Bill would require Georgia coal ash be stored in lined landfills

Toxic coal ash should be treated like trash according to a bill introduced in the Georgia Legislature this week.

If passed, House Bill 756 , sponsored by Rep. Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, would require coal ash be disposed of under guidelines at least as stringent as those for standard household trash.

Georgia law currently requires household trash to be disposed of in municipal solid waste landfills with bottom liners and collection systems that help make sure garbage and liquid waste do not seep into groundwater.

But disposal for coal ash — waste from coal-fired plants that may contain arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals that can be toxic to humans —  comes with no such regulation, and can sit in unlined pits that allow the toxic contents to come in contact with groundwater.

The bill states that permits should not be issued or modified for a coal ash unit or a municipal solid waste landfill that accepts coal ash unless it has a liner or system to collect any polluted water running off the landfill.

Georgia Power is in the process of closing its 29 coal ash ponds, said Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power in an August interview with the AJC. Some plans for closing the ponds would leave the coal ash in unlined ash ponds.

Other states have taken a different path.

Earlier this month, Duke Energy agreed to one of the largest clean-up efforts in the country when it announced it would close the majority of its coal ash basins in North Carolina by excavating 80 million tons of ash and moving it into lined landfills.

The Georgia bill targets the unlined ponds at five Georgia Power plants and would require them to also be excavated and moved into lined pits, said Fletcher Sams, Executive Director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper.

Of the five plants, Plant Scherer in Juliette, just north of Macon,  is of particular concern to residents and environmental advocates.

“Everyone that lives in the area is drinking well water ... The same stuff leaking out of the ponds is in the wells in the surrounding areas,” said Sams.

Riverkeeper testing has revealed levels of chromium-6 (the cancer-causing chemical made famous by Erin Brockovich) at levels exceeding the limits set by other states, Sams said.