Georgia coal ash fights hit pivotal point in metro Atlanta and beyond

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

U.S. electricity providers have quickly retreated from relying on coal at many of their generating plants, veering toward cheaper fuel that pollutes the air less.

But there is a lingering headache: huge deposits of coal ash.

The potentially toxic leftover from combustion has been funneled into watery lagoons on power plant sites for decades, slipping into groundwater and, sometimes, nearby rivers.

Georgia’s answer to the problem could arrive in the coming weeks. It will be expensive and possibly messy.

Environmentalists and some other residents want Georgia Power to dig up the ash, wring out the water and move it far away from water to landfills with protective liners underneath so that mercury, arsenic and other pollutants don’t seep into groundwater or spill into rivers. Neighbors in one rural Georgia community already are suing the electric utility for allegedly contaminating their drinking water wells.

Georgia Power is taking such cleanup steps in some cases but relying on more modest measures at other sites. It says both will ensure safety. It estimates its plan would still cost $9 billion — and its 2.6 million customers would likely foot the bill.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is likely to rule soon on whether the state’s dominant electric utility can leave more than a million cubic yards of coal ash — enough to fill 5,400 tractor trailers — on a re-engineered but still-unlined site at its closed Plant Hammond on the Coosa River near Rome.

Then, in coming months, the regulatory agency will rule on similar requests at four other current or former Georgia Power coal-powered plants. Some are in metro Atlanta, including one near Smyrna, along the Chattahoochee River.

At each site, a portion of the coal ash already sits in groundwater, ranging from an estimated foot deep to more than 50 feet deep, according to the Georgia EPD.

Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, the Rome-based executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said Georgia Power’s more limited cleanup plans for Hammond are a trial balloon for other sites.

“I don’t think I can overstate the importance of the moment right now,” he said. “Legal challenges notwithstanding, whatever Georgia EPD goes with is what we are going to be stuck with for decades.”

Georgia Power did not make any environmental executives available to talk to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this article. Company spokesman John Kraft did email answers to some questions.

No matter what closure method is used, he wrote, “we’re going to be sure that our closure plans are protective of the environment and the communities we serve.”

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Coal ash major source of industrial waste

Southern Company, Georgia Power’s parent, said Thursday it plans to have eight coal-fired generating units by 2028 across three states, down from 18 last year and 66 in 2007. It already generates less than 20% of its electricity from coal, with the bulk fueled by natural gas, nuclear power and renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Burning coal at generating plants produces ash and other so-called coal combustion residuals, such as gypsum left over from cutting sulfur dioxide emissions.

Georgia Power has flushed much of the ash from its plants with water and deposited nearly 90 million cubic yards in coal ash ponds, equal to a third the size of Stone Mountain. Tens of millions of cubic yards more are in ash landfills operated by the company.

Concern grew for decades about toxic contaminants found in the coal ash, including some that if ingested in sufficient quantities increase the risk of cancers or organ failure and harm wildlife. Environmental groups say the harmful constituents don’t biodegrade. They worry about coal ash infiltrating groundwater and rivers used for drinking water.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Residents near a 550-acre ash lake at Plant Scherer 25 miles north of Macon have filed a lawsuit against Georgia Power, claiming the ash has poisoned their well water. The company said it has seen no evidence that its operations affected drinking water.

Still, concerns about contaminants, regardless of the source, have spurred Monroe County to begin extending public water lines to about 900 homes near Scherer. A county spokesman said the local government has contemplated asking Georgia Power to contribute to the nearly $20 million expense. The lawsuit, filed last year, is ongoing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set rules in 2015 pressing for the closure of numerous ash ponds around the nation, even as it classified coal ash as nonhazardous waste.

The EPA’s move followed a lawsuit by environmental organizations and major ash pond spills. One in Tennessee in 2008 damaged and destroyed homes and cost more than $1 billion, according to media reports. Another in North Carolina in 2014 spread ash down 70 miles of the Dan River. Duke Energy later pleaded guilty to environmental criminal charges, agreeing to pay $102 million.

Debate over risk to drinking water

A mix of public pressure, utility decisions, court challenges and state government actions led to commitments to dig up all ash impoundments in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia and either cart the ash off to lined landfills away from water or reuse the material in building products, as allowed by the federal government.

Plans are more mixed for ash ponds in Tennessee. And Alabama Power, which like Georgia Power is part of Atlanta-based Southern Company, plans to leave all its ash ponds in place when it closes them.

Georgia Power is taking a somewhat different approach. It has begun to dry out and move millions of cubic yards to lined landfills farther from waterways.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

But the company also proposes to leave nearly three-fourths of its ash from lagoons at plant sites, treating and discharging water, reworking the sites, adding protective covers, keeping track of any potential contamination with monitoring wells and maintaining post-closure operations for at least 30 years at six current or former coal-burning generating plants around Georgia.

In five of those places, including three along the Chattahoochee River in metro Atlanta and farther south, Georgia Power plans to leave a total of about 44 million cubic yards of ash without a synthetic liner underneath. Such liners are required at landfills that take regular household garbage.

In the first three months of next year, the EPD could begin taking public comments for one of those projects at Plant McDonough in Cobb County. Georgia Power has asked to leave about 6.5 million cubic yards of ash in place there — enough to fill more than 32,000 tractor trailers.

“I don't think I can overstate the importance of the moment right now. Legal challenges notwithstanding, whatever Georgia EPD goes with is what we are going to be stuck with for decades."

- Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative

At Plant Bowen near Cartersville, Georgia Power plans to keep more than 20 million cubic yards of coal ash but with a bottom liner. Activists point out that the site has been plagued with sinkholes. One in 2002 sent 2.25 million gallons of ash and water into a nearby creek and then the Etowah River. Protectively, the city of Rome temporarily shut off its drinking water intake on the river, miles downstream.

Kraft, the Georgia Power spokesman, said the utility has had more than 600 groundwater monitoring wells around its ash sites and has had thousands of samples analyzed. He said the company has not identified any impact to drinking water from its coal ash.

But in recent years, elevated levels of contaminants in groundwater have been reported by the utility based on monitoring wells. And the company notified Cobb County that groundwater with raised levels of constituents found in coal ash may have migrated onto the right-of-way beside Plant McDonough. The plant is nearly a mile downriver from a city of Atlanta drinking water intake.

Chris Manganiello, the water policy director for the nonprofit Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, worries about the future, including proposed downstream water intakes.

“How bad might the problems be in 30 years if we don’t do it right from the start?” he said.

Georgia Power is closing down coal ash ponds at power plants. It proposes to move some of the potentially toxic material to lined landfills, but most it would leave in place:

Plant McDonough near Smyrna — Georgia Power has proposed leaving 6.56 million cubic yards in unlined ash sites at the property, which is along the Chattahoochee River in Cobb County near South Cobb Drive and across the river from the city of Atlanta. In 2020, the company notified Cobb County about concerns that materials found in coal ash may have migrated in groundwater to an adjacent property.

Plant Bowen near Cartersville — The company has proposed leaving in place 20.4 million cubic yards of formerly impounded ash, consolidated on 144 acres at the complex, which is near Euharlee Creek and the Etowah River, upstream from Rome. Among other safety measures, it plans to install a synthetic liner under the ash. The plant site, including specifically the ash pond, has suffered a number of sinkholes in recent decades.

Plant Scherer near Juliette, north of Macon — A 550-acre ash impoundment at the site would be consolidated, with its 16 million cubic yards stored on a 330-acre footprint, without a synthetic liner underneath. A number of people who have lived near the plant are suing Georgia Power, claiming toxic constituents from the company’s ash have poisoned well water. Lake Juliette was built as part of the plant project.

Plant Wansley near Carrolton — Georgia Power plans to consolidate 16 million cubic yards of ash already on the site, which is near the Chattahoochee River downstream from Atlanta. The company proposes putting protections in place, but no bottom liner, in a 138-acre area for the ash.

Plant Yates near Newnan — The company wants to leave 4.7 million cubic yards of impounded ash in unlined areas on the site, which is along Chattahoochee River in Coweta County and downstream from Atlanta.

Plant Hammond near Rome — The company’s plan calls for removing several million cubic yards of ash to a permitted landfill. Georgia Power also would leave 1.1 million cubic yards of formerly impounded ash in an unlined site near the Coosa River, downstream from Rome. Environmental groups say the plant site suffered sinkholes in the 1970s.