Coal ash dispute reaches climax as residents fear what’s next

Fletcher Sams (right), executive director at Altamaha Riverkeeper, shows a map of Georgia Power’s ash pond and explains potential problems as (from left) Don Lance, John David Johnson and Huriah Stewart look on. Sams collected water samples at Johnson’s home near Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant in Juliette. Johnson says he hasn’t drunk the water in Juliette for years. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
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Fletcher Sams (right), executive director at Altamaha Riverkeeper, shows a map of Georgia Power’s ash pond and explains potential problems as (from left) Don Lance, John David Johnson and Huriah Stewart look on. Sams collected water samples at Johnson’s home near Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant in Juliette. Johnson says he hasn’t drunk the water in Juliette for years. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Look through the trees and you can catch a glimpse of the stacks at Plant Scherer, said John David Johnson, pointing to the sky across from his former home just off Ga. 87 in Juliette. Johnson remembers when Georgia Power opened the plant in 1982 when he was just a kid and residents anticipated it would bring jobs and stability.

They grew accustomed to the chunks of gray ash drifting through the sky and settling on rooftops and cars whenever the sirens sounded at the plant. For a long time, they drank the water that ran gray from the faucet whenever it rained. The ash flakes disappeared when Georgia Power began controlling dust from the plant, Johnson said, but the water is still an issue. “We have been known not to drink the water here … the water is bad,” said Johnson, 51.

The residents of this town about an hour southeast of Atlanta have been in and out of news headlines for almost a decade with concerns about the water, which they believe is contaminated by coal ash stored at Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer. Many residents have since sold their homes to Georgia Power. Some locals, current and former, tried to sue the utility.

Now they are hoping state lawmakers will take action, not just for their town but for other communities in metro Atlanta and beyond where Georgia Power plans to keep coal waste stored freely in the ground. Georgia Power has said its plans for monitoring and closing the ash ponds are well within federal and state regulations and that the company has found no risks to public health or drinking water.

An aerial photograph shows Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant and its ash pond (right) in Juliette. The community has spent almost 10 years battling the utility over concerns about the groundwater, which they believe to be contaminated by coal ash from nearby Plant Scherer. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
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An aerial photograph shows Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant and its ash pond (right) in Juliette. The community has spent almost 10 years battling the utility over concerns about the groundwater, which they believe to be contaminated by coal ash from nearby Plant Scherer. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

With help from the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Juliette residents have launched a new campaign to support a pair of bills that would require Georgia Power to follow the same rules for coal ash as required for household trash. Just like trash is required to be in landfills with protective liners to prevent toxins from seeping into groundwater, coal ash would be stored in lined pits, preventing the heavy metals from coming in contact with groundwater.

>> Read More: Juliette residents ask Gov. Kemp, lawmakers to take action on coal ash

Last week, Juliette residents took their campaign to the state Capitol asking lawmakers for a hearing and vote on the bills and with a direct plea for Gov. Brian Kemp. “We need help,” said resident Gini Seitz. “We want people who are strong enough to stand up to Georgia Power.”

Closure plans contested

Coal-fired plants are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and produce one of the largest types of industrial waste in the nation. The federal government began regulating the disposal of coal ash after massive spills in Tennessee and North Carolina caused significant environmental and economic damage to nearby waterways and property. Though coal ash contains a range of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and uranium known to be toxic to humans, the Environmental Protection Agency treats coal ash as nonhazardous waste.

Last year, Georgia became the second state in the nation to gain oversight of its coal ash permitting program. Georgia Power, which produces most of the state's coal ash, had already submitted permits to the state Environmental Protection Division detailing plans for closing 29 ash ponds at 11 coal-fired plants around the state by excavating 19 and closing 10 in place. Company representatives said the utility would meet standards for groundwater protection up to 30 years after closing the pits. In December, the Public Service Commission passed a nearly $2 billion rate increase to Georgia Power customers of which the company says $448 million collected over three years is associated with coal ash pond closure costs.

At five plants, including two in metro Atlanta, the current ash ponds will be drained and the waste stored in landfills without a protective liner, which is currently not required by state and federal laws. Plant Yates near Newnan and Plant Scherer in Juliette are surrounded by residents who rely on private wells that draw groundwater from below the surface, the same groundwater that has been in contact with millions of tons of coal ash on Georgia Power property.

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“Those two (plants) are emblematic of the problem with trying to leave submerged toxic waste in the aquifer, the same aquifer that people are using for cooking, bathing and other household uses. It is contrary to all established and recognized engineering and best practices,” said Chris Bowers, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The entire purpose of environmental laws is to prevent the exact thing that we know is happening.”

Georgia Power monitors groundwater on its own property, but monitoring the safety of water from private wells falls on the well owner. In Juliette, well tests conducted by the Riverkeeper have come back with detectable levels of hexavalent chromium — a substance made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich" — which is commonly produced from industrial processes, according to the EPA.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is closely watching Plant Yates, which sits along the Chattahoochee. “We want to find out if we have a similar situation to the people in Juliette,” said Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “We think there can be a big benefit to doing independent sampling particularly because Georgia Power is only collecting information from monitoring wells on its own properties.”

Georgia Power has 500 monitoring wells at its plant locations, including areas in and around the ash pond at Scherer, said Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs. “Based on all the monitoring we have done, all of our wells tell us we are in compliance with state and federal standards for groundwater protection,” said Mitchell in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “Based on the data we have reviewed, we don’t believe it to be the case that we are impacting people’s drinking water wells.”

Worries about the water

Years ago, Johnson started testing the water from the 60-foot well that runs to his small home less than a mile from Plant Scherer where he and his family once lived. One test said his water was fine, but a later one came back with high levels of hexavalent chromium. “That put the nail in the coffin for me,” Johnson said.

His sister and her family live in the house now, and like many other residents, they survive on bottled water, using it to drink, cook and brush their teeth. Family members take turns dropping off cases of water or filling up 5-gallon jugs at their homes and bringing them to the house.

By 2011, Juliette residents had begun complaining publicly about the health concerns that seemed to plague their community — cancers, nosebleeds, neurological disorders. That year, the state department of health studied levels of uranium in Juliette wells and concluded that while several cancer incidence rates were elevated for Monroe County, it could not be attributed to chemical compounds resulting from industrial processing.

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Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

More than 100 residents filed a lawsuit in 2013 alleging that Plant Scherer was harming their health and property. The lawsuit was dismissed with no decision, but Georgia Power purchases in the area increased. Properties on Luther Smith Road and Ga. 87 were razed, concrete was poured in the wells and “no trespassing” signs were erected. The company spent more than $11 million on about 1,500 acres of land appraised at just over $2 million, according to data from the Monroe County Tax Assessor.

Then and now, Georgia Power said the purchases had nothing to do with resident complaints or concerns about the water. “The reason we purchased the property that we have over the last few years is to increase the buffer,” said Mitchell. “The closing of ash ponds will take 10-15 years. Construction activity will be going on the entire time. Owning the property will give us the potential for construction and some equipment staging as well as some access we didn’t have previously.”

Johnson watched as his neighbors sold their properties and moved away. Don Lance sold his home about two years ago when a representative from Georgia Power walked right up his front yard and made an offer, he said. But even after moving north, he worried about the impact living in the area may have had on his 8-year-old daughter.

Scrambling for solutions

Plant Scherer is surrounded on all sides by residential homes. No matter which way the groundwater is flowing, it is going toward someone’s house, and they are drinking it, said Fletcher Sams of Altamaha Riverkeeper. “We started looking into the whole problem of coal ash in general,” Sams said. “The more we found, the more we realized there was a public health risk of hexavalent chromium, regardless of where it came from.”

Mitchell said Georgia Power monitors its wells for total chromium. "There is nothing we are mandated to measure for that we are not measuring," he said. Riverkeeper tests over the past year have found high levels of hexavalent chromium in some Juliette wells. Chromium is naturally occurring, but hexavalent chromium is extremely toxic when inhaled or ingested orally. Mitchell said Georgia Power tests for chromium indicate naturally occurring levels in the area.

Fletcher Sams, executive director at Altamaha Riverkeeper, collects water samples for testing at Kyle Benton’s home in Forsyth, a few miles away from Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant in Juliette. The Riverkeeper has been testing residents’ water for about a year. Some tests have revealed elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic compound made famous by Erin Brockovich. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
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Fletcher Sams, executive director at Altamaha Riverkeeper, collects water samples for testing at Kyle Benton’s home in Forsyth, a few miles away from Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plant in Juliette. The Riverkeeper has been testing residents’ water for about a year. Some tests have revealed elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic compound made famous by Erin Brockovich. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

In late February, after attending several town hall meetings for residents, Monroe County commissioners arranged for massive tankers full of potable water to be brought into town to help ease the financial burdens of families living on bottled water, said board Chairman Greg Tapley.

County officials have also set preliminary plans for installing water lines for a public water system and plan to conduct well tests with an expert who can determine if any contamination is coming from coal ash or is naturally occurring. “Causality is very important in this situation,” Tapley said. “It is a whole new ballgame if (Georgia Power) is responsible. It is a lot easier for me to sit down with Georgia Power and say how many of these water lines do you want to put in?”

At a recent meeting, the talk among longtime residents who have raised generations of their families in Juliette was as much focused on the present as the future. What would happen to Juliette if the groundwater remains in contact with coal ash long after Georgia Power is required to monitor it?

The question has given some residents a purpose they have never had. “I know the process about how our government is supposed to work, but I don’t think that works anymore,” said Kim Brock, who vowed to fight not just for Juliette but for every other community that is concerned about the impacts of coal ash on its residents or the environment.

Johnson wasn’t able to make the trip to the Capitol, and while he now lives 6 miles away in the city of Forsyth with a well that pumps untainted water, he too wants to see Georgia Power take some accountability. “If we don’t make noise about this, they are going to say, ‘We have a legal permit,’” Johnson said. “If they get a permit, (coal ash) will be in the ground forever.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste in the nation. It contains a range of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and uranium known to be toxic to humans. In compliance with state and federal laws, Georgia Power will close 29 ash ponds at its 11 plants across the state. At some plants, including locations in metro Atlanta, the ash ponds will be closed in place or left in the ground without liners that would help protect groundwater. Residents who live near Plant Scherer in Juliette and rely on well water are concerned about groundwater contamination, both in their community and beyond. They are asking state lawmakers to take action.