110606 - Smyrna - Coal ash is stored onsite in a retention pond. The dried ash is recycled for use in concrete or buried on site. Georgia Power plans to retire two smaller, coal-fueled generating units at Plant McDonough near Smyrna, Georgia and replace them with three 840-megawatt combined cycle natural gas units, which will provide a larger and cleaner source of energy close to the Metro Atlanta area. Monday, June 6, 2011 Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: Coal ash ponds float to the top of the Democratic agenda

Over at Grist, a nonprofit news outlet, Atlanta journalist Max Blau has a lengthy piece on the small mill town of Juliette in Monroe County, and an investigation into whether its well waters have been contaminated by a coal ash pond containing the fuel residue from Plant Scherer, the coal-fired Georgia Power unit built in the 1960s. A taste:

Under the Obama-era coal ash rules, Georgia Power has had to monitor for potential leaks. The company’s own tests have detected elevated levels of cobalt — which can cause thyroid damage — according to a 2018 analysis of the utility’s data by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, or EIP, a watchdog group made up of ex-EPA staffers.

The two environmental organizations also found that 11 of Georgia’s 12 coal-fired plants, including Scherer, have contaminated nearby groundwater. That finding is all the more alarming, environmental experts and advocates say, considering that nearly two years ago the state requested permission to take over regulation of coal ash disposal from the federal government. The move would exempt Georgia plants from having to line their coal ash ponds and potentially limit the ability to sue over environmental concerns.

The Grist article was posted Monday, the first day of the 2020 session of the state Legislature, and the timing was no coincidence. Democrats in both the House and the Senate are making the regulation of coal ash ponds a top agenda item this year.

On Monday, House Democrats introduced House Bill 756. The top signature on the measure belongs to Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville, who late last week thought he had been hit with a bad bout of stomach flu. It turned out to be a burst appendix. Trammell signed HB 756 from his hospital bed:

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, puts his signature on HB 756 from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for a burst appendix. Photo by Fletcher Sams/Altamaja Riverkeeper

From the bill:

“The General Assembly recognizes that coal combustion residuals contain dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, and that coal combustion residuals do not biodegrade over time.

“It is further the intent of the General Assembly that coal combustion residuals be disposed of in solid waste facilities that, at a minimum, contain liners and leachate collection systems that meet or exceed the design standards for new municipal solid waste landfills disposing of household garbage and trash."

Social media chatter focused on the Grist story prompted this Twitter comment from Tim Echols, a member of the state Public Service Commission:

“Your rates are going up right now because of the billions for coal ash clean up we just approved per federal & state regs. And I have seen the hundreds of wells they are monitoring monthly. And they have purchased more properties creating a greater buffer.”

But environmentalists say the problem is subterranean rather than lateral. The issue could have some potency, and not just in rural Georgia. A coal ash pond near Smyrna has long been under environmental scrutiny.

So the topic is likely to be front-and-center this year as Democrats attempt to seize control of major Cobb County offices, including the commission chairmanship.

***

The top news story out of Washington this morning appears to be the fact that Senate Republicans don’t have the 51 votes they would need to immediately dismiss impeachment articles against President Donald Trump, as he urged over the weekend.

A Politico.com timeline of how the Senate trial is likely to proceed indicates that it’s likely that Trump will still be under the shadow of impeachment when he enters the House chamber for his State of the Union address on Feb. 4.

***

The 2020 session of the state Legislature kicked off Monday with protesters, a temporary blackout and difficult decisions ahead on reducing the budget, possibly raising taxes and whether to expand gambling. An excerpt of first-day coverage from the AJC’s Maya T. Prabhu and Mark Niesse:

Shortly after 11 a.m., just as the chambers were wrapping up the day’s business, the Capitol and a few surrounding buildings went dark — causing many in the halls and chambers to joke about whether the outage was a good or bad omen.

“It doesn’t really matter. Half the time we walk around here in the dark anyways,” said state Rep. Terry Rogers, a Clarkesville Republican.

The outage lasted only a few minutes.

***

The Houston Astros fired their manager and general manager on Monday after Major League Baseball imposed historically high penalties on the team for its role in a sign-stealing controversy during the 2017 World Series.

You better believe the cheating scandal could have an impact in the state Capitol, where Atlanta’s premier sports teams -- the Braves, Hawks, Falcons and Atlanta United -- are pushing for legalized sports betting in Georgia.

***

Our AJC colleague Stephen Deere has this bit of breaking news:

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an executive order Monday evening, calling for the creation of an Officer of Inspector General.

It is unclear why the mayor took abrupt action Monday. Her office had been negotiating with city council members for the past six weeks on issues surrounding the position that is meant to root out fraud, waste and abuse.

Our guess? The mayor wants to fend off another GOP attempt in the state Capitol to put Atlanta’s airport under state control.

***

At a press conference that marked the first day of the 40-day legislative session, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan studiously avoided committing news. But he did take two stances worth noting.

Duncan said recent audits that exposed issues with Georgia’s vaunted film tax credits were “alarming,” even as he stopped short of demanding sweeping changes to the program.

And he said he planned to work with Gov. Brian Kemp on his proposed budget cuts, rather than take a more stand-offish approach to fiscal issues. 

***

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, announced Monday that he would not seek re-election this year. “There is more to life than politics. I’m convinced of that,” Heath said.

Heath made history in 2002, when he defeated House Speaker Tom Murphy, the longest-serving state legislative leader in the nation. His was one of three GOP victories that changed the face of Georgia politics that November.

That same day, Sonny Perdue defeated Democratic incumbent Gov. Roy Barnes, and Saxby Chambliss beat Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.

Heath was elected to the state Senate in 2005.

***

With a packed election year already underway, the state Democratic and Republican parties both have tapped non-traditional sources of income, according to our AJC colleague James Salzer:

About half of the money the Democratic Party of Georgia raised in the second half of 2019 came from Fair Fight, the voting rights group started by former party gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, according to campaign disclosures.

Almost half the money the Republican Party of Georgia raised during the same period came from national GOP organizations or joint fundraising efforts with those entities.

***

ICYMI: Our AJC colleague Eric Stirgus says teachers in some Georgia schools could have their student loan debts forgiven under a bill introduced Monday in the state House:

House Bill 736 would give relief to teachers working in the state’s turnaround schools, Georgia's designation of the worst-performing schools. There are 105 “turnaround-eligible” schools on the 2019 list, released in December. Twenty-eight of those schools are in metro Atlanta.

The top signature on the bill belongs to state Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, but two Democrats -- Reps. Mike Glanton of Jonesboro and Valencia Stovall of Forest Park -- are also backing the measure.

***

Our AJC colleague David Wickert is finding little in the way of top-level Republican support for strengthening the state’s seat-belt law, by requiring adults in back seats to strap in.

***

Gordon Giffin, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada and Sam Nunn confidante, has endorsed Teresa Tomlinson in the Democratic race to face down GOP incumbent U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

***

Another Democrat in that same contest, Sarah Riggs Amico has stepped down from her position as executive chair of her family’s trucking company, Jack Cooper, to devote herself full-time to the contest.

Amico said she felt free to leave after a successful restructuring of the company this past summer that was triggered by economic challenges --including the national multi-employer pension crisis. 

***

The race for Georgia’s 14th District is thickening.

John Cowan, a Rome neurosurgeon, formally announced his candidacy for the northwest Georgia congressional seat on Tuesday. He pledged to support President Donald Trump and focus on halting the “nation’s unsustainable healthcare spending.” 

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves’ surprise decision to retire has created a free-for-all for Republicans eyeing the seat.

***

Speaking of GOP retirements, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall is already starting to experience turnover in his office as staff members ponder their own futures after he leaves office at the end of the year.

Jeff Naft, who served as Woodall’s chief spokesman, announced Friday that he was transitioning to a similar job with U.S. Rep. French Hill of Arkansas.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is undecided on whether he will run for re-election in Georgia’s Ninth District or mount a challenge to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Jessica Andrews, who served as communications director for Collins and other GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee, also said Friday that she has taken a new job in the office of Louisiana U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

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