Last year, a lagoon at a retired Duke Energy plant spilled tens of thousands of tons of ash into North Carolina’s Dan River, causing extensive environmental damage and costing the company $102 million in fines, restitution and cleanup. A 2008 spill in Tennessee, the largest in U.S. history, knocked homes off foundations and spilled more sludge than the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.
"It is a potential lurking disaster," Steven Caley, legal director at Atlanta-based environmental group GreenLaw, said of Georgia's coal ash ponds.
The AJC analysis found:
- Georgia's ponds were built in especially precarious locations. Four were built on terrain vulnerable to sinkholes, which have opened up beneath them and sent slurry into nearby rivers.
- Most are prone to leaks, yet none of the soil or groundwater around active ponds have been monitored by regulators for signs of contamination. Only two are lined with materials to keep them from contaminating groundwater, federal records show.
- Only three of the dams that keep sludge from spilling are ever inspected, and budget cuts forced the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to reduce dam checks in 2010.
- Records show one quarter of Georgia's coal ash dams fell short of federal standards in initial checks, some for poor conditions, others because Georgia Power did not give inspectors crucial safety information.
New U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, which took effect last month, won’t ensure that existing ponds in Georgia are safer. Federal law leaves it up to state agencies to choose whether to enforce them, and the state has yet to decide if it will do so.
“I know people are afraid of ash ponds, but we are working to engage them [the ponds] in a safe fashion, and one that is protective of the environment,” said state EPD Assistant Director Mary Walker. “We would certainly envision more than just the EPA rules.”
Georgia Power did not answer the AJC’s questions about how or if it was monitoring active ponds for signs they are causing contamination — other than to note that such monitoring is not required by permits or regulations — or if it would pay for cleanup, or what would happen with the coal ash after closure. It would also not say when the ponds would be closed.
The company did say it operates its ponds safely and in compliance with state and federal regulations.
“The use of ash ponds is a safe, cost-effective, industry standard method for managing ash from coal-fired power plants and has been for decades,” the utility wrote, in response to the AJC’s questions. “We are closing all of our ash ponds in the coming years due to new environmental regulations … and we will continue to work with regulators to ensure compliance throughout the process.”
‘Don’t look, don’t find’
Electric companies began building coal ash ponds decades ago to clear the air. Coal fires that heat water for their steam-powered turbines were turning the skies black, so workers wet the ash down and sent the slurry into pools that can hold millions of cubic yards of waste. A single pool at Plant Wansley near Carrollton was built to hold 27 million cubic yards, according to EPA data, enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly 20 times.
The solution turned an air pollution problem into one about dirty soil and water. The ash contains arsenic, which remains in the soil for a millennia and can cause bladder and other cancers even in tiny concentrations. Selenium can cause neurological disturbances and skin lesions in humans and sterility, malformations and death in wildlife. The ash is also radioactive, and contains other heavy metals such as lead and mercury that can damage the brain and nervous system.
The ponds are supposed to keep these toxins from escaping into the environment, but it's unclear whether personnel who built some of them were qualified to do the work, according to federal reports. Records on whether professional engineers oversaw the construction of 12 were not provided to inspectors during a national review of these ponds because Georgia Power said it could not find them, according to EPA reports.
Man-made dams are supposed to keep ash from spilling, but most are not inspected by state or federal regulators. The state chooses which ones to monitor based on the damage they would cause to the surrounding community if they were to fail. But the assessment ignores any risk of toxic contamination, so only three coal ash dams make the cut.
State-issued water quality permits that cover coal ash require only two power plants to release monitoring results for the waste’s most dangerous contaminants.
“In Georgia, it’s been, ‘don’t look, don’t’ find’,” said Kurt Ebersbach, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued utilities in North Carolina and Tennessee over coal ash pollution.
What resulted are ponds that have chronically fouled nearby waterways, according to a years-long national assessment launched by the EPA after a massive 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee.
History of spills
Georgia Power’s pond at Plant Bowen in Cartersville sits on terrain prone to sinkholes, and in July 2002, one that was 30 feet deep and four acres in area opened up beneath it.
The spill dumped an estimated 2.25 million gallons of ash-laden water into a tributary of Euharlee Creek, forcing Georgia Power to overhaul the ponds.
When two sinkholes appeared on plant property in December 2008, cracks appeared on an ash pond dike.
The ponds at Plant Mitchell near Albany repeatedly drained in the 1970s, and personnel discovered that at least 27 sinkholes had opened up beneath them. The entire contents of a pond emptied into the Flint River at least once, although a Georgia Power spokesman said the utility has no reports of environmental damage.
The utility did not answer AJC questions on why ponds were built in such risky locations, other than to note in a written statement that the ash ponds "were built using accepted engineering practices and technology at the time they were built and we have maintained our ash ponds in compliance with all updated regulations."
After some back-and-forth between inspectors and Georgia Power, the federal reviews upgraded most of its lagoons to satisfactory condition. But at Plant Yates, one ash pond failed to meet nearly all required minimum safety standards in initial checks, and inspectors determined it needed to be watched carefully because a flood could cause total failure of the dam. Others at Georgia plants were prone to overflowing after heavy rains, or had little equipment to monitor for leaks.
Duke University Professor Avner Vengosh, whose lab has tied high levels of contaminants in North Carolina rivers and lakes to coal ash ponds, said such problems are no surprise for ponds built without basic safety features, such as linings that keep toxins from leaching into groundwater.
“There is basically no reason why they should not be leaking,” Vengosh said.
What assurances the public does have that these ponds are safe rely mostly on the word of Georgia Power, and while the company said it has submitted all requested information to regulators, federal records show that there were gaps. During the national evaluation of coal ash ponds, the company did not supply certain monthly internal inspection reports, and said other checks were not documented.
Regulators typically don't perform their own assessments to get answers. When an hour of hard rain at Plant Bowen in 2008 sent a 40-ton torrent of coal ash muck into the neighborhood next door, the EPD relied on tests from a Georgia Power consultant to determine if homeowners' backyards were properly cleaned up.
Residents told the AJC that they were unconcerned about the spill’s after-effects.
“It doesn’t look like it’s polluted,” said Mitch Meade, whose back and side yards were coated with ash. “They had people test it. They said they can’t find anything.”
Georgia Power carted away top soil from 14 properties, and planted new sod, silver oaks and evergreens that made the site look like a park, said longtime Covered Bridge Springs resident Gerard Hendrickson. The company also sent residents letters filled with data that officials said showed the sludge was gone.
“Ash is ash,” Hendrickson said.
Yet those letters and other tests contained cause for alarm. The consultant’s data showed soil arsenic levels above a level that typically triggers concerns among environmental scientists, said University of Georgia professor William P. Miller, an expert on soil contamination who has previously conducted research on coal ash funded by Georgia Power. He reviewed the consultant’s report at the request of the AJC.
“When numbers get that big, then you start to worry,” Miller said. “You’re talking about long-term health affects on kids.”
A state EPD official asked the utility to perform an additional analysis that would have shown if neighborhood arsenic levels were safe, but one was never done. The agency decided the analysis could not have determined if Georgia Power was responsible, said EPD Director of Compliance Bert Langley, because arsenic was once used as a pesticide on the former cotton fields that covered the area. Also, the consultant reported that neighborhood levels were naturally high.
“I can’t tell you whether arsenic levels in the soil are safe. I can tell you that Georgia Power picked up everything that it spilled,” said Langley.
When regulators do investigate the impact of ash lagoons on surrounding soil and water, evidence of contamination has emerged. In North Carolina, Duke Energy recently agreed to pay some $20 million in state fines and cleanup costs for groundwater contamination near its coal ash ponds, and state tests of wells near the lagoons led officials to warn residents not to drink water from nearly 90 percent of those sampled. Near Georgia Power's Plant Scherer north of Macon, residential well tests found unsafe levels of uranium, but state public health officials determined that it occured naturally.
Wary environmentalists say it’s best to dry the ponds out and ship the ash away from rivers for storage, but ponds the utility shuttered decades ago were covered over in dirt and sod and are not being monitored for potential groundwater contamination. This meets current state and federal requirements, a Georgia Power spokesman said.
How we got the story
A quick online search about pollution problems at power plants led the AJC to thousands of pages of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluations of conditions at coal ash ponds in Georgia. Reporter Willoughby Mariano reviewed these reports, made open records requests to the state’s environmental protection division, read peer-reviewed research, reviewed state and federal laws, and interviewed experts to uncover the lax rules that regulate these toxic lagoons.
Log on to myAJC.com to explore an interactive map with the location, features and past environmental hazards of 30 coal ash ponds in Georgia.