An environmental tug-of-war along Georgia’s Coosa River

ROME — The twin stacks of Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Hammond can be seen for miles along old Alabama Highway, reminders of just what this longtime coal-fired power plant brings to the community.

Nestled for more than 60 years on the banks of the Coosa River near this small northwestern Georgia city, the plant provides nearly 200 jobs and an estimated $3 million in tax revenue for Floyd County. Fishing guides who have worked the river for decades have children employed at the plant or for the power company. Residents note the plant as a local landmark — thanks to those stacks, everybody knows where it is.

But Plant Hammond faces a reckoning that could have a profound effect on its future. The state has begun to review the plant’s use of the river’s water as part of a permit renewal. Georgia Power may face spending hundreds of millions of dollars to meet new mandates.

It’s happening at the same time locals try to help the river recover from decades of contamination from other industries that has left some fish still unsafe to eat, a challenge that is complicated by the plant’s use of the river.

“I probably spend 75 days a year on the Coosa,” said Chris Hughes, who’s fished the river for nearly 30 years — including the last five as a full-time guide. “The fishing can be really good, but there are days when the water quality is not what you want. I’m all about doing what we can to clean it up.”

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Much of the contamination in the Coosa River has been attributed to a former General Electric Co. plant in Rome, which opened in 1954 to manufacture transformers. The plant closed in June 1998, but not before the state said it spewed PCBs thoroughly down the river.

That legacy affects all the businesses that dot the Coosa River and use its waters, including pulp mills buoyed by the area’s timber industry. It’s also on the minds of anglers and paddlers such as Hughes who know the Coosa, home to a number of species, supports one of the nation’s few naturally reproducing land-locked striped bass populations.

The river’s waters new Rome to the Alabama-Georgia state line have been closed to commercial fishing for decades, but it’s a popular spot for recreational users.

The Georgia Water Coalition last year included the Coosa River among its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of the state’s worst pollution areas. The group, however, singled out Plant Hammond because it uses more than 500 million gallons a day of river water to cool its coal-fired units then releases the water back into the river at an elevated temperature, which is allowed by the state. Too high of a temperature, however, could hurt fish and other organisms in the water.

Then there’s the issue of what might get sucked up with the water.

Georgia Power 10 years ago estimated between 30,000 to 60,000 fish annually may hit the plant’s water intake screens, according to a draft of a study the company said this week it never finalized.

Bill Davin, a biologist from nearby Berry College, has separately estimated as many as one million eggs could get sucked into the plant each hour during the spring spawning season for the area’s popular striped bass fish — a time of the year when Davin says he can dip a tea strainer into the water and come up with dozens of eggs.

Davin, who has studied the river for years, said it was hard to tell, however, how much of an impact the plant has on the number of fish in the river. “It all boils down to what percentage of the water they draw,” he said.

And that leads us to the state review of the plant’s discharge permit, which is required under federal rules. While not yet completed, the review is expected to lead to new requirements at the plant to minimize its effect on the river and surrounding habitat.

Jac Capp, chief of the Watershed Protection Branch at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said other efforts to protect the river have helped. In 2008, the EPD said the river did not meet water quality standards for temperature. But Capp said the river’s temperature has improved substantially, including no measured violations in 2014. There have also been no measured violations involving dissolved oxygen — crucial for fish and other organisms living in the river —since 2010.

Still, local environmentalists want the state to require a new cooling tower at the plant, which would also reduce the amount of water it uses. Leading that charge is the Coosa River Basin Initiative, which on Saturday hosted a 10-mile paddle past what it calls the “industrial” part of the Coosa — including a pulp mill and Plant Hammond.

Georgia Power, meanwhile, expects to finish an economic analysis of all its facilities by January. The last one, done about three years ago, flagged the possibility of new regulations that could require improvements at Plant Hammond. The company has closed some smaller coal-fired power plants around the state and converted others, like Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson in Cobb County, to natural gas generation from coal.

Morningstar analyst Mark Barnett said the decision about a new cooling tower is just the first of several Georgia Power will face at Plant Hammond. A federal push for more stringent containment of coal ash — the waste from generating all that coal-fired power also looms.

“It’s a very hard decision,” said Barnett, noting the age of the plant’s coal units could also play into the decision. Whatever the company decides, it will have a cascading effect on other costs: “If you decide to take this jump, you’re going to need to take the next one, and the one after that,” Barnett said.

Previous estimates have shown a new cooling tower alone could cost about $165 million. Company officials have made no decisions yet and said they will work with the state during the permitting process, which could take until next year.

“The Coosa River is a vibrant fishing and recreation area and Lake Weiss, which is connected to the Coosa River and near Plant Hammond, supports a productive and highly desirable fishery including crappie, striped bass and a healthy forage fish community,” company spokesman John O’Brien said in an email. “We’re committed to maintaining this connected ecosystem and to being a good steward of Georgia’s natural resources, including water withdrawn for power generation.”

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