Juliette residents concerned about coal ash from Georgia Power plant

Residents of the city of Juliette are rallying behind a pair of bills working through the state legislature that would require more stringent standards for the disposal of coal ash.

At a meeting on Monday night in Monroe County— the third such meeting held for the community — environmental advocates, county officials, residents and at least one state representative expressed concerns about how the plant waste might be managed at Georgia Power's Plant Scherer and how Juliette residents could be assured their water is clean in the interim.

Residents have been concerned that the coal ash— waste from coal-fired plants that may contain arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals that can be toxic to humans — has gotten into their water supply.

With more than 6 million tons of coal ash produced each year, Georgia is one of the top coal ash-generating states. Most of Georgia's coal ash has been generated by Georgia Power at 11 coal-fired power plants stretching from Rome in the northwest part of the state to Brunswick on the coast.

Plant Scherer, in Juliette, north of Macon, open since the 1980s, is one of five plants across the state at which Georgia Power has proposed leaving toxic ash in unlined pits. Environmentalists have cited a cross-section of Plant Scherer from 2018 provided to Georgia Power by an engineering consultant showing coal ash in contact with groundwater.

Georgia Power has said the closure plans meet the requirements of both state and federal laws and are under review with the state Environmental Protection Division, and that their data found no risks to public health or drinking water.

But residents of Juliette said they've long been concerned about the impact that waste from the plant may have had on well water in the county. Water testing conducted by Altamaha Riverkeeper found some toxins that may indicate pollution from coal ash. Some residents have resorted to using bottled water.

“If we don’t excavate and place a liner and get these two bills passed, the very toxic metals will remain in the soil and contaminate not just Juliette, but all the way through (the state),” said Karl Cass, a Juliette resident since 1974.

If passed, House Bill 756 , sponsored by Rep. Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville and Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Jordan, would require that coal ash be disposed of under guidelines at least as stringent as those for standard household trash. In Georgia, household waste must be disposed of in landfills with bottom liners and collection systems for contaminated liquids, but the law does not currently require the same method of disposal for coal ash.

Rep. Rick Williams, R - Milledgeville, urged residents to continue pressing elected officials to pass the bills but to also think beyond. It could take more than a decade for Georgia Power to excavate and line the coal ash ponds. “What happens between now and when they get that done?” he said Monday night.

After a spill dumped 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into a North Carolina river, the federal government in 2015 required unlined ash ponds and landfills to be closed in place or excavated. Duke Energy recently agreed to one of the largest clean-up efforts in the country when it announced it would close the majority of its coal ash basins in North Carolina by excavating 80 million tons of ash and moving it into lined landfills.

Last year, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the state Environmental Protection Division to deny Georgia Power's permit applications for in-place closures of coal ash ponds and landfills at five plants including Plant Scherer.

The permits are currently under review with EPD. A decision on the permit at Plant Scherer is expected by August, said Fletcher Sams of Altamaha Riverkeeper.