Two public notice bills related to coal ash disposal are moving through the Georgia General Assembly, but only one is likely to get a vote this year.
The bills require public notice for coal ash pond “dewatering” and for the disposal of coal ash in municipal solid waste landfills.
Neither will have much of an effect on Coweta because the dewatering process of the coal ash ponds at Georgia Power Plant Yates is underway, and all of the ash will be kept on the Plant Yates property, as part of the “close in place” plan.
Under House Bill 93, the owner or operator of any ash pond would have to provide written notice within three days after beginning the dewatering process. The notice must be given to the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the local government where the ponds are located. The information must also be posted on the coal ash-related website that each power plant operator maintains, and the notice must be printed in the legal organ of the county where dewatering is taking place.
Dewatering is the process of draining water off of ash ponds and treating that water before it is discharged into streams or rivers.
Under federal and state rules regulating coal ash – officially known as CCRs – coal combustion residuals – the use of ash ponds is being phased out. Instead of storing the ash wet in ponds, ash is now being stored dry either in landfills at power plant sites, or in municipal or commercial solid waste landfills.
Georgia’s rules on CCRs are more stringent than the federal rules, and contain more enforcement provisions, according to Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power.
“The federal rule regulates about half of our ash ponds. The Georgia EPD is more stringent in a couple of facets and regulates all of our ash ponds and landfills on power company property, as well as other landfills that receive coal ash,” said Mitchell at a recent joint House and Senate Natural Resources committee meeting.
“Back in 2015 when the federal CCR rule came out, Georgia Power was among the first in the country to announce we would cease use of all of our ash ponds,” Mitchell told the legislators.
Of the 29 ash ponds at Georgia Power properties across the state, 19 will be excavated entirely, Mitchell said. Others will be dewatered and “closed in place."
At Plant Yates, Ash Ponds 1 and 2, which are the closest to the Chattahoochee River, will be excavated.
The work at Ash Pond 1 is already complete. Work is ongoing at Ash Pond 2, the largest pond on the property. Once excavation is complete, a portion of the former ash pond will be a “service water pond” for the plant.
The ash from those ponds, as well as the ash from other ponds on the property, will be relocated to a new landfill on site, known as the “ash management area.”
The ash management area is located where two ash ponds, known as AP3 and AP-B were located. Those have been dewatered, and the ash from Ash Ponds 1, 2, A and B is being consolidated and stored in the ash management area landfill. Once all the ash is placed in the landfill, it will be capped with a geosynthetic cover system.
According to the permit applications, the landfills do not have liners between the ground and the coal ash.
Another landfill, known as R6, has already been completed and capped.
In December, Georgia Power announced that most of the closure activities at Yates were substantially complete, with the rest of the closure work expected to be finished in 2019.
Georgia Power’s applications for permits from the state for closure of ash ponds and ash landfills were submitted in November, based on the deadline required under the state’s CCR rules.
Most of the work at Yates was already completed or underway by the time the application was filed.
The regulations include long-term groundwater monitoring through the post-closure process.
The Southern Environmental Law Center alleged in December that 10 of Georgia Power’s coal ash ponds, including four ponds at Plant Yates, don’t meet the federal regulation requiring at least five feet between the bottom of the ponds and groundwater for ponds that are unlined.
“Georgia Power’s recent admissions show, yet again, that simply closing these waste pits in place will do nothing to protect our groundwater, rivers, lakes and streams over the long term,” said SELC senior attorney Chris Bowers.
Georgia Power stated in a December press release that, based on extensive data collected through 500 monitoring wells at various coal ash sites across the state, the company “has identified no risk to public health or drinking water.”
However, a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earth Justice finds that the monitoring wells at Plant Yates show levels of beryllium, boron and cobalt that exceed safe levels in groundwater.
House Bill 93 passed out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee on Thursday.
House Bill 94 will require public notice when solid waste landfills are going to receive coal ash and puts in additional requirements for landfills to receive CCRs and sets up groundwater monitoring plans at the landfills.
It is not expected to pass this year.
The bill needs some changes to bring it in line with current state rules and regulations, according to Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
“A whole lot of work needs to be done,” to HB94, Smith said. There are things being done that have already addressed some of the things the bill addresses, Smith said. Additionally, the bill is trying to take the rules and regulations of the EPD, which are based on state law, and make them state law. “That is not good practice,” Smith said.
At a subcommittee hearing on HB 94, there was lengthy testimony and a lot of questions for the bill’s author, Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, Smith said.
“But he wanted to keep the bill in the form in which he presented it. That’s his call,” she said. “It is not moving in the shape it is in."
A big issue is that the definitions, which are an important part of the bill, don’t line up with state law, according to Smith.
“The premise isn’t bad, with accountability and making sure our environment is safe. Nothing is wrong with that,” Smith said.
Smith said the EPD is spending a lot of time and resources working on the coal ash issues, and Georgia Power and other utility companies are answering to the Georgia Public Service Commission as well as the general assembly.
“So we’ve got safeguards in place,” she said.
EPD regulations require any landfill that wishes to accept CCRs must have an EPD-approved CCR management plan, and must submit annual reports.
Currently, the EPD has approved 2018 CCR management plans at six landfills in the state, including the Turkey Run Municipal Solid Waste Landfill in Meriwether County.
“Sometimes concerns get addressed and you don’t need legislation. Sometimes that can provoke a change,” Smith said.
“Legislation isn’t always the answer. Solving the problem is the answer."