Georgia to consider own rules for handling toxic coal ash

Out-of-state utilities want to send millions of pounds of toxic coal ash to Georgia landfills. Georgia Power is shuttering 29 ash ponds and five landfills, many in metro Atlanta, over the next 15 years. And, increasingly, homes and roads may be built partly with ash.

The federal government established rules last year for the disposal and dispersal of coal ash. Now, it’s Georgia’s turn.

The state’s Environmental Protection Division proposes safeguards more stringent than the feds’ to protect Georgia’s air and water from coal ash pollution. The agency will hold a “stakeholder meeting” with utilities, environmental groups and concerned residents Thursday in Atlanta to discuss the preliminary regulations.

“We don’t have to do anything, but we are proposing to fully implement the (federal) rule and more,” said Jeff Cown, who runs the EPD’s land protection branch. “We want to have certainty in regulating these facilities in our state.”

The timing is critical. A few Georgia landfills already accept coal ash, and utilities are planning to send more. Major spills in North Carolina and Tennessee pushed Washington to impose disposal rules, although critics say they’re not very stringent.

Residents in Jesup, about four hours southeast of Atlanta, are fighting plans by trash disposal giant Republic Services to import up to 100 train cars daily of coal ash into the county landfill. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in February that toxic metals from coal ash leached into the landfill’s soil and groundwater. A busload of Wayne County residents will attend Thursday’s hearing.

“It’s the most important issue in my lifetime. I’ve never seen anything threaten Wayne County like this,” said Peggy Riggins, a retired high school teacher who’ll make the trip. “I’ve always thought this is a safe and healthy place to rear a family, and now I feel all that could be threatened.”

Coal ash, or coal combustion residuals, is the residue from coal-fired power plants. Utilities typically store the ash in waste ponds or landfills, or they recycle it for concrete, wallboard or roads. Nearly 110 million tons of coal ash was generated in 2012, according to the American Coal Ash Association.

Georgia Power generated 2.4 million tons last year. Its coal ash lagoons cover 2,300 acres, or the equivalent of nearly 1,800 football fields, according to an AJC analysis.

The ash contains some nasty stuff, such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic. The toxic metals can leach into ground and surface water and, as dust, rise into the air and lungs. Beryllium and other heavy metals were found at the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill below Jesup in 2011, the AJC discovered, yet not properly disposed until more than two years later.

The White House began considering regulations after a Tennessee utility spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of coal-ash slurry into the Emory River in 2008. A North Carolina utility’s containment pond burst in 2014, sending nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. A 2012 lawsuit by environmental groups against the federal Environmental Protection Agency prodded Washington.

Safe disposal took on heightened importance as the Obama administration, in response to a warming climate, ordered states to reduce their reliance on coal-generated electricity. As coal plants shut down, less ash is generated. Georgia Power produced about one-third less ash last year than it did five years earlier, said Aaron Mitchell, the utility’s general manager for environmental affairs.

Still, billions of tons of ash await disposal or reuse. Environmental critics were dismayed in 2014 when the EPA, with strong input from utilities and recyclers, decided that coal ash was not hazardous and, therefore, could be discarded in landfills alongside regular household waste.

The federal rules require utilities to inspect ponds and landfills and post the results online. New storage sites must be lined with plastic to keep the metals from leaching into the ground. Ponds and landfills must also be far enough away from surface and ground water, sinkholes and flood plains.

Groundwater monitoring systems must be installed. Landfills, trains and trucks must also keep dry coal ash from blowing into streams, neighborhoods or lungs.

“We would like to see the stuff excavated from the pits and moved to a municipal solid waste landfill with liners, leachate collection systems and groundwater monitoring,” said Robert Jackson, a senior attorney with GreenLaw who’s representing the Sierra Club. “But I suspect what the utilities would like to do is cover (their ponds) over with some sort of liner or concrete cap and leave it there. That would be the cheapest thing to do.”

Georgia Power announced in March the closing or consolidation of its ash lagoons and most of its landfills over the next 15 years. Much of the ash will be transferred to other ponds, which will be covered at a later date. The rest of the ash will be sent to commercial landfills or recycled into cinder blocks, concrete, wallboard and other materials.

None of Georgia Power’s ponds are lined, Mitchell said, but the utility has monitored groundwater for 20 years.

“We’ll make sure we’re 100 percent in compliance with (EPA’s) closure methods, and if EPD’s intent is to be largely like EPA, then I think our plans are probably in line with them, too,” the general manager added.

Cown, the state’s land protection manager, said Georgia is considering adopting in full the federal coal ash rules and adding a few more regulations. Financial penalties for landfill or pond leaks may be included. Previously closed ponds might be regulated. Stricter controls on the use of coal ash in roads could be in order. The recommendations must be approved by the board of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s very important the EPD pass regulations more stringent than the ones the EPA passed,” said Jesup’s Riggins. “We want them to make regulations that will protect Georgians from the poisoning of its water and air.”

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Staff writer Willoughby Mariano contributed to this article.

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