Picture a charcoal grill. When you cook on it, you end up with ash. Eventually, you have to clean out the grill.
The same thing happens at coal-fired power plants. After decades of burning coal to generate electricity, power companies have a lot of coal ash. Georgia Power estimates it has about 86 million tons statewide.
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Many electric companies have stored their ash – which can contain arsenic, lead and mercury – mixed with water in big open ponds, but that’s starting to change.
Over the next few years, Georgia Power is closing all of its coal ash ponds and will store its ash dry and covered, which should lead to less risk of spills and leaks. It’s already begun that process at a power plant in metro Atlanta.
Environmentalists say they applaud Georgia Power for cleaning up its coal ash, but they’re concerned about how the company is doing it.
The Problem With The Ponds
The coal ash ponds that utilities, including Georgia Power, have used in the past are basically just giant holes in the ground. There’s no liner, and until recently, there was no requirement for companies to monitor the groundwater near the ponds.
“There’s the risk of catastrophic failure,” said Chris Bowers, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. In North Carolina in 2014, a river was filled up with sludge. In Tennessee in 2008, coal ash flooded a neighborhood.
“There’s the risk of slow seepage into our groundwater and adjacent surface waters,” Bowers said. When Georgia Power did begin monitoring groundwater near its coal ash ponds, it found contamination near several of them, including at Plant McDonough in Smyrna.
“And then,” said Bowers, “there is the risk of the pollutants wafting through the air and people inhaling them.”
A few years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out new rules for safely handling coal ash. Georgia has been one of the first states to adopt the federal standards and to add some of its own, though the EPA under the Trump administration is now reconsidering the federal rules.
Closing The Ponds
Now Georgia Power plans to close all of its coal ash ponds.
“We have 29 ash ponds at our 12 current and former coal-fired power plants,” said Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power. “Several of those ponds have already been 100 percent removed of all the ash. Numerous others are in varying stages of closure.”
Take the ponds at Plant McDonough, located on the Chattahoochee River just inside the Perimeter. Though McDonough is a natural gas plant, Georgia Power used to burn coal at the site, and there are four coal ash ponds there.
The first step in closing them is draining the water out. The water goes through a treatment plant the company built at McDonough to handle the water from the coal ash ponds. Mitchell said it’s equipped with a sensor to shut the process down if the water doesn’t meet standards set by the state EPD.
Then, the company is digging all of the ash out of one of the ponds – it looks like a giant construction site, with heavy equipment scraping the gray ash out of the red clay hole of the pond. That ash is combined with the now-dry ash in the remaining three ponds, and eventually sealed up.
The water from the ponds, once it’s treated, is released into the Chattahoochee River. Mitchell said Georgia Power has been releasing water since late 2016, and is close to finished. The company monitors the water quality, and it posts reports online and submits data to the state Environmental Protection Division. That agency says it hasn’t seen problems.
Kevin Jeselnik, an attorney at the environmental group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said he’s glad Georgia Power is doing this, but he doesn’t like how it’s doing it.
“The problem is, is the lack of reporting,” he said. “There’s so little data.”
Standing in a boat in the Chattahoochee, Jeselnik points out where the water from Plant McDonough empties into the river. It’s a pipe up above our heads, with water pouring out of it. Sometimes, that water comes from the coal ash ponds.
Jeselnik said he would have liked to have seen a stricter permitting process and more regular water monitoring in the river.
“They’re just not being held to the same standard that we think they should be,” he said.
Plant McDonough is one of the first plants where Georgia Power is draining its coal ash ponds, but there are Georgia Power plants on pretty much every major river in the state, and over the next few years, this will happen at all of them. The EPD recently approved plans for what’s called “dewatering” at Plant Bowen, near Cartersville.
“These plants are located along rivers throughout the state,” said Jeselnik. “It’s an issue for all Georgia rivers right now, almost across the board.”
And Bowers, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he’s not just worried about what’s going into the rivers now, he’s worried about the long-term: How the dry ash is stored, once the water’s drained out.
Georgia Power’s method isn’t as secure as Bowers would like it to be because while the dry ash is sealed on the sides and the top, there’s nothing below it but the bare ground.
“When you’re dealing with a solution that needs to be perfect forever, that’s just setting yourself up for failure eventually,” he said.
But that storage method is fine under current regulations, and Georgia Power’s Mitchell said the company is committed to protecting the environment.
“We’re going beyond what is required and what other utilities may be doing as well, to ensure that we’re closing these things the right way,” he said.
A couple of bills in the state Legislature that would require more stringent coal-ash-handling laws in Georgia stalled last year. The lawmaker behind them, Republican Rep. Jeff Jones from Brunswick, said he hopes something will pass this year.