The topic of coal ash is on fire in Georgia (pun intended)! Coal ash is the residue left behind after coal is burned to fuel power plants. The waste is often mixed with water and stored in large ponds, known as “ash ponds.” These ponds contain toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. In Georgia, the company that is responsible for producing tons of this toxic waste is Georgia Power.
Georgia Power is the state’s largest electric utility. It currently has 29 coal ash ponds across the state located near 11 of its coal-fired power plants. In recent years, environmental activists have sounded the alarm about toxins leaking into the well water of communities surrounding the ponds and posing serious health problems for the people that rely on that water.
Georgia Power’s ash ponds are leaking because they are unlined, leaving the chemicals free to seep into groundwater. After being pressured by environmental activists and to comply with coal ash regulation requirements from the EPA, the company has chosen to close all of its toxic coal ash ponds. However, this action simply does not go far enough to protect the health of the people living nearby.
Georgia Power wants to leave coal ash in place where it will almost certainly continue to pollute groundwater instead of excavating the ash and moving it to a safer place. This is particularly frustrating since the Georgia Public Service Commission–a body of five statewide elected officials–recently voted to allow Georgia Power to charge its customers an additional $1.8 billion dollars, citing coal ash clean up as a major reason for forcing Georgians to pay more.
As the company seeks approval from the state Environmental Protection Division on its plans to close the ponds, there will be no public hearings. This effectively shuts down dialogue for many who have concerns about how the waste will be handled in the future. Residents are allowed to submit a written comment to the EPD for consideration.
To make matters worse, coal ash from surrounding states has been imported and stored in six solid waste landfills around the state. This is because Georgia’s laws allow coal ash waste to be dumped into landfills at a cheaper rate than even regular, non-toxic residential waste.
Record Number of Coal Ash Bills ‘Crossover’ in the Legislature
Fortunately, a group of Georgia’s legislators has responded to increasing calls from residents who are worried about their drinking water, communities at risk of receiving even more coal ash waste from out of state, and members of the Georgia Water Coalition. On crossover day, before the legislature was suspended due to COVID-19, the state House of Representatives passed three bills imposing additional regulations on the disposal of coal ash:
HB 959, from Rep. Meeks (R-Screven) is a companion version of SB 123. The bill closes a loophole created in 2018 that encourages the importation of out-of-state coal ash to Georgia due to low landfill surcharge fees. This bill raises the fees, making it less cheap for companies to dispose of their waste in our state.
HB 93, from Rep. Williams (R-Milledgeville) requires public notice when Georgia Power begins dewatering (draining) coal ash ponds as part of the process of closing these toxic waste impoundments.
HB 929, from Rep. Smith (R-Pine Mountain), requires long-term monitoring of groundwater around coal ash ponds to make sure the toxins aren’t posing a threat to our communities.
It’s important to note that none of the bills require liners for the coal ash ponds that Georgia Power intends to keep in place. Further, there were two other bills, HB 756 from Rep. Robert Trammell (D-Luthersville), Rep. Mary Frances Williams (D-Marietta), and others, and SB 297 by Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Cobb Co.) that did not get committee hearings or move forward this session. These bills would have protected Georgians from contaminated drinking water by requiring coal ash be disposed of and stored in the same manner other solid wastes are—in permitted landfills with synthetic bottom liners and leachate collection systems.
While the legislative session has been postponed due to coronavirus, legislators still need to hear from you! Call and email your state senators today and let them know you support action to clean up coal ash in Georgia.
If you’re not sure who your legislators are or how to find them, visit our partners at Protect Georgia to use their “Find Your Legislator” tool.