U.S. Rep. Johnson introduces coal ash bill

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, the Lithonia Democrat, introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at protecting residents who live near landfills that accept toxic coal ash.

The Coal Ash Landfill Safety Act was prompted by articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailing ash leaks and spills in two rural corners of Georgia, as well as elsewhere across the South. It targets the Environmental Protection Agency and its rules classifying coal ash as non-hazardous and, therefore, suitable for dumping in landfills that accept municipal waste.

“I do not want Georgia residents or anyone in America, regardless of income, neighborhood, race or ethnicity, to be unfairly and unreasonably exposed to toxic chemicals because coal ash is being deposited in inadequately protected facilities near their homes and communities,” Johnson said in a statement.

Only a couple of Georgia landfills take toxic coal ash. Republic Services runs a huge solid-waste landfill near Jesup, about 230 miles southeast of Atlanta, which accepted ash from a Florida utility until 2014.

The company discovered three years earlier that beryllium, zinc and other toxic substances had leached into the soil and groundwater. State environmental officials said the metals, which could cause cancer and damage to the nervous system, may have leached into the ground months, if not years, earlier, according to an AJC investigation of the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill.

Republic is now applying for a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a 25-acre rail yard alongside the landfill capable of handling nearly 4 millions tons annually of coal ash. In addition, Georgia Power will soon unveil plans to close its 29 ash ponds and 10 landfills across the state and ship the remaining coal ash residue to landfills.

Rep. Johnson’s bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency to review its designation of coal ash as non-hazardous; institute more stringent coal ash dust prevention measures; better monitor groundwater near landfills; and prohibit coal ash residuals within five feet of groundwater. Landfill operators must also do a better job informing the public about monitoring data and corrective actions.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia, whose district includes the Jesup landfill, said they hadn’t seen the bill and couldn’t yet comment.