The EPA is cracking down on toxic coal ash. Does Georgia have a plan?

Federal intervention could have big implications for the environment and for Georgians
FILE: Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen near Cartersville is home to a coal ash pond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

FILE: Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen near Cartersville is home to a coal ash pond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denying an application for a coal ash disposal plan in Alabama is raising questions about what it could mean for a similar program in Georgia.

Georgia Power’s plan to leave millions of tons of toxic coal waste from power plants submerged in groundwater indefinitely could have a significant impact on the environment, taxpayers and customers — most of whom do not have a choice of utility and who ultimately pay for the cleanup and closure of coal-fired power plants.

Utilities across the country spent decades dumping ash leftover from burning coal for electricity into unlined ponds and landfills that were heavily contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and selenium as a result. In 2014, a disastrous coal ash spill on the Dan River in North Carolina prompted the first in a series of reforms aimed at securing toxic waste from coal.

Today, there are 30 known coal ash ponds in Georgia, 29 of which are owned by Georgia Power at 11 sites across the state. The company plans to close nine of those ponds in place without removing the waste to a lined landfill, according to a recent public filing. Some of those closures, including Plant McDonough in Cobb County, are nearly complete, despite ongoing regulatory review.

The filing put Georgia Power’s current cost estimate applicable to retail customers for the coal waste program at approximately $7.4 billion, with about $1.4 billion in actual costs previously incurred.

Last week, the EPA denied a petition from Alabama to run a coal waste program similar to Georgia’s. This comes after the federal agency sent two public letters to Georgia state environmental regulators objecting to their handling of coal waste permits.

Georgia Power issued a statement in response to written questions that substantially echoed what it has said for the past two years, since the EPA sent its first warning letter.

“We have consistently said, and continue to maintain, that our ash pond closure plans are designed to comply with both the federal and state (coal waste disposal) rules,” a spokesman said.

If the EPA concludes that Georgia is not meeting federal standards for safe coal waste disposal, it would issue written notification, triggering a public hearing process that could ultimately revoke some of Georgia’s regulatory powers and force Georgia Power to dig out all the coal ash and dispose of it in lined landfills.

“That’s a pretty rare step, and it’s an extraordinary step,” said Chris Bowers, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who has sued utilities over coal ash. “We would say it is a necessary step.”

EPA said it does not have a specific timetable for making a decision.

“We are currently in active discussions with (the Georgia Environmental Protection Division) on the permits they are preparing to issue. We are reviewing issues such as groundwater monitoring networks and closure, which were issues relevant in the denial of Alabama’s (coal waste) permit program,” an EPA spokeswoman said in an email.

In the meantime, Georgia Power is moving forward with its existing closure plans, including leaving coal ash in unlined ponds.

The Georgia EPD acknowledged in response to written questions that the EPA has “expressed concerns.”

A spokeswoman said state regulators were “in discussions” with their federal counterparts to ensure Georgia’s coal ash disposal is consistent with the law and protective of public health and the environment.

In the wake of new regulations in 2015, many utilities initially sought to bury their coal ash in place, said Daniel Tait with the Energy and Policy Institute. But Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Company, doubled down on that plan even as other Southeast energy giants, like Duke Energy, moved away from it.

Tait said Georgia Power bears very little risk, even if it is forced to redo its closure plans, because as a regulated monopoly, it can charge customers for its capital investments plus profit.

“If they made those capital investments and those capital investments are no longer good enough, it doesn’t matter — they still get to make their profit,” Tait said.

Coal ash disposal is governed by state and federal environmental regulators, but Georgia Power’s finances, including what it charges customers, are regulated by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).

A spokesman for the Commission said in an email that it “determines cost recovery based on standards of reasonableness and prudence” and that “any coal ash costs will be reviewed using those standards.”

“It will be up to EPD and Georgia Power to convince EPA that their plan also complies with EPA decisions,” he said. “In approving coal ash recovery in the last rate case, the Commission expressly reserved the right to make prudency determinations on the coal ash costs.”

A note of disclosure

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