Georgia Power is accelerating its closure of toxic coal ash ponds, a move welcomed by environmental groups who fear arsenic, lead and other heavy metals can leach into groundwater and poison homeowners’ wells.
The action, announced Monday by the Atlanta-based utility, brings Georgia more in line with neighboring states that have already closed coal ash ponds or ordered them cleaned up.
“This is good news for the people of Georgia,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit that has pressured Georgia Power for years to close waste lagoons. “It is a significant move and it does appear to be comprehensive.”
Georgia Power said its 29 ash ponds statewide will no longer receive coal ash within three years, as opposed to a much lengthier timeline previously announced.
Ash from 16 of those ponds, located near lakes or rivers, will be completely removed and added to other ponds and landfills or recycled. The company’s other 13 ponds will be “closed in place” with concrete barriers and other measures designed to keep the ash from the groundwater.
Aaron Mitchell, the utility’s general manager for environmental affairs, said it will cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion to close the ponds and keep coal-fired electric plants from creating additional “wet” ash. He added that the power plants will keep running while the conversion work is underway.
Mitchell, in an interview, said the quickened closure schedule was not prompted by state, federal and legal actions aimed at shutting ash ponds nationwide.
“This is part of a whole process. We’ve done more engineering. We understand the methods of pond closure,” he said. “This is the best decision for our customers and the best way to quickly go about compliance in a reliable manner.”
The tide is rapidly turning against coal ash. A 2014 lagoon spill along the Dan River prompted North Carolina environmental officials to order all ponds closed and ash removed. Duke Energy’s 14 ash ponds are all leaking ash into the groundwater.
A 2012 lawsuit prompted South Carolina’s three utilities to shutter all state lagoons and move the ash to more secure disposal facilities or recycle it into cement or other building materials. (Georgia Power recycles 50 percent of its coal ash.)
Last week, Duke University reported ash pond leaks at 21 power plants studied in five states, including two in Georgia. High levels of arsenic and selenium were found at all the sites, the researchers said.
Mitchell said “we don’t know of any contamination” at any Georgia plants.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency imposed coal ash disposal rules in 2014. Utilities must inspect ponds and landfills and post results online. New storage sites must be lined with plastic to keep metals from leaching into the ground. Ponds and landfills must also be far enough away from surface and groundwater, sinkholes and flood plains.
Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division is working up coal ash rules that its director has said will be more stringent than federal rules.
Georgia Power, which first announced closure rules last year, generated 2.4 million tons of coal ash last year. Its lagoons cover 2,300 acres, or the equivalent of nearly 1,800 football fields, according to an AJC analysis. The ash contains toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can leach into ground and surface water and, as dust, rise into the air and lungs.
In March, the utility said it planned to close all ponds within 14 years, though many would have been closed earlier.
“They have realized that it is best not to let it fester,” said Smith, of the Southern Alliance.
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