Rural Georgians deserve safe drinking water too

Have you ever sat down to a home-cooked meal and heard the cook say, “You may not be able to taste it, but the pasta was cooked in water that may very well be contaminated with a plethora of cancer-causing toxins. Enjoy!” For Georgians who live near a coal plant in Georgia and rely on a well for every drop of water their family uses, there’s a chance that every morsel which came in contact with water from their faucet has been exposed to those contaminants.

Families who rely on a well don’t have other options. In Georgia, 1.5 Million households serve as their own public works department for clean water in their faucets and a properly maintained septic tank field. If the pump breaks or the well goes dry, the expenses are theirs, not the city or county. Counting on a well is a fine art, making families and farmers excellent water conservationists.

coal ash waste

What families across rural Georgia do not control is the contamination of their water source from coal ash waste. The landfill where their household garbage is piled up must have a liner that prevents seepage of any waste into groundwater aquifers, nearby streams, and rivers. Those same families are not afforded anything close to that same protection when it comes to coal ash waste.

Georgia’s Democrats in the General Assembly, led by Rep. Robert Trammell of rural Meriwether County, and joined his rural neighbor Rep. Debbie Buckner in Talbot County, and four metro Atlanta legislators, are working together to help protect families and farmers relying on wells for their water. The wide-lens view of HB756 adds a significant measure of protection to municipalities drawing water from rivers and aquifers at risk for coal ash waste contamination.

In short, this bill will serve to better protect all of us from serious health problems resulting from exposure to mercury, lead, arsenic, and a laundry list of other life-threatening toxins that are the end waste of burning coal. This legislation will put an end to Georgia Power’s proposal to leave approximately 50 Million tons of their coal ash waste submerged as deep as 80 feet in groundwater at Plants Hammond, Scherer, Wansley, Yates, and McDonough. Allowing the waste to remain there in unlined disposal pits and ponds will permanently convert Georgia’s water resources into toxic dumping sites benefitting only the company’s shareholders.

Putting coal ash waste in lined landfills, a much safer and secure option for coal ash waste storage, is what Duke Energy in North Carolina is pursuing, as are all utilities in South Carolina. Virginia lawmakers passed a law last year requiring lined disposal of Dominion Energy’s coal as as well. To date, Georgia Power has easily secured the weakest possible standards for storing and monitoring coal ash waste, and expects ratepayers to foot the bill for anything more stringent. As recent news reports confirm, the way coal ash waste has been regulated in our state has been at the detriment of our citizens.

HB756 goes a long way towards putting the health of our water, air, wildlife, and communities, ahead, at last, of Georgia Power’s bottom line. Shareholders have profited mightily from lax oversight of the company’s waste for decades, and long past the time when they should have known better than to simply dump this waste in unlined holes in the ground. It should be their responsibility to clean up the messes they have made across our state, while being held to the highest standards for ensuring that our water and air are not threatened by the toxic residue their plants produce.

Still waiting on a call from the EPD (but Georgia Power has been on the phone)

Yesterday (Wednesday, January 6) The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) asked if they could repost R&P’s post from Tuesday, January 5th about Georgia Power pumping water from their Plant Branch coal ash ponds into Lake Sinclair over the weekend.

They reposted, and Georgia Power picked up the phone and set up a conference call with SACE and Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper who discovered the pumping last weekend.

SACE has added this to their reposting of my original blog:
Subsequent to our posting of this article, Georgia Power contacted us to clarify that emergency overflow pumping was taking place as part of their emergency response plans, consistent with the facility’s permit, due to unusually high rainfall. The overflow is designed to prevent water over-topping the dyke and damaging it through erosion. While overflow water comes from the surface of the pond and has less exposure to toxic ash, which settles to the bottom, we remain concerned about the risks of wet ash storage demonstrated by this episode. Georgia Power aims to publish closure plans for all its ash ponds in Spring 2016 and we look forward to reviewing those plans to ensure they keep ash in lined facilities away from waterways.

Like SACE and the Altamaha Riverkeeper, I am very concerned about both the storage of wet coal ash so close to Lake Sinclair, and the pumping of  water from their ponds into Lake Sinclair.

Georgia Power should have been proactive in sharing information with the public about their actions. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) should have been on site in the “emergency” situation Georgia Power is claiming (The record rains weren’t a surprise, and the proximity to Lake Sinclair isn’t new at Plant Branch either).

But that’s not all of it.

Georgia Power and the EPD told Hilburn they were testing the water.

Jen Hilburn on Lake Sinclair at Plant Branch
Jen Hilburn on Lake Sinclair at Plant Branch

But Georgia Power and the EPD don’t test for heavy metals and toxins found in coal ash waste. They test for oil and grease, pH, and sediment/particulate concentration.

If you don’t test for coal ash toxins, then you surely won’t find them.

Hilburn was told by Georgia Power that it will continue pumping water from their coal ash ponds into Lake Sinclair.

And the EPD?

As of 6:30 this evening, the Altamaha Riverkeeper says she is still waiting for phone messages to be returned from her weekend calls about Lake Sinclair and Plant Branch.

Georgia Power doesn’t seem interested in calling me, and that’s ok, but apparently they have read Rural and Progressive.

 

 

What was Georgia Power doing at Plant Branch on New Year’s weekend?

Georgia’s coal ash monitoring laws are awfully easy on power companies. The companies get to monitor their heaping piles of coal ash waste piles and ponds themselves.

Thank goodness the Altamaha Riverkeeper (aided by Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper) checked up on the coal ash ponds at Plant Blanch, which abut Lake Sinclair, last weekend.

There was a lot of activity there on Saturday, with large trucks in and out at the ponds and generators buzzing due to the tremendous amount of rain recently.

What was flowing into the lake just didn’t look like normal runoff, so Jen Hilburn, Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK),  put in a call to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Hilburn said in a press release, “I am deeply concerned about what sounds like pumping of water into Lake Sinclair.  If this is coming directly from the coal ash ponds into the lake, it could pose a threat to our community on the lake as well as many others who utilize its waters. Georgia Power appears to be delibrately dumping coal ash waste directly into the lake. I am surprised that no-one I spoke with on Lake Sinclair had been notified in anyway by Georgia Power of their activities”

coal ash spill at Kingston, TN, photo from New York Times
coal ash spill at Kingston, TN, photo from New York Times

Coal ash ponds are notorious for leaking, or worse, collapsing, as they did in Kingston, TN on December 22, 2008. That community was flooded with 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry from a TVA coal plant. Coal ash waste also contaminated the Dan River on the Virginia-North Carolina state line in 2014 as a result of nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act by Duke Energy. 

How risky are the coal ash ponds at Plant Branch?

Since 2010 Plant Branch’s coal ash ponds have been considered “High Hazard” for contamination or failure by the Environmental Protection Agency. Did Georgia Power try to avert a pond breach or overflow by  pumping the coal ash waste into Lake Sinclair? I’m anxious to learn what the EPD says in their findings.

While ARK, and concerned citizens, wait to hear back from the EPD, the Riverkeeper is advising that no fish be consumed from Lake Sinclair until more is known about the safety of the water.

What can Georgians do in the meantime?

Our General Assembly convenes next week. Ask your state legislators NOW to require stricter monitoring of the coal ash waste landfills and ponds that pepper our state. Even though wind and solar are becoming a larger part of our fuel resources, the heavy metals and toxins in coal ash waste are forever. As last weekend demonstrates, shuttering a coal plant like Plant Branch doesn’t solve the problem of safely storing the contaminated waste it has left behind.

Allowing Georgia Power and other coal burning companies in our state to self-monitor their toxic waste isn’t working. The Georgia General Assembly can do something about that beginning next week.