For years, Georgia environmentalists have wondered if the Environmental Protection Agency would wield a federal rule forbidding storing heavy metal-laden and cancer-causing coal ash in groundwater with the same resolve they used in Ohio and Alabama

A letter sent from EPA to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division this month indicates they are.

The letter takes EPD to task for a final closure permit at Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond near Rome. EPA says the permit issued last September likely breaks the groundwater rule. About 10% of the Hammond coal ash remains in the aquifer. 

Chris Bowers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, described the letter as “yanking EPD’s chain.”

“Well, the letter is what I would call a politely worded smackdown of Georgia EPD's misinterpretation of the closure standards for ash,” Bowers said.  

While most states have always been made to follow the EPA lead on the long-term storage of the material left over from burning coal to make electricity, Georgia was handed control of its own coal ash program under one condition: Closure permits must be at least as stringent as the federal standard. 

Meanwhile, EPD has so far voiced no opposition to Georgia Power’s requests to leave other coal ash enclosures in a state of unlined closure vulnerable to infiltration by groundwater.

In the letter to EPD, EPA Region 4 Administrator Jeneanne Gettles said those plans do not satisfy the deal EPD made to run its own program.  

“The Agency is unaware of a circumstance where these standards could be, or have been, met when the waste in a closed, unlined impoundment remains in contact with groundwater that freely migrates in and out of the [coal ash] remaining in the closed unit,” Gettles said.

In correspondence between the two agencies obtained by GPB, EPA personnel voiced concerns about the groundwater at Plant Hammond right up until the point in September of last year that the final closure permit was issued. 

In one document, the EPA shared a table describing how coal ash at some monitoring wells was found to be sometimes a dozen feet deep in the water flowing through the Northwest Georgia topography.

The new attention to how EPD is running its permitting process has clear implications for permits not yet issued at other larger coal ash sites, such as at Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer in Monroe County. Altamaha Riverkeeper Fletcher Sams said Plant Scherer closure plans would leave coal ash some 25 feet in groundwater there. 

Residents around the Scherer ash pond have worried for years about the connection between the drinking water they draw from the same aquifer and various illnesses, including some rare cancers.

“I mean, we have told the power company, we have told legislators, we have told EPD, you told the governor that these plans are illegal,” Sams said. “We've been saying that for years. And now EPA is saying what we've been saying.” 

The difference, Sams said, is that the EPA has the authority to take control of Georgia coal ash management back from the state. 

Both Fletcher Sams the riverkeeper and attorney Chris Bowers of the SELC agree the EPA letter may be the first step in that process.

In an official comment on the letter, Georgia Power said their ash pond closure plans are designed to comply with both the federal and state coal ash rules.

Georgia EPD did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.


A photo caption in an earlier version of this story said the ash pond at Georgia Power's Plant Scherer was still accepting new coal combustion residuals, or coal ash. The pond actually quit receiving new coal ash in 2020.