Georgia Power approved to store toxic coal ash in groundwater near Rome

Permitted plans at Plant Hammond allow ash to be left in as much as 9.5 feet of groundwater
A photo from 2011 shows a mound of coal ash at Plant McDonough near Smyrna, Ga. (Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

A photo from 2011 shows a mound of coal ash at Plant McDonough near Smyrna, Ga. (Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com)

State regulators have granted Georgia Power final approval to permanently store toxic coal ash in contact with groundwater at a site near Rome, which environmentalists say threatens human health and conflicts with federal rules for such facilities.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issued a final permit on November 14 to Ash Pond 3 at Plant Hammond, a former coal-fired power plant shuttered in 2019. Ash Pond 3 is located on the banks of the Coosa River, about 12 miles west of Rome, and is one of four ash ponds on the site.

Georgia Power’s handling of coal ash has long been a concern for communities living near the impoundments. But environmentalists say the approval of final closure plans at Hammond is a brazen defiance of what they say are crystal-clear rules for these facilities. And recent moves in Alabama suggest there could be a conflict looming between state and federal regulators over the storage of waste at Hammond.

Here’s what else you need to know.

How is Georgia Power’s coal ash managed?

Georgia Power has coal ash stored around the state in 12 landfills and 29 ash ponds, lagoons where the material is submerged in water to keep it from blowing away.

Coal ash is stored onsite in a retention pond in Smyrna. (Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com)

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At some ash ponds, the company is excavating and transporting material to lined landfills or selling it for use in concrete. But at several locations, the utility plans to cap and permanently store millions of cubic yards of coal ash in unlined pits with material submerged in groundwater.

That is the case at Plant Hammond’s Ash Pond 3, where records compiled by Georgia EPD show coal ash will remain submerged in as much as 9.5 feet of groundwater.

Similar plans have been proposed for Plant McDonough south of Vinings, Plant Scherer outside Macon and Plant Yates near Newnan. But Hammond’s Ash Pond 3 is the first location that has been granted a final permit to close with material in contact with groundwater by Georgia EPD.

Georgia is one of only three states allowed by the federal government to oversee closure of its own ash ponds. The two others are Oklahoma and Texas.

For a state to gain approval to manage ash pond closures, the EPA requires that its program is “at least as protective as federal regulations currently in place.”

How will ash be stored at Hammond?

Ash Pond 3 stopped receiving new material in the 1990s, but it still contains more than 1.1 million cubic yards of ash.

According to the approved closure plans, a cover will be installed over the impoundment “to control, minimize, or eliminate, to the maximum extent feasible, post-closure infiltration of liquids into the waste.” That cover will consist of a heavy-duty plastic liner, followed by synthetic drainage material,18 inches of soil and vegetation. Later, solar panels will be installed over the site.

Georgia Power is required to maintain the site and monitor groundwater for 30 years. The final permit also includes a requirement that every five years, the company check and show how much ash is sitting in groundwater.

To date, Georgia Power has spent $26.3 million on closing Ash Pond 3, but its final projected closure costs are redacted from the company’s environmental compliance filing.

Why is this significant?

Federal regulations say that coal ash ponds must be closed in a manner that controls, minimizes or eliminates contamination of groundwater to the “maximum extent feasible.”

Environmental groups say the fact that state regulators are not forcing Georgia Power to transfer the ash to a lined landfill — as the company is doing with other ponds at Hammond — and is instead allowing it to be permanently stored in groundwater, flies in the face of the rules the state is supposed to follow.

“This state permit is not worth the paper it’s printed on,” Chris Bowers, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

Asked whether Hammond’s ash can be permanently stored as planned, the EPA said in a statement that federal rules say ash ponds cannot be closed “if, once closure is complete, the coal ash continues to be saturated by groundwater.”

In response to questions about whether it believes the Hammond plans follow the law, EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips shared a statement saying that the agency “ensures each permit issued is protective of human health and the environment and meets the federal and state performance standards.”

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said the company’s plans are designed to meet federal and state standards and that it will “continue to work with the Georgia EPD to ensure our closure plans remain in compliance with these rules.”

What happens next?

It’s not clear just yet.

EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said, “The EPA is in continuing discussions with Georgia EPD regarding implementation of Georgia’s program.”

But recent EPA actions next door in Alabama could point to looming problems for Georgia Power.

Alabama had applied to join Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas in managing its own coal ash program. But the EPA recently announced that it plans to reject Alabama’s application after finding that the state’s program is “significantly” less protective than federal rules require.

Specifically, EPA said it found that Alabama was issuing permits to coal ash facilities to leave material in contact with groundwater. Several of the ash ponds at issue in the state are owned by Georgia Power’s sister company, Alabama Power.

For years, environmental groups have condemned Georgia Power’s plans as dangerous and potentially in violation of federal rules. Now, with the state granting a final permit at Hammond, they say it is time for EPA to take a hard look at the handling of coal ash in Georgia.

“This permit makes it totally clear that Georgia EPD should not have an EPA-delegated permitting program,” Fletcher Sams, the executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, said in a statement. “Does EPA and this administration have the political will to enforce the law in Georgia? That remains to be seen.”


What is coal ash?

Coal ash is a dust-like material left behind after coal is burned for electricity.

Coal ash can be added to concrete mixes, safely locking the material away, but it does contain heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are known to cause cancer and other serious illnesses, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

If left sitting in groundwater or in contact with other water bodies, coal ash can contaminate drinking water sources, posing serious risks to humans and the environment.

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