgia EPD’

But clean water advocates are pressing federal officials to intervene. They argue the EPA should no longer allow Georgia to run its own permitting program overseeing the disposal of coal combustion residuals. Georgia is one of three states that have established their own permitting program.  

“The ball is in EPA’s court to answer a very simple question: Does a CCR rule prohibit ash from groundwater for some states and not others?” said Chris Bowers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The language is the same. The science is the same. The contamination is the same. 

“And so the gauntlet has essentially been thrown by Georgia EPD by this permit, and the big question is whether or not the EPA is going to allow states to basically ignore the standards by virtue of its permit program,” he added. 

Bowers argued the state permit is “not worth the paper it’s printed on” because it does not comply with the federal rule against coal ash mixing with groundwater. 

To Dori Jaffe, managing attorney at the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, the Plant Hammond permit illustrates why the organization has always argued against Georgia running its own permitting program.

“This is kind of where we thought this was going to end up, but with EPA’s interim decisions, we thought, well, maybe there’s a chance EPD is going to do the right thing. Unfortunately, that is not the case,” Jaffe said.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which is gearing up for the Plant Scherer permit, said the federal agency should have seen the state’s decision not to rescind the Plant Hammond permit as a sign that Georgia officials “were not planning to play along.”

“The big question on my mind is is EPA going to enforce the law or are they going to let Georgia be the only state where they’re not enforcing the third highest environmental priority of this administration,” Sams said. 

When asked how the EPA plans to respond, an agency spokeswoman, Angela Hackel, said Friday in a comment that the federal agency and state regulators are “engaged in productive dialogue on closure strategies.”

But she also noted that federal regulations bar these surface impoundments from being closed if coal ash continues to be saturated by groundwater.

“We will continue working with EPD to ensure that CCR permits address all applicable requirements and are consistent with the federally approved Georgia CCR Permit Program,” Hackel said. “We are committed to our partnership with Georgia, and to pursuing our shared goals of protecting groundwater from contamination and ensuring robust protections for communities.” 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.