A federal agency’s decision to stop an Ohio power company from dumping more toxic coal ash in an unlined pond has brought fresh scrutiny to Georgia Power’s own waste storage plans and whether they could cost the company and, potentially, ratepayers down the line.
Earlier this month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency denied a request from the operator of one of the nation’s biggest coal plants to extend the life of one of its ash ponds, where the facility has disposed of waste left behind from years of burning coal. The coal ash contains dangerous heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, according to the EPA, which can contaminate water supplies and pose serious health risks to humans and wildlife if mishandled.
Though the EPA’s Nov. 18 announcement only concerns the Gen. James Gavin Power Plant in Cheshire, Ohio, the stepped up environmental enforcement by the Biden administration raises questions for Georgia Power, which has similar plans for certain ash ponds here.
Among the main reasons cited in the Ohio case is that a waste storage pond on the site has coal ash sitting in contact with groundwater.
“Today’s action reaffirms that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater,″ EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a news release.
Coal has been a cornerstone of Georgia Power’s electricity network for generations. But as burning coal has grown less cost-effective compared to natural gas and solar — and as calls to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensify — Georgia Power is shuttering coal plants. Still, the state’s largest utility must grapple with the lakes of waste its legacy plants have left behind.
Georgia Power is seeking to dispose of coal ash stored in 29 ponds around the state. At some of those sites, the company is excavating the ash, transporting it to lined landfills, and in some cases, even reusing the material to make concrete. But at several large sites, it is proposing to leave ash in place, sometimes with the material in contact with groundwater.
At Plant Hammond near Rome, Plant McDonough south of Vinings, Plant Scherer outside Macon and the “Ash Management Area” at Plant Yates near Newnan, Georgia Power plans to cap and permanently store millions of cubic feet of coal ash in unlined pits with material submerged in varying amounts of groundwater.
The EPA under Biden has taken a tougher stance than the Trump administration on coal ash and other environmental standards. Georgia Power claims that the EPA’s moves represent a “new position on the nearly seven-year-old federal CCR (coal combustion residuals) rule.”
“Our ash pond closure plans are, and have been, in compliance with federal and state rules and regulations,” company spokesman John Kraft said in a statement.
But the EPA’s Ohio decision is not the first time the the agency has signaled to Georgia Power and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) that the company’s plans may conflict with federal rules.
In January, the EPA sent a letter to Georgia EPD asking the agency to review any pending or issued permits for ash pond closures to ensure they meet federal standards. In the letter, the EPA pointed to the agency’s then-proposed decision on the Gavin Power Plant pond.
With the Gavin decision finalized, environmental groups say it provides more evidence that Georgia Power’s plans don’t meet federal standards.
“EPA has made crystal clear that the closure rules mean what they say: You can’t permanently dispose of ash in contact with groundwater,” said Chris Bowers, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Georgia Power can’t use Georgia’s groundwater as a permanent waste dump. "
Georgia is one of only three states in the country with permission from the federal government to administer its own program for closing such ponds. The two others are Texas and Oklahoma. That means decisions about whether to grant permits or force Georgia Power to amend its plans are up to state regulators.
In a statement, Georgia EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips said her agency and EPA “will continue to work together to ensure that all issued state permits comply with the rules and are protective of human health and the environment.”
State regulators’ decisions could not only affect public health and the environment, but could also impact customer power bills for years.
In filings earlier this year, Georgia Power forecast that closing its coal ash ponds will cost nearly $9 billion over the next 60 years. A Georgia Supreme Court decision earlier this year also cleared the way for the company to continue recouping the costs of its coal ash cleanup from customers.
Baked into the proposed $2.9 billion rate hike that Georgia Power is seeking from the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) is nearly $400 million to cover coal ash compliance costs.
Some environmental advocates have warned that if Georgia Power is allowed to move forward with its current closure plans, only to have to redo them later, it could lead to more increases on power bills — if state utility regulators allow them.
“We would continue to argue that the ratepayer should not be on the hook for those additional costs,” said Dori Jaffe, a managing attorney with the Sierra Club’s environmental law program.
Asked whether the company might ask ratepayers to cover even more costs later on, Kraft said, “The company will continue to seek to recover all prudently incurred costs.”
A note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/