The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering letting the state of Georgia take over regulating coal ash.
Georgia would be the second state to develop its own coal ash rules, following Oklahoma. But environmental advocates are concerned the state won’t be able to handle the job of regulating such a large and potentially dangerous form of waste.
Coal ash is a byproduct from burning coal for electricity. There are tens of millions of tons of coal ash in Georgia, and it can contain toxic elements. It’s historically been stored in large open pits at power plants – including at Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough, in Smyrna.
After disastrous spills in other states, the EPA rolled out coal ash regulations under the Obama administration, with an option for states to develop their own rules as long as they were at least as stringent as the federal ones.
At an EPA hearing in Atlanta on Tuesday, many people spoke against having Georgia regulate coal ash cleanup. In a midafternoon session, all of the speakers – more than 20 – were opposed to the state’s plan.
“Every community has a right to clean water and a safe environment, and that is what we need you to help us protect,” Smyrna resident Johanna Lamps said to the EPA, adding she doesn’t think the state is up to the task.
Earlier this week, the Southern Environmental Law Center released an analysis criticizing Georgia Power’s plans for some of its coal ash, including long-term cleanup and storage plans along the Chattahoochee River in metro Atlanta. The power company plans to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds.
Kevin Jeselnik, attorney for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, told the EPA if the state Environmental Protection Division approves the permits Georgia Power has applied for that raise environmental concerns, it shows that the state’s rules are not as strict as the federal ones.
“If EPD actually approves these permit applications as they’ve been submitted by Georgia Power, then EPD’s coal ash permitting plan is revealed as a paper tiger,” he said.
Marietta resident Kara Zona told the EPA she’s worried about transparency.
“We’re supposed to live in a democracy where people, residents, citizens have a say in the environment around them,” she said. “It terrifies me thinking something this toxic can exist in my community without public awareness.”
Georgia Power says it plans to submit written comments to the EPA on the state’s proposal. The federal agency is collecting comments until the end of August.