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.

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.

 

Why carbon pollution is a B.F.D.

Over the weekend The New Republic posted an article, “Obama’s New Rules are a B.F.D. The Ensuing Political Fight May Be Even Bigger” about carbon pollution rules (Greenhouse Gas or GHG) the Environmental Protection Agency will release On June 2 next week. These rules will be directed toward existing sources of carbon pollution, the majority of which are coal-fired power plants.

Recognizing and acting on carbon pollution has been a long time coming in the United States. We’re the last car on the train of developed countries acknowledging and acting upon the mounds of scientific and economic data pointing to the damage that has been done, and continues to grow, by unfettered coal fueled carbon pollution.

There’s another story to tell about coal plants, but it isn’t be told often enough, or loudly enough. Why?

Coal plants aren’t found in gated communities, middle class neighborhoods, or private schools campuses. Coal plants aren’t problems for elected officials or businesses unless the issue is air quality or water resources, or until those who bear the weight of coal show up at government or shareholder meetings demanding action. Coal plants are stashed away in communities of color, low income, low education levels, poor health status, and rural America.

Facing South said this about who we are:

  • Number of Americans who live within three miles of a coal-fired power plant, which coal-plants-wastetypically stores toxic coal ash waste in unlined pits that aren’t currently subject to federal oversight: 6 million
  • Their average per capita income: $18,400, average per capita income for U.S. residents overall: $21,587
  • Percent of people living within three miles of a coal plant who are people of color: 39
  • Number of the nation’s 378 coal-fired power plants that received an “F” in a 2012 report because they’re responsible for a disproportionate amount of pollution in low-income and minority communities: 75
  • Average per capita income of the 4 million people who live within three miles of those failing coal plants: $17,500, percent who are people of color: 53
  • Average per-capita income of people living within three miles of Duke Energy’s Dan
    photo from Catawba Riverkeeper
    photo from Catawba Riverkeeper

    Plant near Eden, N.C., where a Feb. 2 coal ash spill has contaminated the waterway  for 80 miles downstream: $15,772

  • Percent of the residents of Danville, Va., a community downstream of the spill that draws its drinking water from the Dan, who are people of color: 53.3
  • Risk of cancer for people living within a mile of unlined coal ash pits: 1 in 50
  • Number of times that exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency considers an acceptable risk: 2,000
  • Number of times more likely it is for someone living near a coal ash pit to develop cancer than someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes per day: 9

Coal plant communities didn’t choose to be the dumping ground for America’s dirtiest energy source.

The renewable energy revolution and putting the brakes on climate change won’t be led by industry and government alone.

We’ve had enough. And we’re making it a B.F.D.

 

 

 

Get some religion on Coal Ash Wednesday

coal ash waste
coal ash waste

North Carolina artist Kathy Clark is calling for the tradition of Ash Wednesday to also be Coal Ash Wednesday. She is encouraging people to reduce their use of electricity as much as possible today as a reminder of the damage coal ash continues to do in the Dan River.

Clark is urging people to use a bare minimum or no electricity from 7:00-7:30 tonight. Whether you observe Lent or not, this is an excellent opportunity to consider how you use electricity (and other fuel) and how you can reduce your consumption. It is time to get some religion about energy use in our country.

Where will the next one happen?

The Charlotte Observer reports that Duke Energy notified the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Sunday afternoon that one of their coal ash ponds at the Dan River Power Station was spilling coal ash waste and toxin contaminated water into the Dan River. The company’s early estimate was that 82,000 TONS of toxic coal ash waste and up to 27 MILLION gallons of water had poured into the river supplying municipal drinking water systems downstream.

photo Catawba Riverkeeper
photo Catawba Riverkeeper

Duke Energy officials waited until 4:03 on Monday afternoon to inform the public.

The Observer quotes power company officials saying on Tuesday that it was “definitely unexpected” that a reinforced concrete pipe would break.

Except Duke Energy didn’t use concrete pipes for two thirds of the length of the pipe where the leak continues to spill into the Dan River. The company thought it had used concrete pipes in the 1960s when they built the coal ash ponds, but now they know that only one-third of the length of the pipe work is concrete.

Ooops.

photo by  Appalachian Voices
photo by Appalachian Voices

Late yesterday Appalachian Voices reported that coal ash has reached the intake point at the Danville water works. Virginia Beach authorities have turned off the pumps at Lake Gaston until the full impact of the spill is determined.

The water problems aren’t over for West Virginians either. The News Observer reports that Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for Kanawha and Putnam counties  urges parents with children ages three and younger, as well as people with weakened immune systems, to avoid drinking the water. Yesterday two schools had to close when students and teachers were overwhelmed with the licorice fumes associated with the coal processing chemical that contaminated water resources last month.

There are plenty of potential coal ash spills waiting to happen. Today’s Washington Post notes that there are 207 plant sites in 37 states where coal ash contamination has violated federal air and water health standards. Georgia could be next.

Georgia is riddled with coal plants and the toxic waste they produce. Even as Georgia Power begins to shutter coal units, the coal ash remains. Middle Georgia’s Plant Branch and Plant Scherer as ranked as Significant for hazards. After the doors are locked at Plant Branch next April, the tons of coal ash and toxic-soaked water will still be there in retention ponds, right there on the banks of Lake Sinclair that feeds the Oconee River.

How can this be? Easy.

IN HARM’S WAY: Lack of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans and Their Environment, a report by the Environmental Integrity Project includes this on coal ash waste regulations and monitoring, “Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia either require no monitoring of their numerous ash ponds or monitoring only after the ponds have been closed, a rare event as most ponds are operated perpetually as ‘storage’ sites. Monitoring data from state files in Georgia were so minimal that no assessment of impacts could be made.”

Power companies in Georgia are allowed to self-monitor their coal waste storage sites. Not the state agency that issued their permits, not river keepers, not municipal agencies. The power companies get to make the waste and monitor the safety of its storage.

We’ve allowed corporations, lobbyists, and legislators to put us at risk for decades and we can’t afford any longer to think “it won’t happen to us”.  The “us” is everyone in the Charleston, West Virginia, Danville, and now Virginia Beach.

And the time to speak up is now.