Georgia Power said it found arsenic and other toxic chemicals in a handful of test wells near coal ash ponds at three of its power plants near Newnan, Rome and Savannah.
The electric company, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co., said it found arsenic levels more than three times the state limit for groundwater at one test well at Plant Hammond, near Rome, and at another well at Plant McIntosh, near Savannah.
The company said it also found beryllium at three times the state limit at one test well at Plant Yates, near Newnan, and selenium slightly above the state limit at another test well at the plant.
All three chemicals are elements naturally found in rocks, soil and water in certain areas, but they can be toxic even at low concentrations.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental advocacy group, said the contaminated groundwater raises the stakes for Georgia Powers’ plans announced earlier this month to accelerate the closing of its 29 coal ash ponds in the state.
“Certainly they are elements that are found in coal ash, and it would be foolish not to pay attention,” said Amelia Shenstone, with the Southern Alliance’s office in Atlanta. “Any time there’s groundwater contamination, that sets off alarm bells.”
Utility companies over the years have produced millions of tons of the ash, a waste-product of coal-fired power plants.
Arsenic is lethal at high levels and is sometimes used as a rat poison. At lower levels it can cause cancer.
Selenium has been found to cause birth defects in fish, while beryllium can affect the liver, kidneys, nervous system and other organs.
A Georgia Power spokesman said contaminants exceeding state linits were only found at a handful of wells, all on the utility company’s property. The company also said it was investigating whether the arsenic contamination came from herbicides it used long ago to control weeds at substations on the Hammond and McIntosh plant sites.
“We’re working to make sure we’re protective of ground water,” said Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins.
The company said it notified the Georgia Environmental Protection Division of its findings.
“We’re going to continue to monitor and get more data and we will continue to provide it to the EPD,” said Aaron Mitchell, Georgia Power’s general manager of environmental affairs.
The toxins were detected after Georgia Power recently installed 136 test wells around coal ash ponds at six of its power plants to meet new federal Environmental Protection Agency rules regarding the handling and disposal of coal ash.
Georgia Power said no contaminants above state limits were found in the test wells at Plant Bowen, near Cartersville; Plant Sherer, north of Macon; or Plant Wansley, west of Newnan.
To comply with the EPA rules, the company will eventually install about 500 test wells around 11 power plants and conduct seven more rounds of groundwater tests before the end of 2017, looking for 19 potential contaminants, including 11 hazardous chemicals such as cadmium, mercury and lead that are typically found in coal ash. The wells will continue to be monitored regularly after that, and the results will be posted on Georgia Power’s web site, the company said.
Earlier this month, Georgia Power said its 29 ash ponds statewide will no longer receive coal ash within three years, as opposed to a much lengthier timeline previously announced.
Ash from 16 of those ponds, located near lakes or rivers, will be completely removed and added to other ponds and landfills or recycled. The company’s other 13 ponds will be “closed in place” with concrete barriers and other measures designed to keep the ash from the groundwater.
Given the findings of contaminants, the Southern Alliance’s Shenstone said she wants to see more details about how Georgia Power plans to store the coal ash in the ponds that are being closed in place, to make sure toxins won’t leak from those sites.
“We really need more information,” she said.
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