Report: Toxic Coal Ash Is Submerged In Groundwater

Aug 5, 2019

A report from leading environmental advocates in Georgia describes how the toxins left over from burning coal for power are being stored by Georgia Power in direct contact with groundwater.  


The report from the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, The Altamaha Riverkeeper and the Coosa River Basin Initiative, and based on analysis of Georgia Power data, came one day before the only chance for Georgians to tell the federal Environmental Protection Agency what they think about plans to handle the management of those toxins, called coal ash, to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.   




Coal ash is the heavy metal laden material left over at coal fired power plants like the ones managed by Georgia Power. The utility announced in 2015 they would close their coal ash ponds. Late last year, Georgia Power shared technical information as a part of their applications for approval of their plans to continue storing some coal ash in ponds left without water proof linings as a part of closing them.   


The SELC report is an analysis of that data. It shows that some coal ash ponds in Georgia leave the toxins immersed in groundwater, in one case to a depth of 85 feet.   


That has implications for the water people drink in some cases, as near Plant Scherer in Monroe County. For years, Georgia Power has quietly bought up, padlocked or demolished homes with wells dug into the aquifer adjacent to the coal ash pond at their Plant Scherer facility.  


PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Almost All Of Georgia's Coal Ash Ponds Are Leaking Toxins


In an emailed response to the report, representatives from Georgia Power said that their monitoring of groundwater quality has shown "no risk to public health or drinking water."


If the EPA goes forward with handing coal ash oversight to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, it would mean the material would go from being regulated under the Clean Water Act to falling under Georgia’s solid waste management laws. Attorney Chris Bowers of the Southern Environmental Law Center said that would change how often Georgia Power would have to get approval for their coal ash storage.   


 “In the Clean Water Act context they'd actually be renewed and put up for public notice and comment every five years,” Bowers said. Meanwhile, the permits under state enforcement would not come up for renewal.   


“These permits once issued they'll be issued for the life of the site,” Bowers said.  

MORE: Cleaning Up Georgia's Coal Ash Ponds


What’s more, a loophole in Georgia’s solid waste laws would mean no public hearings would have to be held during the permitting process. Public commentary would still be taken in writing.

A slurry of mud and coal ash flowing into the coal ash pond near Georgia Power's Plant Scherer.
Credit Grant Blankenship / GPB

April Lipscomb, another attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said since each permit would be unique and not falling under a single state regulation, the permits would be hard to challenge.   


“They could also be used as a defense,” Lipscomb said. “'We have a valid permit in place.' So, you can't say that we're violating any laws.” 


The public hearing on the proposed change in coal ash management is Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the GA EPD Tradeport Training Room, 4244 International Parkway, Suite 116, Atlanta, GA 30354. Those who would like to speak during the hearing are invited to register with the EPA to do so. 


Written comment will be taken until Aug. 27.


The Southern Environmental Law Center is an underwriter of GPB.