The Sierra Club said Georgia Power’s plans to close its toxic coal ash ponds will dump heavy metal-laden wastewater into the state’s rivers and lakes and violate the federal clean water law.
Georgia Power is planning to shut down 29 ponds that hold coal ash, a waste product of burning coal that can contain toxic metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxins, according to the environmental group.
Some environmental groups initially praised Georgia Power’s plans to close the toxic ponds. The utility expects to spend roughly $2 billion closing the sites by recycling or treating water from the ponds. The ash is also to be removed and added to other ponds or landfills, recycled, or sealed in place.
But in a notice Monday to Georgia Power, the Sierra Club said the company’s plans will violate the federal Clean Water Act because existing wastewater permits for its power plants haven’t been modified to allow the company to “dewater” the ponds by removing all of the contaminated water.
Such water from the depths of the ponds is much dirtier than the pond’s surface water, the group said. The group said the wastewater goes into rivers and lakes, endangering public health and wildlife.
The group said Georgia Power is also currently violating the law at a former power plant. Since December, the utility has been illegally emptying ponds at its retired Plant McManus, near Brunswick, without modified permits, the group said.
“Sampling data from every single month since dewatering began (at McManus) confirm the presence of heavy metals in these discharges, including arsenic, chromium, mercury, nickel, and selenium,” the group said.
The Sierra Club notice told Georgia Power that it will seek an injunction halting the company’s current and planned efforts to empty the ponds unless it agrees with 60 days to “fully and promptly remediate” the alleged violations.
“As is the case with Plant McManus, these permits are woefully inadequate to protect Georgia’s citizens and environment – overwhelming they impose no limits or monitoring requirements for any of the coal ash toxics,” the Sierra Club said.
Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins responded to several questions from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter with this emailed statement: “Georgia Power is in full compliance with all environmental regulations, which are enforced by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and we will vigorously defend against any allegation to the contrary. Throughout our ash pond closure process, we are going above and beyond regulatory requirements to protect Georgia’s water quality.”
Hawkins did not respond to questions about what levels of heavy metals are in the water at Plant McManus and the other plants, or why it has not sought to modify its wastewater permits.
Environmental groups, Georgia Power and state and federal regulators have been in something of a tug of war over what levels of pollutants power plants can discharge.
About three months ago the federal Environmental Protection Agency moved to delay Obama-era wastewater rules for coal-fired power plants that require them to use the most up-to-date technology to remove lead, arsenic and other toxins.
The new rule begins to take effect next year but can be delayed until 2023 in some cases. The Southern Environmental Law Center recently said Georgia regulators have proposed to delay the rule’s impact as long as possible at Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond, near Rome.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division and Georgia Power disagreed, saying some limits will take effect sooner than 2023.