Annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ report details water concerns across Georgia

An aerial photograph shows Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant and its ash pond (right) in Juliette. The community has spent almost 10 years battling the utility over concerns about the groundwater, which they believe to be contaminated by coal ash from nearby Plant Scherer. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
An aerial photograph shows Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant and its ash pond (right) in Juliette. The community has spent almost 10 years battling the utility over concerns about the groundwater, which they believe to be contaminated by coal ash from nearby Plant Scherer. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

For 10 years, the Georgia Water Coalition has issued its “Dirty Dozen” report, a list of threats to waterways across the state. This year, seven repeat offenders made the list, including the Golden Ray shipwreck in St. Simons Sound, a proposed mining operation near Okefenokee Swamp, and coal ash ponds in Monroe County.

But there is at least one issue that did not make a repeat appearance.

“This year, we are notably calling reference to what is not included in the report: the misappropriation of environmental trust funds,” said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the consortium of 260 organizations and Coosa River Basin riverkeeper. Georgia voters earlier this month approved an amendment that requires funds for cleanup of hazardous waste, illegal tire dumps and community programs to be designated for those purposes.

While it is not intended to serve as a list of polluted places, the Dirty Dozen report highlights issues that threaten Georgia’s water, many of which are ongoing. One such issue, the Rayonier pulp mill in Jesup, has appeared on the list eight times for discharging odor-causing chemicals into the Altamaha River.

In Screven County, Ogeechee Riverkeeper has found significant amounts of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a manmade chemical linked to a number of health concerns, in the water. Officials at Milliken Longleaf textile plant submitted data to the Environmental Protection Division showing no evidence the chemicals had been discharged.

Residents of Juliette on a quest for clean water had to turn to Monroe County officials to extend county water lines rather than continue to drink well water they believe to be contaminated by coal ash ponds from Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer. Legislators failed to take action on a bill that would require the utility to excavate the coal ash and move it to lined landfills, but environmental advocates still want the EPD to require excavation. Officials at Georgia Power have said they stand by data reported to EPD that no contaminants above state or federal levels have been shown leaving the plant property.

ExploreJuliette residents ask Gov. Kemp, lawmakers to take action on coal ash

For the past two years, a mining operation and a sunken cargo ship have also appeared on the Dirty Dozen list. Last month, after changes to the Clean Water Act took effect, a mineral mining operation near the Okefenokee Swamp was no longer subject to federal permitting, leaving approval up to state officials. Environmental experts believe the state should study the potential cumulative impacts of mining before issuing any permits to Twin Pines Minerals.

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Salvage operations have recently begun to remove the capsized ship, the Golden Ray, which has been planted on the Georgia coast for over a year, but challenges include the possible release of oil and other pollutants into the water if salvage operations are not managed properly.

Rounding out the list of repeat offenders are a proposed rocket launching facility near Cumberland Island that residents of Camden County are rallying to stop by forcing a referendum on the county’s decision to purchase property for the spaceport, and legislative efforts to pass a farm bill that would make it hard for rural homeowners to file nuisance lawsuits against new farms in their communities.

New to the list this year are the following:

  • The city of Columbus for sewage overflows during rain events that send untreated sewage into the Chattahoochee River
  • A landfill proposal in Brantley County that could pollute the nearby Satilla River
  • A $20 million development plan to revitalize downtown Statesboro while also threatening Little Lotts Creek and the Canoochee River
  • Landfill failures in Forsyth and Cherokee counties near the Etowah River that polluted the wetlands, streams and the river itself with leachate, the polluted water that runs through landfill trash. The issue highlights the overall concerns about landfill leachate and the lack of regulatory attention it is given.

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