Coal ash raises concerns at second South Georgia landfill

A second South Georgia landfill has reported elevated levels of a potentially hazardous metal that environmental groups fear may have been caused by coal ash, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

The state is investigating a “statistically significant increase” in vanadium that was detected at a groundwater monitoring well at the Chesser Island Road Landfill near the Okefenokee Swamp. The levels of vanadium have been “generally increasing” since 2012 at the massive Waste Management dump in Charlton County, according to a March 2016 letter from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

While millions of pounds of coal ash — which also contains arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury — have been accepted at the landfill, environmental officials don’t know the source of the vanadium. Waste Management, the nation’s largest landfill operator, says the vanadium, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, is permitted by the state, naturally occurring and poses no threat to the environment.

The discovery has touched off another wave of concern in South Georgia over the disposal and storage of coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. It’s a battle playing out nationwide, and particularly in Georgia, as residents learn more about the potential dangers of coal ash.

Georgia Power, for example, announced last week the speeded-up closure of its 29 ash ponds with some of the ash destined for South Georgia landfills. More stringent state and federal disposal rules, as well as verified leaks from ash ponds and landfills across the country, prodded the utility and others into action.

Coal ash, if handled properly, can be safely disposed. And vanadium isn’t as harmful to health as arsenic or lead. In large quantities, though, vanadium may cause cancer or nerve damage. And a rash of state, federal and legal actions targeting coal ash, many in the Southeast, underscores the potential for environmental damage.

The AJC reported earlier this year that beryllium and other toxic metals leached from a Wayne County landfill — 50 miles from Chesser Island — into the soil and groundwater. Neighbors and environmentalists worry that both landfills, located near wetlands and rivers, are hazardous to South Georgia’s health and ecological well-being.

“These big dumps like Chesser Island and Wayne County are located in one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world, with wetlands, marshes, rivers and their tributaries, so to have this kind of coal ash dumped here is very worrisome,” said Alex Kearns, the chairwoman of St. Marys Earthkeeper, an environmental nonprofit in coastal Camden County. “We’re turning into a coal ash wastebasket for the East Coast.”

Substance used on dirt roads

Vanadium, a grayish, odorless metal, is found in the air, water and soil and can remain there for a long time. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium. Only eight states mandate groundwater standards.

Breathing vanadium, via coal ash dust, may cause chest pain or lung damage. The Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says drinking it may cause nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps. In animal studies, vanadium triggered decreased red blood cell counts, elevated blood pressure, neurological effects and harm to the reproductive system.

Jacksonville, Fla.’s Northside Generating Station, which burns coal and petroleum coke mixed with limestone, makes a particularly potent ash. Some of it remains on site in a dozen ponds or landfills, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Millions of pounds have been shipped to Chesser Island. And some was turned into a road-building material called EZBase.

Used properly, the ash helps turn dirt roads into hard-packed, easily maintained byways. Keeping ash out of landfills also saves utilities tons of money in tipping fees. Georgia officials, though, had little knowledge — or oversight — of EZBase when it was first used a decade ago.

Charlton County then bought 320,000 tons of EZBase from the Jacksonville utility, according to a memo amid several thousand pages of EPD files perused by the newspaper. It was stockpiled in two large mounds near Folkston and used to harden 20 miles of county roads.

Residents complained of nausea, headaches and other maladies from wind-blown ash. The EPD told county officials as early as 2007 to not use EZBase, which hadn’t received an application permit. The EPD soon discovered high levels of vanadium in the stockpiles.

In November 2010, a University of Florida professor warned that “vanadium concentrations in runoff from test beds were sufficiently high that caution is warranted regarding placement of EZBase roads immediately adjacent to sensitive wetlands.” Florida officials banned EZBase from residential areas and schools.

In the summer of 2010, according to The Florida Times-Union, the Jacksonville Electric Authority spent $3 million hauling EZBase to the Chesser Island landfill. (The utility didn’t return calls from the AJC.)

‘Statistically significant increase’

Waste Management has its 32 groundwater monitoring wells tested each year in February and August. Results are sent to the EPD. In August 2012, the vanadium levels stood at 3 parts per billion in one well. In February 2015, it was 13 PPB. Six months later it had dropped to 9.5 PPB.

The vanadium levels rose to 11 PPB in February 2016.

While Georgia has no water quality standard for vanadium, North Carolina does. Two years ago a well, near a Duke Power coal ash pond, registered an estimated concentration of 14 parts per billion — more than 45 times the state’s safe drinking water standard.

In a Feb. 15, 2016, certified letter to Waste Management, EPD geologist Joshua Frizzell wrote that the Chesser Island well showed a “statistically significant increase,” adding that the agency “does not concur” with the landfill operator that the vanadium is naturally occurring.

Later, after consultations with Waste Management, Frizzell said the company needn’t change its semi-annual monitoring program. But he requested that Waste Management investigate other possible sources for the vanadium, including soil stockpiles and leachate tanks that collect the landfill’s rain-induced runoff, including coal ash.

“Every time you look at EZBase or coal ash, the vanadium pops up,” environmentalist Kearns said. “That’s the one thing that’s consistent through all of this. It’s kind of a no-brainer connection.”

Dawn McCormick, a Waste Management spokeswoman, said the EZBase was placed in the landfill’s lined section and any water that percolates through it is captured in a leachate system. Coal ash from Jacksonville Electric is placed atop the landfill to reduce odors and keep vultures from scavenging. Any leached water is also captured in the system, McCormick says.

She says the vanadium is “naturally occurring and this is a temporary increase,” adding that if the vanadium was widespread it would’ve popped up at other monitoring wells. It’s “highly unlikely” that coal ash precipitated the elevated vanadium readings, she adds.

Frizzell last week said “that the waste mass does not appear to be the source of the vanadium increase.” Other EPD officials, though, say it remains a possibility.

“Waste Management,” said Frizzell in an email to the AJC, “has not demonstrated to EPD’s satisfaction that this is a ‘natural occurrence,’ as the source of vanadium has not been determined.”