Ga. Lawmakers Consider Some Coal Ash Rules, While Advocates Push For More

Coal ash, seen here in swirls on the surface of the Dan River in Danville, Virginia, is a byproduct from burning coal for electricity. Even though both the federal and the state governments have introduced rules in recent years about cleaning it up, there’s still debate in Georgia over the safest way to store it for the long-term.

Gerry Broome / Associated Press

There is an enormous amount of coal ash in Georgia.

More than 89 million cubic feet of it, according to the state Environmental Protection Division. That’s enough to fill up about 6 million dumpsters with the toxic byproduct from burning coal to generate electricity.

Even though both the federal and the state governments have introduced rules in recent years about cleaning it up, there’s still debate in Georgia over the safest way to store it for the long-term.

In a Tuesday hearing, Georgia lawmakers considered one coal ash bill that’s making progress in the legislature and made reference to another one that isn’t.

Vance Smith’s bill – the one that is moving – would require clear summaries accompanying coal ash groundwater monitoring reports.

“We get a lot of reports sometimes, and I think they mean well, and the numbers are good, but we can’t understand what they’re saying, and that’s the way this has to be written, so we, as laypeople, can understand what’s going on,” Smith, a Republican from Pine Mountain, said in a subcommittee meeting.

His bill would also require monitoring coal ash impoundments for 50 years, up from the 30 years currently needed by the state.

“I probably won’t be here when that 50 year is over,” Smith said. “But I have seven grandsons that I hope will be here.”

Georgia Power supports the proposal to write an easily-understandable summary, Aaron Mitchell, Georgia Power’s director of environmental affairs, said at the hearing. And on the question of an extended monitoring period, Mitchell said the utility would follow whatever the law is regarding coal ash, also called coal combustion residuals or CCR.

“As federal and state regulations related to CCR impoundments and enclosures change, Georgia Power will certainly adapt and change our plans to comply with those,” Mitchell said.

Environmentalists said they also support Smith’s bill, but they’d like to see the legislature do more.

“We view this bill as a good starting point,” April Lipscomb, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said.

“Our biggest concern with this bill, however, is it supports Georgia Power’s plans to leave coal ash sitting in unlined pits, where coal ash is actually sitting in groundwater.”

In the past, utilities, including Georgia Power, stored their coal ash mixed with water in big, open ponds.

In 2015, after disastrous spills in other states, the federal government rolled out its first-ever regulations around coal ash. Georgia Power then announced plans to close all of its ash ponds. A few years later, the state of Georgia adopted its own versions of the federal rules.

Georgia Power is fully excavating about half of its coal ash and moving it to lined storage, which is the approach favored by environmental groups.

The plan for the rest is to drain the water out and cap it using what the utility calls advanced engineering techniques. That ash wouldn’t be completely sealed, which is what concerns Lipscomb and others.

“When these ponds start contaminating groundwater, which they will, Georgia Power is going to go back to the Public Service Commission, ask for permission to charge ratepayers even more money to come back and clean up their mess again,” she said.

Last year, Georgia Power notified Cobb County that contamination from the coal ash at Plant McDonough might have escaped its property.

State Representative Mary Frances Williams, a Democrat from Marietta, asked in the hearing if there had been any consequences following that disclosure.

“As of right now, there isn’t any need of corrective action,” Chuck Mueller, land branch chief at the Georgia EPD, said. “They are monitoring it to ensure it doesn’t get worse.”

McDonough, which is just inside the Perimeter near the Chattahoochee River, is one of the plants where the coal ash will be capped in place rather than moved to a fully-lined landfill.

“I’m still disappointed we’re not going to encapsulate the coal ash,” Gloria Hammond told lawmakers on Tuesday. 

She lives in the middle Georgia town of Juliette, near Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer, and its giant coal ash pond.

Her community has been pushing for all the coal ash there to get excavated. Some residents are suing Georgia Power, claiming the utility has contaminated their groundwater and caused cancers there.

Hammond said she doesn’t use her drinking water well anymore.

“I’m just upset about everything, I reckon,” she said.

Democrats have introduced a bill that would require all the coal ash in the state to be completely sealed in lined landfills.

That proposal hasn’t gotten a hearing this session. It didn’t get one last year, either.