The state of Georgia has the go-ahead from the federal government to regulate coal ash, a byproduct from burning coal for electricity that can contain contaminants such as chromium, boron and mercury.
The Environmental Protection Agency rolled out national coal ash rules in 2015, after disastrous spills in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Before those federal rules, coal ash, described by the EPA as one of the largest types of industrial waste in the country, was unregulated. Utilities would mix the ash with water and store it in large open pits, often without any lining between it and the ground beneath it.
The federal rule allows states to develop and enforce their own coal ash regulations, as long as they are as or more stringent than the national ones.
Georgia becomes the second state in the nation to get sign off on its rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, following Oklahoma.
Tens of millions of tons of coal ash are in Georgia. Georgia Power, the state’s biggest utility, is working to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds and move or keep the ash in place in dry storage.
“EPA’s approval of our coal ash management program means that closure will be enforced through a permit, which allows for the direct oversight, review, and approval of the utilities’ monitoring and clean-up activities,” Georgia Environmental Protection Division director Richard Dunn said in a statement.
Environmentalists have pushed back on the state’s plan to take over coal ash regulations. In written comments to the EPA from earlier this year, attorneys for the Southern Environmental Law Center encouraged the agency to deny the state’s request.
“Georgia’s coal ash program vastly expands the administrative burden on an agency charged with protecting Georgia’s natural resources from pollution, while at the same time devoting zero additional staff or financial resources to run it,” they wrote. “This is deeply troubling.”
In August, environmental groups released an analysis of Georgia Power’s long-term coal ash storage plans, saying that some of the company’s coal ash — even stored dry, but without liners all around it — would be exposed groundwater, risking water contamination.
More recently, the Georgia Public Service Commission approved Georgia Power’s request to charge its customers for coal ash clean-up costs on future electricity bills.