EPD approves coal ash storage plans for Plant Bowen

Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville is shown on Thursday, September 17, 2015. The closure of many of Georgia's coal ash ponds, which contain a toxic slurry of contaminants, remains uncertain after the EPA said the waste from these plants could not be stored in contact with groundwater.

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

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Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville is shown on Thursday, September 17, 2015. The closure of many of Georgia's coal ash ponds, which contain a toxic slurry of contaminants, remains uncertain after the EPA said the waste from these plants could not be stored in contact with groundwater.

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Fate of other coal ash ponds around the state remains unclear

Questions continue to swirl around Georgia Power’s plans for disposing of waste left by decades of burning coal, but the state Environmental Protection Division has approved the technique that will be used at Plant Bowen.

The coal ash pond at Plant Bowen near Cartersville is among the largest in the Southeast, containing more than 20 million cubic yards of coal ash. After the pond is drained, compacted ash from the facility will be transferred into a lined pit, according to Georgia Power’s plans. The site will ultimately span 144 acres and could take 15 years or more to complete.

Environmental groups have voiced concerns about the location where coal ash will be stored at Plant Bowen. Sinkholes have developed around the site over the years, including one in 2002 that allowed 2.25 million gallons of ash and water to escape into a nearby creek and the Etowah River.

“Plant Bowen is unique in that a liner alone will not protect the groundwater or nearby waterways from coal ash contamination, and EPD needs to take this concern seriously,” said Dori Jaffe, a managing attorney with the Sierra Club’s environmental law program.

To stabilize the foundation, Georgia Power’s plans call for filler to be added beneath the pit.

“Third-party engineers and geologists evaluated the site geology at Plant Bowen and incorporated into the design proven engineering methods that will ensure that the pond closure process occurs properly,” said Aaron Mitchell, the director of environmental affairs for Georgia Power.

Environmental advocates say the plan for Plant Bowen is far from perfect, but using a liner to keep waste from leaching into soil or groundwater is a welcomed safety precaution.

That is not what the company has proposed to do at other sites around the state. At its plants near Smyrna, Rome, Newnan, Carrollton and Juliette, Georgia Power is seeking to leave most of its coal ash in unlined pits. In some cases, the waste would be left in contact with groundwater, which environmental groups and neighbors have warned could contaminate water supplies.

“If Georgia Power can excavate the ash at Plant Bowen and put it into a lined facility, they can do it at Plant Scherer in Juliette and they can do it everywhere,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper.

The company’s plans for its other coal ash ponds also may be at odds with Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Georgia is one of three states in the country allowed to administer its own program for closing coal ash ponds.

But earlier this year, the director of the EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery sent a letter to the Georgia EPD asking the agency to review any pending or issued permits for coal ash pond closures to ensure they meet EPA standards. Georgia Power has proposed to leave coal ash in contact with groundwater at some sites, but EPA regulations require that coal ash ponds are closed in a manner that controls, minimizes or eliminates contamination of groundwater.

In response to questions about whether Georgia EPD will force Georgia Power to reevaluate its proposed plans for coal ash at other sites, an EPD spokesperson said that all permit applications are still under review.

“EPD and US EPA will continue to work together to ensure that all issued permits comply with the rules and are protective of human health and the environment,” the spokesperson said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the EPA official who sent the letter to the Georgia EPD and oversimplified the contents of the EPA’s letter. The article has been corrected.