Georgia Power to close ash lagoons sooner, could cost $2 billion

Georgia Power now plans to close dozens of toxic coal ash ponds across the state within three years — much sooner than it previously announced — as lawsuits and a push for tougher federal and state regulations have upped the pressure on utility companies.

Georgia Power said Monday its 29 ash ponds statewide will no longer receive coal ash within three years. 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 preventive measures to, hopefully, keep arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in the ash from the groundwater.

Aaron Mitchell, the utility’s general manager for environmental affairs, said it will cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion to close the ponds and keep the coal-fired electric plants from creating additional “wet” ash. He added that the power plants will keep running while the conversion work is underway.

“I think this is good news for the people of Georgia,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group. He’d like to see more details of the utility’s plan, he said, but “it is a significant move and it does appear to be comprehensive.”

Environmental groups have been pressuring Georgia Power and other utility companies for years to shut down the waste lagoons and isolate the ash in safer facilities.

Mitchell, in an interview, said the quickened closure schedule was not prompted by state, federal and legal actions aimed at shutting ash ponds nationwide.

“This is part of a whole process. We’ve done more engineering. We understand the methods of pond closure,” he said. “This is the best decision for our customers and the best way to quickly go about compliance in a reliable manner.”

But a growing number of lawsuit settlements, state legislation, federal rules — and the potential costs of contamination or lagoon failures — seems to have amped up the urgency among utilities to deal with the issue.

“I think they have realized that it is best not to let it fester,” said Smith.

In North Carolina, after a lagoon at a retired Duke Energy plant spilled thousands of tons of ash into the Dan River in 2014, lawmakers passed a law requiring all of the utilities’ ash ponds to get safety inspections.

In recent weeks, as a result of those inspections, North Carolina’s environmental protection division decided that all of the ponds will have to be closed and the waste removed.

That’s already happening in South Carolina. As the result of a 2012 lawsuit settlement, the state’s three utilities agreed to shut down all of the state’s lagoons and remove the material, either to more secure disposal facilities, or by recycling it as cement or other building materials.

Last week, Duke University researchers concluded that ash ponds had leaked at all of the 21 power plants they studied in five states, including Georgia Power plants in Georgia. High levels of arsenic and selenium were found at all the sites, the researchers said.

Turn to MyAJC.com for more coverage.

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