Wells detect high levels of heavy metals near Georgia Power plants

Contaminants in Georgia Power wells

Wells at six of Georgia Power’s 29 coal ash ponds have turned up toxic metals at levels exceeding federal standards for drinking water.

Plant Hammond (Rome): Arsenic

Plant McDonough (Smyrna): Arsenic, Beryllium, Cadmium, Selenium

Plant Yates (Newnan): Beryllium, Selenium

Plant Branch (Milledgeville): Beryllium

Plant McIntosh (Rincon): Arsenic

Plant McManus (Brunswick): Arsenic

Source: Georgia Power, Southern Environmental Law Center

Arsenic and other heavy metals — with toxicity levels 20 or 30 times federal standards — have been discovered in the groundwater near a half-dozen Georgia Power plants, according to newly released utility data.

The metals may come from the utility’s holding ponds, which contain coal ash, a potentially dangerous byproduct of coal-fired electric power plants.

Georgia Power tallies 86 million tons of coal ash in its 29 ponds, which the utility has scheduled for closure within three years. Yet 12 of those ponds will be “closed in place” without removal of the ash.

The utility will dig out 8 million to 10 million tons of the coal ash and ship the waste to Georgia landfills. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year that groundwater near two landfills has been contaminated by vanadium, beryllium and other heavy metals, possibly from coal ash shipped in from other states.

Georgia Power says the contaminants so far pose no harm to neighbors or nearby waterways.

These findings come as state environmental regulators vote Tuesday on new coal ash disposal rules that, while more stringent than federal rules, don’t satisfy environmental groups and residents living near landfills and storage ponds.

“They need to be stronger,” said Amelia Shenstone, the director of coal programs for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Atlanta. “It’s always good to have another layer of protection, but these standards do not require excavation of coal ash ponds. And they’re weak in terms of groundwater testing and allowing public input in the permitting of ash storage facilities.”

Jeff Cown, the director of the state’s Environmental Protection Division, says the state rules will safeguard Georgia’s land and water. Stricter monitoring and cleanup is possible in the future, he added. Board members with the Department of Natural Resources will likely finalize the rules Wednesday.

“You have to get rules out there and implement them and see if anything needs to change,” Cown said. “We’re taking (ash) ponds that have basically been unregulated and putting regulations on them. We’re also adding regulations to municipal solid waste landfills that might accept (ash). It’s a great step in the right direction.”

Georgia Power generated 2.4 million tons of coal ash in 2015. 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. The contaminants, in significant quantities, may cause cancer.

Massive coal ash spills, in Tennessee in 2008 and North Carolina in 2014, prompted the federal Environmental Protection Agency to impose disposal rules. 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 Power will remove coal ash from 17 ponds that sit near lakes or rivers. The ash will either be recycled (primarily into cement or concrete), sent to landfills or placed into the dozen remaining on-site ash ponds.

Ash has already been removed from three of the 17 ponds. The utility plans to sink 500 groundwater monitoring wells around the 29 ponds and list findings on a website and with the state.

All 29 ponds have been tested. And 236 wells have been put in place; 219 of them meet state groundwater standards, the utility says. But 17 do not, according to a Georgia Power briefing given to the AJC last week, and show elevated levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and selenium.

In all, six of the 29 ponds have contaminated groundwater, including:

  • Ten of the 31 wells at Plant McDonough in Smyrna reported elevated levels of arsenic, beryllium and other metals. Two wells showed arsenic concentrations of 0.0241 parts per million, or twice the federal drinking water standard. Georgia Power has excavated one of McDonough's ash ponds along the Chattahoochee River. The three remaining ponds will remain with "advanced engineering methods" installed to prevent future leaks.
  • A pond at Plant McManus, in Brunswick, has been scooped out with the ash sent to a landfill near the Okefenokee Swamp. Two of the nine wells along the Turtle River revealed arsenic levels of 0.213 parts per million — 20 times the federal standard.
  • Plant Hammond, in Rome, has so far shown the highest concentration of arsenic at 30 times the federally acceptable level. Three of its ponds, close to the Coosa River, will be excavated. A fourth will be capped.

"We don't believe we are impacting any of our neighbors (or) adjoining waterways," said Aaron Mitchell, the utility's general manager for environmental affairs. "We installed additional wells further from where we already tested, and the results from those wells didn't show any (problems)."

An arsenic-laced herbicide, for example, could be causing Plant Hammond’s elevated readings, Mitchell said.
Environmentalists are dismayed by the findings and demand that all coal ash be excavated from the ponds and stored in lined landfills. And they want groundwater tested more than twice yearly, which the state proposes.

"Covering up coal ash in leaking, unlined holes in the ground does not stop or clean up pollution, nor does it protect the people of Georgia," said Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta. "Where utilities have done the appropriate analysis and excavated ash, such as in South Carolina, they have documented dramatic drops in groundwater contamination."

A lawsuit forced South Carolina Electric and Gas to dig up a pond and store the ash in a landfill with synthetic liners well away from water sources. Groundwater contaminated by arsenic at one site near Columbia decreased 99 percent.

The EPD’s Cown says the state will more zealously monitor Georgia Power’s ponds and landfills.

“We have the ability to take corrective action and say, ‘Hey, Georgia Power, dig this up and move it,’ ” he said. “Right now we don’t know if the ash is causing a problem. So we would be acting too soon.”

Critics also want more public input before ash is sent to local landfills.

“The EPD is taking steps in the right direction, but it needs to go further,” said Dink NeSmith, who is leading the anti-ash fight at the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill near Jesup. “Beyond Georgia Power’s tremendous stockpile of toxic coal ash, Florida and the Carolinas are already using Georgia as a dumping ground for dangerous waste those states don’t want. Shouldn’t that tell us something?”