Groups Call Attention To Coal Ash Contamination In Georgia

Waste water from coal ash is pumped into a treatment facility in Bremo Bluff, Va., Tuesday, April 26, 2016. In the past, coal ash has been stored mixed with water in big, open pits, called coal ash ponds.

Steve Helber / Associated Press

Contaminants including boron, arsenic and cobalt have leached out of coal ash ponds in Georgia and into groundwater, according to an analysis released by environmental groups on Thursday.

Coal ash is a byproduct from burning coal for electricity, and there are tens of millions of tons of it in Georgia. While Georgia Power has committed to closing its coal ash ponds, and is ahead of schedule on the process, according to the company, the environmental groups want the company to do more.

In the past, coal ash has been stored mixed with water in big, open pits, called coal ash ponds. In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out a rule requiring utilities to store it more safely, and also to begin groundwater monitoring, and to post its findings.

The groups behind Thursday’s report, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, went through that publicly-available information, and found that 11 out of 12 coal-fired power plants in Georgia have coal ash ponds that are contaminating groundwater. Ten of those 11 are owned by Georgia Power.

“We’re really excited to see this report and have some very clear data that tells us what I think we all knew already, which is, these ash ponds are leaking,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, a group that helped with the report.

April Lipscomb, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which was also involved in the report, said the best way to deal with coal ash is by getting it out of the unlined pits where it’s currently stored.

“The only solution that we know works to stop groundwater pollution from coal ash, is to dig it up,” she said.

In many cases, Georgia Power is doing just that. At 19 out of its 29 coal ash ponds, it is draining the water, excavating the ash, and moving it to lined landfills.

At the other 10, it’s leaving the ash in place, and sealing it using, what the company calls, “advanced engineering methods and closure technologies.” It’s that approach that environmentalists are pushing back on, saying that it doesn’t guarantee that the ash won’t still leach contaminants into groundwater in the future.

Georgia Power says it has not found any risk to public health or drinking water from coal ash, and it emphasizes that it’s posted the information on groundwater monitoring 18 months ahead of the federal deadline.

“We took early action to quickly and safely begin closing all of our ash ponds with our top priority being to protect water quality every step of the way,” Mark Berry, Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental and natural resources, said in a media release.