A massive coal plant in Monroe County is being blamed for contaminating the local water supply. Georgia Today host Steve Fennessy talks with freelance journalist Max Blau about a lawsuit by residents who are demanding clean water.


What It's Like To Live Next To America's Largest Coal Plant

Lawsuit Says Plant Scherer Is 'Poisoning' Locals



Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. It's Friday, August 7th.

Resident: We have no municipality water. We have nothing — except contaminated water and we've had enough of it.

Resident 2: I just want future generations, one day, to be able to live there again and not fear getting something and dying from it.

Steve Fennessy: Coal ash: it's the residue left behind by power plants that burn coal — tons of it. For years, utilities have left it in ponds that lie adjacent to their plants. But in Monroe County, south of Atlanta, residents who get their drinking water from their wells are worried that their health is being damaged by contamination from the coal ash stored at nearby plant, Scherer. Some of those residents are now suing Georgia Power. My guest today is Max Blau, an Atlanta based freelance health care journalist who's covered the story for the past year. I started by asking him to talk a bit about Juliette, Georgia.

Max Blau: There's a lot of farmland there. Juliette is an unincorporated town of 3,000 people. It is best known for being the location where the 1991 Kathy Bates film Fried Green Tomatoes was filmed.

Fried Green Tomatoes clip: "You ever been to whistle stop. Does the name Idgie Threadgoode ring a bell?" "No, ma'am, I don't think so." "Idgie and her friend Ruth ran the Whistle Stop Cafe."

Max Blau: Plant Scherer is in Juliette, near the historic downtown where the Whistle Stop Cafe is.

Steve Fennessy: Max, help me understand the importance of plants here in the context of Georgia's power production.

max: Plant Scherer is the largest coal-fired plant in the Western Hemisphere, not just in America. When it's running at full capacity, can power over 3 million households in Georgia.

Steve Fennessy: So you say it's the, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. That's — when you said largest, what are you measuring by?

Max Blau: That, that is in terms of the, the, the capacity it has in terms of electricity generation.

Steve Fennessy: OK. Like megawatt production.

Max Blau: Exactly.

Steve Fennessy: Okay. So but in terms of how, how is it powered, how does it — how does it fuel the turbines?

Max Blau: So every, every day, if you were to go down and Juliette, you could see very long trains bringing coal to the front, through the front of Plant Scherer, and dropping them off in this pit. From there, the coal is taken inside and it is, it is burned. That heats up water. That creates steam. At that point in time, it turns a turbine which generates electricity that then goes back through power lines, out from Juliette to the rest of the state — as well as other states as well throughout the South.

Steve Fennessy: Now, there's another step in there, no? The coal is not burned as it is, isn't it crushed first?

Max Blau: It's crushed, it's pulverized.

Steve Fennessy: At the plant?

Max Blau: At the plant, yes. And then after that coal is burned, what's left behind is this fine ash. That is, that is the coal ash that we all know about today.

Steve Fennessy: Well, give me an idea — how much coal are we talking about?

Max Blau: In terms of how much is being, how much is left behind?

Steve Fennessy: Yeah, when you say these — you've got these railcars coming in every day and they're, they're crushing the coal and then they're burning it to produce power that produces steam, that fuels the turbines, that makes electricity — well, how much coal are they going through in a day, in an hour?

Max Blau: About 1,300 tons in a given hour.

Steve Fennessy: Thirteen hundred tons in an hour?

Max Blau: Yeah, it's, it's a lot of, it's a lot of coal that that plant produces. But again, this is for, you know, up to 3 million households in a given day.

Steve Fennessy: OK so, so this coal is crushed. It's, it's then burned. And then what happens to, to it after it's, after it's been used up — after it's been burned and no longer of use?

Max Blau: So I think most people probably look up at a plant like Plant Scherer and you'll see smoke rising from the stacks. That a combination of the of the particulate that is captured inside of that stack through what's known as a scrubber, which is like a high a fancy filter...

Steve Fennessy: OK.

Max Blau: That ash, along with what is in the, that's left behind from the burning of coal is, is taken outside and, at Plant Scherer, it is placed in what's known as a coal ash pond — which is, it's a bit of a misnomer in the sense that we're talking about an, a space that is over 750 acres in size, this pond. And it is very deep. There's nearly 16 million tons of coal ash there. And that's enough to fill about 47,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Plant Scherer's ash pond is what's known as an unlined ash pond, which means if you were just to take out all that ash, there would be a — there'd be clay at the bottom of it, but there would be no protective liner.

Steve Fennessy: Just red Georgia clay.

Max Blau: Yes.

Steve Fennessy: So and in other words it's a big hole and they're filling it up with water and coal ash.

Max Blau: Exactly. And, and in some other facilities or, you know, newer coal ash plants, there were protective liners put in the ground that prevented coal ash from seeping through that clay into groundwater. Unlike up here in Atlanta where we get our water from a city or county that treats that water and then runs it to our homes, Juliette never had water lines installed even to this day. 

So people, they get their water from their own private drinking wells that they've installed, that draws up water from an aquifer below the surface. And that water is, according to Georgia Power's own records and — to other additional data that's been collected — that water is also in contact with the coal ash pond. You know, in some cases, a half mile or a quarter mile from these people's homes.

News anchor: Environmental agencies have raised concerns with Georgia Power, its coal ash ponds at five power plants, including Plant Scherer in Juliette.

Max Blau: People started noticing their loved ones getting sick. Some people had, had cancer. Other people had, you know, thyroid damage. In some cases, children that were diagnosed with cancer — or in other cases, you know, otherwise healthy men in their 40s or 30s that were — that were getting sick. And in some cases, people died prematurely.

It got to the point where, where residents felt like something was up. And were looking for answers as to what was causing it in their minds, what was a disproportionate rate of various health conditions.

Amber Joyner: Like one of them brought over a cake and said, welcome to Juliette. It's just a very welcoming community of people that just, they care about each other.

Max Blau: One of the people have crossed paths where my reporting is a woman named Amber Joyner. She and her family live in Juliette near Plant Scherer. Amber talked with Evey Wilson with the Center for Collaborative Journalism. She says it's heartbreaking to think about what this could be doing to her family.

Amber Joyner: It is just hard to think about what girls have possibly been drinking for the whole time we've lived here, because you do, you do everything you can to make sure that they're getting what they need — eating their fruits and vegetables and all of the other stuff — imagine if it were your children. If it were your kids out here and Juliette drinking this water, and would they want to go home and give this water to their children? And I highly doubt that they would.

Max Blau: Amber Joyner and the rest of the family, they have elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium in their well water.

Steve Fennessy: Max, what is hexavalent chromium?

Max Blau: So hexavalent chromium is linked to a variety of health conditions, including ulcers, liver and kidney failure and cancer. In hexavalent chromium, if you've never heard of that before, it is the chemical that was featured in the movie Erin Brockovich, about a mother turned legal assistant who uncovered a, this this chemical from a utility out there that was found in, in people's wells.

Erin Brockovich: "That means that it was..." "Right up on the PG&E property." "And you say that this stuff, this hexavalent chromium — well, it's poisonous." "Erin, it's just got to be different than what's in our water because because I our is OK.".

Max Blau: Led to a, you know, an award of one hundred, several hundred million dollars. And that hexavalent chromium that has also been found in coal ash disposal sites in states like Massachusetts and Nevada. You know, that's one of the other heavy metals that are kind of at play with coal ash, and the potential fears of contamination.

News anchor: We begin with an update on the battle over clean water in Monroe County community. 45 neighbors near Plant Scherer filed a lawsuit this week against Georgia Power arguing the plant is making them sick.

Max Blau: This month, there was a new lawsuit filed that has expanded some of the allegations against Georgia Power specifically at this point in time. Georgia Power has stated that they are a good neighbor, who has employees who live in the community. And if they were doing any harm to that community, they would — they would take action.

Brian Adams: At the end of the day they are a neighbor, just like anyone else, any other next door neighbor you may have.

Max Blau: Brian Adams is one of the lawyers representing people who live near plants here. He spoke about the lawsuit against Georgia Power with WMAZ.

Brian Adams: They have refused to acknowledge the problems they have been causing their neighbors for decades. And frankly, they don't seem to care. They made a conscious decision not to, knowing exactly what was going to happen — knowing that their next door neighbors were on wells, drinking the groundwater — and they didn't care. They didn't care then, and they don't care now.

Max Blau: Georgia Power still maintains that they are not a public health risk. Spokesperson John Kraft has said that the company's tests showed that well water is safe. Here, here's Kraft talking with WMGT.

John Kraft: We've operated plants Scherer for nearly 40 years. Well, within environmental guidelines, we've steadily made additional investments at the plant for it to improve its environmental performance over the years.

Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk for a minute about regulators, both federal and state. So we've mentioned heavy metals and the potential impact they can have on the human body if they reach certain levels. So does the federal or state governments sort of oversee how much consumption of them is safe or acceptable.

Max Blau: For a long time, coal ash had very few regulations. Wasn't until the end of the Obama administration that kind of the first comprehensive coal ash legislation passed.

Steve Fennessy: It's a devilishly difficult to sort of describe cause and effect when it comes to, you know, clusters of diseases or — or even defining what a cluster is when it comes to possible environmental causes. And maybe because alos, there's, as we know, genetic causes to diseases. So how do the citizens, the concerned citizens of Juliette, connect those dots.

Max Blau: In that period between 2014 and 2020, a number of different things happened that convince more people that, in Juliette, that there was a more direct link between the coal ash and the, the sicknesses that were happening in their homes. One of those was the, the arrival of a group called the Altamaha Riverkeeper.

News anchor: The Monroe County Board of Commissioners bringing in bulk water tankers to provide drinking water in the county. Commissioners say it's in response to weeks of public hearings with environmental group Altamaha Riverkeeper. The group ran water tests near Plant Scherer and found toxic, heavy metals in nearly 40 of those tests. They say those same metals can be found in coal ash that could be seeping into the water supply.

Max Blau: This, this group honed in on Juliette as, as one of the places it was going to focus a lot of its work.

Steve Fennessy: As concern grows over the quality of the drinking water and Juliette, residents start to take matters into their own hands.

resident: Our first agenda, as constituents and residents of Juliette — is we want some water.

Steve Fennessy: That's just ahead. This is Georgia Today. This is Georgia Today. My guest is Max Blau, an Atlanta based health care journalist who's covered efforts by the citizens of Juliette, Georgia, to ensure their drinking water is clean.

Cody Norad: In the beginning, when God created the world, God hovers over in the water and calls it good.

Max Blau: Last February, the Altamaha Riverkeeper hosted a town hall meeting to discuss coal ash issues and Juliette. The meeting opened with a prayer from Cody Norad with the Georgia Interfaith Power and Light.

Cody Norad: We protect our water for the help of ourselves and our communities and our friends and our neighbors — because it's holy work to do so.

Max Blau: At that meeting, the Altamaha Riverkeeper's Fletcher Sams spoke to members of the community. He's tested roughly 100 private drinking wells near plant here.

Fletcher Sams: The same aquifer that y'all draw your drinking water from, is in contact with the coal ash.

Max Blau: Fletcher Sams explained that, in 2015, federal law came down that forced Georgia Power to install monitoring wells across its coal ash ponds.

Fletcher Sams: The same things that are leaking out of those monitoring wells are the same that were finding in people drinking water: aluminum, mercury, arsenic, barium, boron, cobalt, lead, sulfate...

Max Blau: Everyone knew in town that, if you wanted your water tested or you had some concern, that you can call the Altamaha river keeper and they would come to your — either to your kitchen or to get closer to the well, they would sometimes crawl under people's houses and get it straight from the well itself. Weeks later, you would get a battery of test results that would come back that measured, you know, for a variety of heavy metals some of, some of which were found in coal ash and some of which were just other kinds of toxins.

Steve Fennessy: Let's talk for a second about some of the people that you met in Juliette. And specifically Tony Bowdoin. Who's Tony Bowdoin?

Max Blau: Tony is a homeowner in Juliette. He's, he's, he grew up and has lived there all his life. And, you know like, like everyone in Juliette, he had heard people talk about the can— the cancer diagnoses and the other sicknesses that were emerging. And, at a certain point in time, I believe it, it was one of his neighbors who lived a couple of streets over, who called him and sort of urged him to have his well tested. Just as a precaution.

Between the month that the sample is collected and the test results came back, he was actually — did go to the doctor and, and had a — his doctor send to a specialist. And ultimately he was diagnosed with stage four cancer in his colon. And so I was also there on the day that the river keeper went back and presented the results. And, at that point in time he's still this, you know, kind of quiet, relatively — doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve kind of person. But, you know, there was, you can see the concern kind of setting in that day. And you know that, here he was, recently diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

And here are the results that show there were, you know, high levels of certain heavy metals.

Karl Cass: Our first agenda as constituents and residents of Juliette is we want some more.

Max Blau: Karl Cass lived near Plant Scherer, and he's one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Georgia Power.

Karl Cass: We have no option — let that sink in — we have no municipality water.

We have nothing — except contaminated water. And we've had enough.

Max Blau: Here's Cass speaking in February at the Georgia state Capitol, in support of legislation to excavate coal ash from unlined ponds near power plants, so that it doesn't end up in groundwater.

Karl Cass: These beautiful children up here ... What are they going to have to continue to face? What kind of health consequences are they going to endure? Because we didn't think it was necessary to be a voice for our kids — and our kids kids. I assure you, this group is strong and we're just minuscule compared to those back home.

Steve Fennessy: For this latest legislative session, there was legislation introduced that would help regulate coal ash in Georgia. What, what was that legislate— legislation seeking and and what became of it?

Max Blau: That legislation was seeking to effectively force Georgia Power and one other utility that has a coal ash pond to excavate coal ash from unlined facilities that were near aquifers and to put them into a lined landfill. That bill was introduced by the Georgia House minority leader, Bob Trammell. It did not get a hearing.

Steve Fennessy: So the residents of Juliette get no satisfaction out of the General Assembly. What did they do next?

Max Blau: Within a couple of weeks after their day at the Capitol, they kept holding town hall meetings. They pressured their local lawmakers. And as COVID happens, the shutdown impacts their ability to organize and keep going. The Monroe County Commission took the stance that, you know, people of Juliette had spoken up to the point where there was, you know, a — they were fronting the cost of their own water and they felt it was their responsibility, as a short term solution to, to at least ensuring that they had clean water at that point in time.

Since then, the county has taken out $17 million to $20 million worth the bonds to, to— what they were going to be doing now is installing water lines to all those residents in Juliette that didn't have connections to a water system in the past. It is expected to take upwards of two years for that to happen. Greg Tapley is county commission chair.

Greg Tapley: Anybody that's responsible ought to pay. The question is, who's responsible? You know, anybody that's liable ought to be, you know — make restitution. And so, again, we'll keep following that. If it ends up being proven, then we'll go back and say, "Hey, look, we had to put in $17 million in waterlines and we need to get repaid for that." So that's, that's part. And then, of course, the residents have their own opportunities, you know, to go to Georgia Power or the Plant Scherer as a group or individually to do the same thing.

Steve Fennessy: As it stands today, if there's no legislation that's passed and no bill signed into law and this lawsuit goes nowhere — what is the fate of the coal ash pond and Juliette?

Max Blau: It, it rests in the hands of regulators who are reviewing the hundreds of pages of documents submitted by Georgia Power, making the case for why they should leave it unlined, as opposed to putting that protective liner in the ground... To stop liquid from that coal ash pond from leaving.

Steve Fennessy: But they don't want to just leave it, Georgia Power. They do want to do something with it, right?

Max Blau: There are certain requirements in there that that they have proposed, including monitoring the pond for another 30 years, I believe is — is the, is what the current permit says. They've also said they're going to put in, what they have described as, quote unquote, "advanced engineering techniques" to stop the coal ash from moving beyond the site. When I've asked Georgia Power what those techniques are they've, they've declined to share that, citing that it's proprietary information.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Atlanta based journalist Max Blau. 

After Max and I spoke, Georgia Today reached out to Georgia Power for comment. Spokesman John Kraft said the utility has "publicly shared examples of proven engineering methods for Scherer." In an email, Kraft said the Plant Scherer plan calls for "dewatering the pond, consolidating the footprint of the ash into a much smaller area and employing an expanded cover system designed to prevent additional rainwater infiltration beyond a simple cap." Kraft also referenced the 57 groundwater wells directly around the coal ash pond, and that "Based on the extensive data collected and reported to the Georgia Environmental ProtectionDivision (EPD), nothing above a state or federal drinking water standard has been shown leaving the company's property."

I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our producer, Sean Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.