ATLANTA — Environmentalists are questioning Georgia Power’s plan to close ash ponds next to coal-fired power plants.
Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, based in Atlanta, cited a recent decision by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denying an Ohio utility company’s request to keep coal ash in a closed pond in contact with groundwater.
As part of its plan to close ash ponds, Georgia Power is proposing to allow coal ash at its Scherer, McDonough, Yates and Hammond plants to contact groundwater.
“When cleanup plans that don’t require liners to keep coal ash out of groundwater fail and groundwater tests continue to show contamination, or when the EPA requires a cleanup that keeps coal ash out of groundwater like they did in Ohio, taxpayers will be asked contribute more money?” Gayer questioned members of the state Public Service Commission (PSC) on November 30 during a hearing on Georgia Power’s request for a nearly 12 percent pay rise. “At the very least, don’t commit funds to clean-ups that aren’t allowed.”
Georgia Power’s proposal to reclaim $400 million from taxpayers over the next three years to clean up cinder ponds is part of a $9 billion multi-year plan. The utility intends to close all 29 of its ash ponds at 11 coal-fired power plants across the state as it reduces its reliance on coal to generate electricity due to tighter state regulations and market conditions.
Coal ash contains impurities such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute ground water, drinking water and the air.
While Georgia Power plans to dig and remove ash from 19 ponds and close the other 10 ponds in place, environmental groups are calling for the ash to be removed from all 29 ponds.
The EPA gave environmentalists’ cause new ammunition last month when the federal agency denied a request by Gavin Power LLC to continue disposing of coal ash in an unlined ash pond at its Cheshire, Ohio facility.
“For too long, improper coal ash disposal has burdened communities already disproportionately affected by pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Nov. 18.
“Today’s action affirms that surface reservoirs or landfills cannot be shut down with coal ash in contact with groundwater to ensure safe water resources for these communities while protecting public health and ensuring reliable electricity supplies.”
The EPA’s decision in the Ohio case followed an announcement by the agency in January that it intended to enforce a 2015 rule prohibiting utility companies from disposing of coal ash from coal-fired power plants into unlined ponds.
Isabella Ariza, an attorney for the Sierra Club, drew attention to the Ohio case when she questioned a panel of Georgia Power executives on Nov. 29, the first of two days of hearings before the PSC.
Ariza said the utility’s customers would suffer if Georgia Power proceeded with its recovery plan without considering the Ohio EPA’s decision.
“The EPA has stated that leaving coal ash in groundwater does not comply with federal regulations,” she said. “Taxpayers will continue to pay for the closure of ash ponds that continue to leave ash in groundwater.”
But Aaron Abramovitz, Georgia Power’s chief financial officer, said the Ohio case changes nothing for Georgia Power.
“I think that was a special case in Ohio,” Abramovitz told Ariza. “I don’t think that was… for a broader interpretation.”
“Our plans to close cinder ponds are consistent with and consistent with federal and state rules and regulations,” added Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft.
Kraft said Georgia Power will continue to review the EPA’s January statement.
“While [that] review in progress [Georgia Power] will continue to work with Georgia [Environmental Protection Division] to ensure our closure plans comply with these rules,” he said.
The PSC is scheduled to vote on Georgia Power’s three-year rate hike proposal on December 20.
This story is available through a news partnership with the Capitol Beat News Service, a Georgia Press Educational Foundation project.