Coal ash is a threat to water near Newnan, and unfortunately, not enough is being done to properly contain it.
Georgia Power recently disclosed how much coal ash and toxic wastewater is sitting in four pits at Plant Yates, less than 10 miles from Newnan, and the figures are staggering. The pits contain over 2.3 million tons* of ash and nearly 138 million gallons of wastewater. (*For ash values, we apply U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s conversion factor: one cubic yard equals one ton.)
The ash weighs as much as six Empire State Buildings, and the wastewater would fill over 208 olympic-sized swimming pools.
Coal ash is the toxic remains of burning coal to generate electricity. It contains heavy metals and carcinogens like mercury, arsenic and lead that are dangerous for human health and the environment. Georgia Power’s 29 coal ash pits statewide reportedly contain at least 86 million tons of coal ash and billions of gallons of wastewater. Much of it is stored in unlined pits next to our rivers, where it can leak into ground and surface water that Georgians depend on for boating, fishing, and safe drinking water.
In 2015 the EPA issued minimum requirements for the disposal and handling of coal ash wastes, and last week Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) adopted those standards into state solid-waste rules, while adding some stronger requirements.
Unfortunately, these rules do not require adequate monitoring of groundwater near Georgia Power’s plants, which is very concerning now that groundwater contamination has actually been discovered at six of the utility’s 11 sites.
At Plant Yates, tests revealed beryllium concentrated at three times the state limit at one well and selenium above the state limit at another. Exposure to selenium can lead to birth defects and nervous system problems.
So far, Georgia Power has issued only high-level closure plans for its ash pits. At Yates, the utility plans to remove coal ash from three pits, discharge wastewater into the Chattahoochee River under permits with inadequate monitoring requirements, and finally, place the ash and contaminated soil into four existing ash pits on site.
Georgia Power says the four final pits will be closed using “advanced” methods. We know there will be a liner on top of these pits, but there is no indication that the utility plans to place a liner beneath the ash to prevent further groundwater contamination. The company hasn’t even described how it will address the current contamination detected on site.
The best way to reduce the threats of coal ash pollution to surface and groundwater is to remove ash to lined, dry storage, away from our rivers and waterways, without placing an undue risk burden on low-income communities and communities of color who often disproportionately
bear the brunt of pollution.
Where utilities have excavated ash, such as in South Carolina, they document dramatic drops in groundwater contamination. If South Carolina utilities can excavate ash and address groundwater contamination, Georgia Power can, too.
Georgia’s new rules don’t require ash excavation or lined storage immediately, but could require it eventually as corrective action when leaks are found. Georgia Power shouldn’t wait.
Utilities are under a federal deadline to post more detailed ash pit closure plans online by Nov. 17. We hope Georgia Power’s plans will outline a more protective process of excavating all ash to lined, dry storage. If not, we will continue to press for cleanup that adequately protects our health and our environment.
Amelia Shenstone is the coal-related campaigns director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental-advocacy organization.