Reports say Georgia Power coal ash pits slated for cap in place submerged in groundwater

Mounds of coal can be seen outside of Plant Mitchell in southwest Georgia in 2016. Officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center say new evidence confirms that Georgia Power’s unlined coal ash pits proposed to be capped in place are submerged in groundwater.

ATLANTA — Officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center say new evidence confirms that Georgia Power’s unlined coal ash pits proposed to be capped in place are submerged in groundwater and that the utility seeks to close its ash ponds by using Georgia’s groundwater as a permanent waste dumping ground. 

On behalf of Altamaha Riverkeeper, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Coosa River Basin Initiative, the SELC has submitted site-specific expert reports and a summary letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division detailing what they say are flaws in Georgia Power’s closure plans for nearly 50 million tons of ash at Plants Scherer, Wansley, Yates, McDonough and Hammond.

“Georgia Power’s plans to fill and cap coal ash ponds where they already sit submerged in Georgia’s groundwater and that are within some of the most important watersheds in the state are beyond reckless,” Jen Hilburn of Altamaha Riverkeeper said. “Georgia EPD allowing the utility to continue with these plans would be an unprecedented giveaway of Georgia’s natural resources to a single industry and in violation of the law.”

Citing Georgia Power’s publicly-available engineering plans, expert analysis of the hydrology of the sites, flood maps and other data, the SELC said reports show that all nine of Georgia Power’s ponds slated for cap in place are sitting in up to 97 feet of groundwater, and that the proposed closure plans will perpetuate pollution, rather than safeguard Georgia’s groundwater and surface waters.

Officials said the reports also indicate a failure to disclose necessary information concerning the extent of contamination that these waste dumps are causing.

Georgia Power submitted much of this evidence relatively recently to EPD in an attempt to obtain permits for closing the waste pits under the state Coal Combustion Residuals rule adopted in Georgia in 2016. The coal ash ponds at five sites spanning from middle to northeastern Georgia are located in populated areas, flood zones and state-designated “most significant ground-water recharge areas” that would ban unlined household garbage landfills in the same locations.

Evidence in the reports, the SELC said, disproves Georgia Power’s assertions that the “advanced engineering” techniques used for the proposed closure of these ponds will be protective of groundwater, public health and safety.

“The public relations terminology we’ve heard from Georgia Power for years concerning the effectiveness of these closure plans are now soundly disproven by the evidence,” Chris Bowers, senior attorney for SELC, said. “In reality, the utility’s plans to co-opt Georgia’s groundwater as a permanent dumping ground for its coal ash waste are plainly unlawful, and we hope that EPD agrees.”

In delivering the letter and the accompanying reports to EPD, the groups are urging that the agency deny Georgia Power’s permits to leave coal ash in place at its remaining five plants because Georgia Power’s closure plans are unlawful under both Georgia and federal solid waste laws.

“Georgia Power has already shown that excavation and removal is appropriate and feasible, including a recent decision to excavate additional sites that are substantially larger than any of these ponds in question,” Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director and riverkeeper for the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said. “As other Southeastern utilities have committed to handling this waste responsibly, it’s past time for Georgia Power to extend its commitment and remove all of its coal ash to modern, lined and permitted landfills away from Georgia’s waters.”

Jason Ulseth, riverkeeper for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, also remarked on the matter.

“When it comes to responsibly disposing of the remainder of Georgia’s coal ash, EPD is facing a monumental decision impacting millions of Georgians, now and for decades to come,” Ulseth said. “We strongly urge EPD to ensure that Georgia Power complies with federal and state law. The only way to do that is to fully remove all coal ash from the groundwater so that it is not allowed to further pollute the environment.”