Plant Scherer in Juliette

Frightened Juliette residents in the summer of 2019 were filling jugs with safe drinking water that was hauled in from elsewhere, away from the suspected leaking toxic coal-ash ponds of Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer.

Credit: Altamaha Riverkeeper

Sometime next year, Pam Wolff hopes to stop lugging heavy five-gallon jugs of clean water into her home every week so she can cook meals, brew her coffee and her grandkids can brush their teeth.

And she is looking forward to taking a shower without worrying over what’s in the polluted well water raining down on her.

Wolff says next year is probably as soon as she can expect to connect her home to a new Monroe County water line being rolled out on the county dime to give residents living in the more than 850 homes near Plant Scherer the choice of clean water. About 300 homes have been connected so far.

Pam Wolff

Pam Wolff

Credit: Pam Wolff

 But Wolff says the $20 million county water line won’t be enough to quiet her. She said she remains concerned about Georgia Power’s plans to leave about 16 million tons of toxic coal ash in an unlined pit, where it sits in as much as 25 feet of groundwater.

“I’m sure there will be some people who will get complacent with it. ‘Oh well, I’m good now’ kind of thing,” she said. “The ones who have been so long-term medically and financially hurt by it will not be backing off. We’ll be fighting it to the end.”

Wolff was among the dozens of Juliette residents who showed up at the state Capitol last winter — before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life — to pressure lawmakers to require the state’s largest electric utility to excavate all its coal ash waste and move it to lined landfills.

Republican lawmakers have resisted those calls. And this year, a GOP measure requiring utilities to monitor the groundwater near coal ash ponds for 50 years after closure — as opposed to 30 years — cleared the House before stalling in the Senate. The bill remains alive for next year.

Wolff says she is baffled by Georgia Power’s decision to move coal ash to lined landfills at some locations, like Plant Branch in Milledgeville, but not all.

“I get that it is more cost involved and all that but when you’re talking about people’s lives and having viable water, money shouldn’t be a thing — especially for a power company that has massive forces behind them,” she said.

The state's first close-in-place permit gets a public airing

Coal ash is the toxic waste left behind after decades of burning coal to generate electricity at power plants. And the national reckoning over what to do with this waste is entering a new chapter as states begin to issue permits to utility companies for specific sites.

Here in Georgia, the state Environmental Protection Division has issued the first proposed permit allowing Georgia Power to press forward with plans to leave more than 1 million tons of coal ash in an unlined pit at Floyd County’s Plant Hammond near the Coosa River.

The state is seeking the public’s input now. A virtual hearing is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, and written comments can also be submitted. More details on the proposed permit and how to weigh in can be found here.

This first permit in northwest Georgia will kick off a series of permitting decisions centered on four other plants: Scherer in Juliette, McDonough in Smyrna, Wansley in Heard County and Yates in Newman.

Georgia Power plans to excavate and move 19 ash ponds and cap-in-place 10 others in unlined pits that have been drained of water.

But here’s where things become complicated: At all five plants where the utility plans to seal-in-place, the toxic coal ash is sitting in groundwater.

The bottom of the coal ash sits in as little as a foot of groundwater to more than 50 feet of groundwater at the five plants, although these numbers are estimates, said Kevin Chambers, EPD spokesman. The coal ash plunging the deepest into groundwater is at Plant Wansley just south of Carrollton.

At Hammond, the work to close the coal ash in place wrapped up three years ago. Because the work is already done, Chris Bowers, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the permitting for Hammond “a paperwork exercise.”

“What they’re proposing to do is let Georgia Power Company, essentially, self regulate,” he said. “Does this groundwater belong to the state of Georgia and its citizens? Or is this natural resource just basically to be occupied indefinitely as a waste pit?”

Georgia Power Headquarters

At all five plants where Georgia Power plans to seal-in-place, the toxic coal ash is sitting in groundwater.

Credit: John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Chambers said Georgia Power was operating under federal and state requirements to close the ponds when it capped-in-place Hammond’s site in 2018. He said the division still has the authority to require Georgia Power to relocate the coal ash. But for now, the state is poised to sign off on the utility’s close-in-place plans.

“This permit will ensure that the pond was properly closed and is monitored and maintained for 30 years,” Chambers said.

Chambers said there will be a “robust groundwater monitoring system to detect if groundwater is affected by the ash remaining in place” at Hammond. The cover system, he added, is meant to stop rainwater from pouring onto the coal ash.

Georgia Power has long argued there’s no evidence its coal ash ponds have endangered public health or the state’s drinking water. But when asked if coal ash is submerged in the groundwater, a spokesman did not directly address the question.

“Our closure plans fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, as well as the more stringent requirements of Georgia’s state CCR rule,” Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said in a statement Friday.

Kraft said more than 600 monitoring wells have been installed at Georgia Power’s facilities to monitor groundwater quality and the utility has hired third-party professionals to gather samples. The results are posted on the utility’s website and reported to the state. A plant-based remediation technology for groundwater will also be used at Hammond, Kraft said.

“Regardless of the method used, closure by removal or closure in place, we’re going to be sure that our closure plans are protective of the environment and the communities we serve,” Kraft said.

'Let's do it right the first time'

But environmentalists are sounding the alarm over the Hammond permit, which they argue will set a troubling precedent for the permits coming up soon for other sites in the state — including two much larger ponds holding 16 million tons of coal ash each.

And as one of the first states to implement its own coal ash permitting process, the decisions made in Georgia could have a ripple effect across the region, says Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative.

“The spirit of (federal) law is for the coal ash to be stored dry,” Demonbreun-Chapman said. “The whole point of this law was to end coal ash ponds because coal ash and water are a very dangerous combination.

“And capping a coal ash pond in place, where we know that the toe of the coal ash pond sits lower than the average water table height, is not dry storage of coal ash,” he added. “What they’re signing us up for is decades of slow pollution release into the groundwater and into the Coosa River.”

Demonbreun-Chapman pointed to a 2018 report from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project that reviewed data publicly reported by utilities and found several pollutants — such as arsenic, boron and cobalt — exceeding safe levels in the groundwater at Hammond. Georgia Power argues the groundwater testing around the pond meets federal drinking water standards.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, shows Tiffany and Adam Bertram test results from water samples taken at their Juliette home. The tests revealed elevated levels of hexavalent chromium.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, shows Tiffany and Adam Bertram test results from water samples taken at their Juliette home. The tests revealed elevated levels of hexavalent chromium.

Credit: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder file photo

Unlike Plant Scherer, there are not a lot of homes near Plant Hammond in northwest Georgia. But the Coosa River flows downstream into Alabama’s Weiss Lake, a popular fishing spot for crappie. There’s also a risk of sinkholes, said Demonbreun-Chapman.

Environmentalists argue that, if the close-in-place permits are approved, the utility will have to come back years from now and address the slow release of coal ash contaminants into the groundwater, and that ratepayers will have to pay twice for the cleanup.

Already, Georgia Power has been approved by the state to collect $525 million from ratepayers to pay for its coal ash site closure plans. The total costs could be as much as $8.1 billion, the utility has reported to state regulators.

“Let’s do it right the first time and that way we can minimize the absolute number of costs overall to not only the ratepayers in Georgia, but then also protect their health and environment as well,” said Neil Sardana, the Georgia organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

Some environmentalists have questioned whether Georgia Power’s plans even amount to a cleanup of coal ash.

“There’s no point of doing any of this if you’re going to leave that waste in the aquifer,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which has advocated for the coal ash at Plant Scherer to be relocated to a lined landfill.

“The whole point in cleaning it up and closing these ponds is that coal ash and water don’t mix and you need to store it permanently in a place where that’s not happening to protect human health,” he said. “In the state of Georgia, that means nothing. What it means is we’ll spend $7, $8 billion so that we can say that we are in compliance but actually not do anything to help the environment or the people living on our fence lines.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.