Dumping grounds: Florida, Carolinas send coal ash to Georgia

Special trucks operated by Waste Management truck coal ash from North Carolina to the landfill in Banks County, Georgia.

Anne Jones became so afraid to drink the water that came out of her well she installed a water purification system. A blue plastic jug, filled to the brim with purified water, sits on her kitchen counter.

“I’m just very careful about my water,” said Jones.

Jones' home in Banks County, about 75 miles northeast of Atlanta, sits on the edge of the county landfill. Since 2015, trucks from North and South Carolina have filled it with at least 6.7 million tons of coal ash, a by-product of coal-fired electricity that contains heavy metals known to be toxic to plants, animals and people. And more of it is on the way.

Georgia’s relatively cheap land has made the state a dumping ground for solid waste from neighboring states. Apart from Florida, which doesn’t keep comparable data, Georgia now imports more solid waste than any of its neighbors, and most of it is coal ash, according to state records reviewed by students at the University of Georgia and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Banks landfill and another in Charlton County in southeast Georgia that takes coal ash from Florida account for 86 percent of the out-of-state waste. Each are planning to store 1 million tons of coal ash in the coming year, according to the records. Three other Georgia landfills have or are poised to take coal ash, and watchdogs believe more landfills could join the list.

“Some of the landfills have received coal ash in the past, some want to receive it in the future and some we have no idea,” said April Lipscomb, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who is helping assess the suitability of Georgia landfills for coal ash.

The surge in out-of-state coal ash has worried environmental watchdogs like Lipscomb, homeowners such as Jones and at least one Georgia lawmaker. It’s also exposed gaps in how Georgia regulates coal ash. Most of the ash coming to Georgia is going to private landfills, which aren’t subject to the same rules as public ones.

In 2015, Waste Management, which owns the R&B Landfill in Banks County, wasn't required to notify Jones or other residents that coal ash was coming to their backyards. A new regulation that went into effect in November provides slightly more transparency, but well short of measures that would invite community feedback.

Greg Carey, who owns land next to Jones, said he learned about the coal ash from a letter to the editor in a newspaper, long after there was time for him to do anything about it.

“The thing that really bothers me is if you look at the number of specialty trucks that are rolling through there….somebody knew that was coming long before,” Carey said.

The R&B Landfill in Banks County has received at least 6.7 million tons of coal ash from out of state. The western edge of the landfill backs up to Anne Jones’ property.

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So far, there is no evidence that the coal ash in Banks County is polluting the environment, and Waste Management said that its storage protocols exceed those set by state and federal regulators. The ash is stored in separate, lined “cells,” the company said, and it noted that R&B has “an exceptional environmental and safety record.”

“Safety is far more than just a program or strategy,” said company spokeswoman Marla Prince. “It is a core value of everything we do, every day and a cornerstone of operational excellence. We’re committed to the health, safety and welfare of employees, contractors and the public and to protecting our environment and natural resources.”

Still, the presence of so much ash near her home has made Jones nervous. She’s prone to congestion and worries it’s from ash kicked up in the air.

Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury and selenium, among other metals, all of which can cause serious health problems in high enough doses. The public safety issue boils down to storing the ash in such a way that it does not spread through the air or leech into the water.

Waste Management and electric utilities such as Georgia Power argue that the risks to public health are minimal if the ash is stored in lined landfills that take active measures to suppress windblown ash, control runoff and monitor ground water.

But environmental critics say that Georgia laws still don’t go far enough to ensure that landfills accepting coal ash are sited far from rivers and other water sources, or that they are adequately monitored for seepage into the water table.

Legislation that would have provided more safeguards failed in the General Assembly this winter, though the bill’s sponsor said he plans to bring it back next year.

“There needs to be minimum state standards on how we deal with coal ash,” said state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, who is not related to Anne Jones. “Without those there is no 100 percent assurance to the public that we are doing the right thing.”

A North Carolina spill ripples in Ga.

The western edge of the R&B Landfill in Banks rises suddenly from the back of Jones’ property, cutting off the horizon. The tall mound is hundreds of yards across, several stories high and resembles an enormous burial mound.

“Why did it have to be brought this far to our landfill?” Jones wondered aloud as she visited with an AJC reporter about the coal ash near her home.

Most coal ash in Georgia lies in large lagoons, some the size of dozens of football fields, near power plants operated by Georgia Power. In 2015, in response to new federal regulations, the utility announced that it would close down 29 of its coal ash ponds, some of which were sited in unstable terrain and decades old.

Landfills in Cherokee, Chatham and Meriwether counties notified the state that they plan to take 290,000 tons of coal ash over the next year, and a state official told the AJC that the ash will come from Georgia Power plants.

The company’s coal ash ponds had several spills over the years — the largest in 2008 when 40 tons of coal ash slurry breached a pond at Plant Bowen in Bartow County — but nothing compared to the catastrophe that struck Duke Energy in 2014, when a coal ash pond broke and sent tens of thousands of tons of coal ash slurry into the Dan River in North Carolina.

Duke Energy paid $102 million in fines and cleanup and legislation from the North Carolina Legislature in 2014 required the company to put coal ash from four of its utilities in lined, permitted landfills. That had consequences for Jones and her neighbors in Banks County.

Duke Energy’s coal-burning plants in Asheville, N.C., didn’t have an on-site, permitted landfill, so the company contracted with Waste Management to truck the coal ash 140 miles and across state lines to Banks County.

Both privately and publicly operated landfills are required to submit waste management plans to the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD), and notify EPD if those plans change. But the rules exempt private landfills from a requirement to notify the public and hold a public hearing on a proposed modification.

That was why residents in Banks County didn’t learn of the coal ash coming in until after it was already there.

A landfill in Banks County, 75 miles northeast of Atlanta, stores coal ash trucked in from North and South Carolina.

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A new regulation that went into effect in November required Waste Management to update the city and county governments in Banks of changes to its waste management plan, and the company did so in April. But it’s up to the local governments to pass that information on to residents.

So far, none have. (The city of Maysville wasn’t sure if it had or not.)

“I don’t think we have a need to,” said Banks Commission Chairman Jimmy Hooper. Hooper said he trusted EPD to inform residents of any problems with the landfill.

Jeff Cown, EPD’s land protection branch chief, said the notification requirement implemented in November was an improvement, especially since the previous rules didn’t require any. Members of the public can also review a landfill’s coal ash management plan on EPD’s website, Cown said.

“We have strengthened the public notice requirements,” he said.

One county says no

In Wayne County, in southeast Georgia, public awareness derailed the plans of another private waste company to dump coal ash there. Republic Services wanted to build a rail spur capable of bringing in up to 10,000 tons of coal ash a day, but the company abandoned the plans after a well-organized public campaign.

The Jesup Press-Sentinel published stories and editorials about the dangers of coal ash. Peggy Riggins, a 65-year-old retired school teacher, started a citizens’ group called “No Ash At All” and rallied local opposition to the plan.

Republic’s proposal ultimately failed when residents showed that the proposed rail spur would intrude on protected wetlands and run afoul of the county’s solid waste management plan.

The public engagement over the issue underscores why it’s important that local residents have a chance to voice their position on having coal ash in their local landfill, according to advocates.

“All landfills that receive [coal ash], regardless of public/private delineation or any other technical classification, should be subject to the full public notice and comment provision,” said the Environmental Law Center’s Chris Bowers.

Georgia imports more solid waste than any surrounding states except Florida, which does not have comparable data. Most of the imported waste is coal ash, a by-product of coal-fired power plants that is known to be toxic to plants, animals and people.

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Legislation pending

The SELC and the Georgia Water Coalition, a consortium of environmental groups dedicated to protecting the state’s waterways, are plotting the proximity of some Georgia landfills to rivers, lakes or streams, and identifying those unsuitable for coal ash.

The information available on the amount and location of coal ash is varied and scattered — not all state government agencies require the same types of reporting, and some coal-burning utilities and landfills are more transparent than others.

State law requires coal ash to be stored in lined landfills to prevent seepage into the soil or water table. Lipscomb said landfills accepting coal ash require more frequent monitoring to ensure that the ash is not contaminating the ground or water.

“Right now it’s just twice a year,” she said. “That’s not enough.”

There’s also a question about mixing coal ash with municipal waste, since both have vastly different toxicity levels and it’s unknown how the two will interact over time.

At least five landfills in Georgia store coal ash in the same cells as other municipal waste, according to solid waste management plans submitted to the state.

Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said that’s dangerous because there is no easy way to monitor for leaks from the ash. Monitoring wells used to test nearby water quality may not have as good of a chance of picking up contamination if they are not located near the stored ash, she said.

“What if all of your coal ash just happens to get dumped in one of those corners that’s not near your wells?” she said. “We would never really capture that information and never recognize that there is a problem.”

Cown, at EPD, said monitoring concerns were overblown because coal ash, if it leaked into the ground water, would move slowly enough for it to be captured by monitoring devices. More frequent monitoring might even result in diluted samples, he said.

But Cown said EPD does have a concern about the stability of landfills that mix coal ash and municipal waste.

Storing coal ash on its own in a lined landfill is much safer, Cown said, because “it’s just sitting there.”

Rep. Jones’ bill pending in the Legislature would implement more stringent siting requirements for municipal landfills that intend to intake coal ash, to assure that no landfill is located near vulnerable water sources.

Lipscomb, who helped draft the bill, said the municipal landfill siting requirements would match those already in place for landfills operated by coal-burning utilities.

Jones’ bill would also strengthen the laws governing public notification.

Under the bill, any public or private landfill receiving coal ash volumes greater than 5 percent of its daily tonnage amount, or greater than 100 tons total, would receive a major modification permit, meaning each of the landfills intending to receive coal ash in the next year would be subject to public notice and comment periods.

About the story

Students studying investigative reporting at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia began collecting and analyzing data about solid waste disposal in Georgia in the spring. UGA Senior Lindsey Conway, a summer intern with the AJC, conducted additional reporting and interviewed officials with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Waste Management. UGA classmates Andrew FisherBrittany Johnson and Russell Vandiver contributed to the reporting.