Georgia Power’s ‘risky’ coal ash plan comes under fire during hearing

Plant Scherer, a Georgia Power plant, is seen from the air using a drone on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, near Juliette. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
Plant Scherer, a Georgia Power plant, is seen from the air using a drone on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, near Juliette. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

State regulators continue to evaluate plans for closing many of the company’s coal ash ponds

A potentially messy problem for Georgia Power and its ratepayers bubbled to the surface this week: The company’s plans to dispose of toxic coal ash at some sites around the state may not be up to snuff with more aggressive federal regulators.

Those were the concerns explored by environmental lawyers, clean energy advocates and members of the powerful Public Service Commission (PSC), the state utilities regulator, during hearings on Georgia Power’s long-term energy plans.

The issue came up several times during a lengthy hearing on Georgia Power’s environmental compliance strategy, the second of two held about the company’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Georgia Power is seeking approval of its plan from the five-member PSC, which it is required to do every three years.

Witnesses for Georgia Power came under intense questioning Tuesday afternoon from public interest and environmental attorneys — as well as PSC Vice Chairman Tim Echols — about the company’s plans for closing its 29 coal ash ponds around the state.

Echols asked whether parts of the company’s strategy were “risky,” in light of changes to enforcement of federal coal ash regulations. After the Trump administration loosened several coal ash rules, the Biden administration has signaled it will take a stricter approach to enforcement.

As Georgia Power abandons coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas and solar, federal rules require the utility to safely store its coal ash. The company has tens of millions of cubic yards of the material at sites around the state, left behind by years of coal combustion.

At some of those sites, the company is excavating the ash and transporting it to lined landfills. But at others, it is proposing to leave the ash in place, sometimes in unlined pits where the material is in contact with groundwater.

And that could create a major problem for Georgia Power with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The plans for sites where ash will be submerged in groundwater may not comply with federal regulations, based on EPA action taken earlier this year.

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Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville on Thursday, September 17, 2015. Georgia has some 30 coal ash ponds, which contain a toxic slurry of contaminants from coal-fired power plants. When these ponds fail, they can unleash a torrent of liquid waste that can devastate communities, knocking homes off their foundations and forcing residents to flee permanently. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville on Thursday, September 17, 2015. Georgia has some 30 coal ash ponds, which contain a toxic slurry of contaminants from coal-fired power plants. When these ponds fail, they can unleash a torrent of liquid waste that can devastate communities, knocking homes off their foundations and forcing residents to flee permanently. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville on Thursday, September 17, 2015. Georgia has some 30 coal ash ponds, which contain a toxic slurry of contaminants from coal-fired power plants. When these ponds fail, they can unleash a torrent of liquid waste that can devastate communities, knocking homes off their foundations and forcing residents to flee permanently. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

On Jan. 11, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the agency had found coal ash storage plans at some facilities in the Midwest and Northeast were insufficient. As part of that action, EPA also stated its “consistently held position that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater.” EPA regulations require that coal ash ponds are closed in a manner that controls, minimizes or eliminates contamination of groundwater.

That same day, the director of the EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery sent a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) asking the agency to review any pending or issued permits for ash pond closures to ensure they meet EPA standards.

Locations where Georgia Power plans to leave pits unlined include Ash Pond 3 at Plant Hammond near Rome, Ash Pond 1 at Plant McDonough south of Vinings, Ash Pond 1 at Plant Scherer near Macon and the “Ash Management Area” at Plant Yates near Newnan.

The potential for conflict between Georgia Power’s plans and federal rules was raised by Vice Chairman Echols. At one point, he asked whether potential cost overruns could be reflected in customers’ energy bills, if the company has to redo these facilities later on.

“We’ve seen administrations change their mind,” Echols said. “There are plenty of people who would like us to go further with this — dig it all up, line every pond and put it back in there. You could do that, couldn’t you?”

Aaron Mitchell, director of environmental affairs for Georgia Power, responded that it was possible.

“Yeah, and then you would come to us for the money and then we would go to the ratepayers for that money,” Echols said.

“If approved,” Mitchell replied.

“In some ways, we are hoping that the strategy survives this administration,” Echols added later. “It may, it may not ... We don’t know. But this commission is tasked with making sure that we agree with the strategy that you have.”

In its filings, the company has forecast that closing its coal ash ponds will cost $8.99 billion over the next 60 years, which includes $944 million in costs incurred so far through December of last year.

Georgia is one of only three states in the country that has been granted permission to administer its own program for closing its coal ash ponds. The other two are Texas and Oklahoma.

Coal ash can be reused to make concrete and other construction materials. But without proper management, it can contaminate water with heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, according to the EPA.

Residents living near Plant Scherer, located 25 miles from Macon, have sued Georgia Power, claiming coal ash has poisoned their well water, which the utility denies.

In response to emailed questions, a Georgia EPD spokesman said the agency continues to have in-depth conversations with EPA about Ash Pond 3 at Plant Hammond, one of the sites where ash would be left submerged in groundwater. A draft permit for that site was issued last year.

Georgia Power is in compliance with federal and state regulations, a spokesman said, and will provide more information about its coal ash pond closure plans to the PSC later this month.

Staff writer Matt Kempner contributed to this story.


Why this matters

  • As Georgia and many other states transition away from using coal plants to generate power, the question of what to do with the waste left behind from burning coal remains a major issue.
  • State regulators are weighing permits for coal ash ponds at many sites in Georgia. Those plans could impact the rates Georgia Power customers pay and the health of those living nearby.
  • Coal ash contains several toxic heavy metals. Some residents living near these ponds have raised concerns about water contamination.