Georgia Recorder-coal ash clean up, aisle seven

Georgia Recorder, February 11, 2020

Because coal ash and its toxins are forever, the work to protect the health of communities, water and air, natural resources, and recreational places, is never done. The Georgia Recorder has an op/ed I wrote about the challenges we face in Georgia concerning coal ash waste clean up and storage. Spoiler alert- ratepayers shouldn’t have to pay for it.

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.

 

The rules of the game are changing

The Friday Photo
August 8, 2014 20140808-074453-27893384.jpg This looks like a lot meetings do, with PowerPoint presentations and charts that are hard to read from the back of the room. It was the first public meeting held by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to discuss how Georgia will meet the EPA’s carbon pollution rule. Georgia’s Plant Scherer is the biggest carbon spewing coal plant in the country, so the task ahead of the state’s regulatory agency is steep. They didn’t seem very enthusiastic.

For those of us who have spent years advocating for reducing carbon pollution, yesterday was no ordinary meeting. The rules of the game are changing, literally.

When the unthinkable happens, who will step up?

Plant Bowen after an explosion closed the facility April 4, 2013. photo by Corey Thomas
Plant Bowen after an explosion closed the facility April 4, 2013. photo by Corey Thomas

There is no hiding behind the fact that the explosion at coal-fired Plant Bowen yesterday could happen at any of the power plants in Washington County. Accidents happen.

Plant Washington developer Dean Alford has never actually built a coal plant. Should we be checking his firefighting credentials too? How about the firefighting credentials of local business owners who are banking on tidy profits associated with the plant? How many elected leaders will suit up in fire gear? Will Washington EMC Board Members and Senior Management race in to help?

The EPD told citizens  that plant operators would be required to handle a fire or accident should there be one at Plant Washington. We can’t get them to show up for a fish kill, so my confidence in assurances about public safety are zero.

Local volunteer firefighters have told me there is no way we have adequate fire fighting capacity to fight fires at the two natural gas peaker plants here or a coal-fired plant. They also told me they won’t suit up because a fire at any of these plants would be more than our local folks could handle.

Just how far are local leaders willing to go at the expense of our health and safety? And if they wouldn’t risk their lives, or those of their families, to protect Plant Washington, how can they expect anyone else to do the same?

Senators Chambliss and Isakson: Let me introduce you to my family

Dear Senators Chambliss and Isakson,

I have had the pleasure of meeting both of you when you have met with constituents in Sandersville. I haven’t had the opportunity to bring any of my family with me so I hope you will allow me to tell you a little bit about them.

My husband and I moved back to his home county 25 years ago because we wanted to live in a rural community and be near family. We raised two daughters outside tiny Warthen,  in an old farm house we restored with considerable sweat equity. We are fortunate to have two incredibly energetic grandchildren Ella, 5 1/2 years old, and Chase, 4 1/2 years old, who live nearby.

Ella making pottery, Spring 2012
Chase helping his dad at a volunteer firefighters equipment repair work day

Now that you have met my two grandchildren, I hope you will consider my concerns on behalf of Ella and Chase, the five grandchildren you have Senator Chambliss, and your nine grandchildren Senator Isakson.

The other day both of you voted to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to enforce the Mercury and Air Toxins Rule, known as MATS. These emission standards weren’t the result of fly-by-night or stealth regulatory work by the EPA. Instead, they were announced in 1990 as additions to the Clean Air Act.

Twenty two years is a long time for citizens to wait on cleaner air and the cleaner water which results from less pollution in the air. It was long enough for me to give birth to my younger daughter and raise her to the age of 22. Her entire lifetime has been spent breathing air that could have been cleaner a long time ago.

Mary Michael, Georgia Southern, May 2012

 I just can’t figure out why, after all the medical, scientific, and financial research done by numerous respected institutions and individuals which shows just how harmful mercury and heavy metals emissions are to fetuses, growing children, and anyone with asthma or cardiopulmonary disease, that anyone would agree it should go on any longer. Or the research that demonstrates that the tougher standards would actually create approximately 8,000 permanent jobs and up to 45,000 temporary ones.

Yet both of you chose to stand up and say with your votes, “Yes, I support the continuation of dirty air and water for American citizens, including my grandchildren.”

I did a little research so that I might understand why you voted as you did.  The Southern Company’s Georgia Power, which owns and operates Plant Scherer near Juliette, and emits the most carbon pollution in the country, was the second largest donor with a total of $102,650 in the 2011-2012 election cycle, to your campaign committee Senator Chambliss (that ought to be helpful if you run for re-election in  2014).

Senator Isakson
, the Southern Company was third on your donor list with $28,050 to your campaign in the 2011-2012 election cycle (on the heels of the $38, 350 donation for your re-election in 2010).

Where you trying to help your donors who are burning an awful lot of coal with your vote opposing tougher mercury rules?

Or maybe that vote would help clients using the law firm King and Spalding (K&S). Those attorneys represent a group called Power4Georgians that wants to build a coal fired power plant in Washington County. Senator Chambliss, K&S helped your campaign with $58,000 in donations, putting them at a respectable sixth on your list. Senator Isakson, they didn’t ignore you either. K&S is eighth on your donor list with $31,250.

It goes to figure that some local folks in Washington County would support your respective campaigns. I found out some of the neighbors at my farm have done exactly that. Ben Tarbutton (no middle initial or other identifier) has donated $3,000 so far to the Chambliss campaign in the 2010-2012 cycle. Several Tarbuttons have donated $9,300 to the Isakson campaign since 2009. Those family members include Ben Jr., Benji, Charles, Betsy, Gena, and Hugh.

It’s no secret since Plant Washington was announced over four years ago that the Tarbuttons have been vigorous supporters of Plant Washington. It’s also public knowledge that Charles Tarbutton, who personally donated $1,000 to the Isakson campaign in 2009, is a member of the Georgia Power Board of Directors.

There are 10 directors on the Georgia Power Board. There are seven members of the Tarbutton family who have donated to your respective campaigns since 2009. If we consider corporations to be people (per the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling), then the number of interested parties in these two groups plummets from 17 to 8. A single digit.

Almost 24 percent of the 21,187 people living in Washington County are under the age of 18. In the state of Georgia, there are over 2,500,000 children under the age of 18. The math should work out in favor of the children and votes in favor of upholding the MATS rule.

My grandchildren are among those 2.5M children who deserve cleaner air to breathe. Your grandchildren deserve the same, in whatever state they live in. My children deserved cleaner air when they were growing up. Yours did too.

So please tell me, when does the health of the children come first ahead of the money and influence of donors?