Plans for a massive expansion of a Southeast Georgia landfill — which could accept millions of tons of toxic coal ash — were delayed last week after a surge of fear, confusion and political intervention persuaded federal regulators to postpone a final decision.
The reprieve, though, may be only temporary. And Georgians statewide can expect more coal ash disputes in the future as coal-fired power plants shut down and try to dispose of the toxic byproduct.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had expected to rule this week on a proposed rail yard south of town that could handle as much as 10,000 tons of trash daily, including coal ash, for the adjoining Broadhurst Environmental Landfill. The dump currently accepts less than one-fifth of that amount and no ash.
Thursday, though, the corps postponed a decision after an uproar by Wayne County residents and elected officials who accused the landfill’s owner of secretly trying to gain federal and state environmental approval.
“They generally target poor, rural communities and hope they can wave some money under our noses and slip it past us,” Dink NeSmith, the owner of The Jesup Press-Sentinel and 27 other newspapers, told county commissioners during a hurriedly called meeting Tuesday. “If we just wanted to get rich, we’d turn to trafficking dope or pornography. We need to find the right stone to bring down Goliath.”
Atlanta, 230 miles from this railroad hub, isn’t immune from the coal ash furor. As utilities such as Georgia Power shutter coal-fired power plants, the toxic ash byproduct needs to be disposed of safely. The utility maintains 29 ash ponds and 10 ash landfills across the state, many near Atlanta, and it plans to shut down all of them over the next few years.
Republic Services, which owns the landfill near Jesup, says no decisions have been made to accept coal ash, even though the site is already permitted to take it.
“We manage all nonhazardous waste appropriately and responsibly,” Tim Laux, a general manager with Republic, said during an interview last week at the landfill.
Growing need to dispose ash
Last year, roughly 140 million tons of ash were created nationwide. As utilities increasingly switch from coal-fired power to gas and other sources, the ash byproduct will have to be disposed of somewhere.
About 40 percent of all coal ash is recycled, used in drywall, concrete and other products. The rest sits in lagoons or landfills. Ash contains toxic materials including arsenic, mercury and lead. Last fall, though, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules went into effect categorizing the ash as a household, nonhazardous waste.
Landfills like Broadhurst are lining up to accept coal ash along with millions of dollars in new business. A landfill near Homer, about 75 miles northeast of Atlanta, currently accepts out-of-state waste.
“I would love to see money come into our county. We need it,” Wayne County Commission Chairman Kevin Copeland said. “But at what cost? Do we sell out our (natural) resources to become a dumping ground?”
Locals lived in relative harmony, until recently, with their not-so-stinky neighbor for 22 years. Broadhurst, about 10 miles south of Jesup, even accepted coal ash between 2006 and 2014 from a Jacksonville, Fla., utility without alarm from the community. Wayne County receives $1.80 for every ton of household trash, construction debris and industrial debris deposited at the landfill, which currently accepts waste only from southeast Georgia.
The Army Corps of Engineers is only reviewing the proposed rail yard — four tracks with one capable of handling a 100-car train — and its impact on 31 acres of wetlands. Republic plans to buy wetland mitigation credits to offset the rail yard’s impact.
Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division already allows Republic to dump ash at Broadhurst. In December, though, the company requested an environmental permit to allow ash to be transferred from trains to trucks and on to the landfill. The request stated that coal ash and other waste could come from Georgia and other states.
Broadhurst accepted between 1,300 and 1,500 tons of waste daily last year. It now wants to haul in as much as 10,000 tons each day and expand its “waste footprint” from 260 acres to 1,100 acres. Laux and Jeremey Poetzscher, the landfill’s environmental manager, said Republic keeps the waste from the wetlands, groundwater and neighboring streams and has planted 115,000 hardwood trees around the property.
Broadhurst took in a total of 800,000 tons, or 200 to 300 tons daily, of coal ash until it quit accepting the metals-infused ash in 2014. Republic officials say they have no current plans to accept coal ash.
But the yard will have the ability to capture coal ash runoff from the train-to-truck transfer. Republic also plans to segregate any ash in a 90-acre section with polyethylene liners, clay barriers and collection systems to ensure any runoff doesn’t leak out.
County officials ‘have a very limited role’
Nearly 100 fired-up locals jammed the Wayne County commissioners’ meeting room Tuesday to demand the rail yard be killed. Commissioners vowed to pass a resolution opposing the expansion. Help was elicited from U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, the Republican who represents coastal Georgia, and U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue.
“We’ll try to do what we can do, but we have a very limited role to play,” Copeland, the commission chairman, told the crowd. “We actually have no say-so. I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s true.”
Republic doesn’t need any new approval from the state of Georgia to operate the rail yard. The Army Corps of Engineers typically approves wetlands swaps. And Broadhurst, after all, is already permitted to take coal ash.
But the uproar and the political pressure clearly worked. The corps announced Thursday that the public comment period would remain open until March 4. Corps officials will also attend a commission-planned hearing this month. Republic officials say they don’t oppose a hearing and that they’ll hold an open house this week at Broadhurst.
“Every opportunity to go slower is welcomed,” NeSmith said. “Wayne County deserves more answers before getting railroaded into a dangerous future.”
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