Environmentalists question Georgia Power coal ash closure plans
The closure of coal ash ponds was brought back to the forefront across the Southeast in the wake of recent flooding in North Carolina.
Flooding of the Neuse River near Goldsboro, North Carolina, is believed to have been responsible for a coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee steam plant.
Amelia Shenstone, of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the spill “is yet another tragic example of why coal ash must be excavated from pits near waterways.”
Coal-fired electrical plants, like Plant Hammond in Coosa, use the ponds to store ash from burned coal used to create electricity.
The Waterkeeper Alliance in North Carolina claims that fly ash was found in tree branches as high as 7 feet above the river surface.
This week the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta renewed concerns related to Georgia Power’s plan to close all 29 of their coal ash ponds, including Plant Bowen near Euharlee and Plant Hammond.
Georgia Power is expected to submit a final plan for the closure of its coal ash ponds to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday.
While Georgia Power uses the term “impermeable” as it relates to capping and closing the ponds, SELC senior attorney Chris Bowers said his group has questions.
“Do they have assurances that the soil is impermeable? What is the risk of flooding to infiltrate these sites with water?” Bowers asked Wednesday. “If water comes in and fills ponds then it’s going to carry these pollutants out with it.”
Bowers said the SELC would like to know exactly where the impermeable barriers would be located in relation to the pond.
“Is it going to be a lateral barrier, basically placing a wall around the pond, or do they really mean an impermeable barrier that will seal off the bottom of the pond?” Bowers asked.
Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power, said the cover of the ponds will be more than a cap.
“These will be subsurface, designed specific to each of the ponds where we install these methods,” Mitchell said. “They will be designed to isolate these ponds from groundwater. No two will be alike.”
Mitchell said he is comfortable that the one pond that will be left and capped at Plant Hammond, which sits near the Coosa River, will be safe from flooding.
“It will be part of the permitting process as would any solid-waste facility that Georgia EPD requires,” Mitchell said.
Bowers said a better solution is to remove the coal ash and take it to an off-site dry-lined storage area.
Mitchell said three other ash ponds at Plant Hammond will be emptied and the contents would be taken to the disposal facility on Huffaker Road or another appropriately permitted disposal facility.
Bowers pointed to comments Mitchell made in a recent interview with the Rome News-Tribune regarding the movements of tons of soil to further stabilize the large ash pond on the west side of Ga. 100 at the plant.
“That’s emblematic of the inherent risk of having this stuff located where it is. You’re always going to be subject to the forces of nature — flooding, hurricanes,” Bowers said.
The ash pond that will be capped instead of emptied sits east of Pisgah Baptist Church.
“It’s dry and away from the river so I feel comfortable with the plan,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said Georgia Power has operated facilities along the coast of Georgia for decades, and the same kind of planning to prevent coal ash disasters from hurricanes and coastal flooding has been used at operating facilities all over the state.
Bowers also questioned the theory Georgia Power has posed related to the discovery of high levels of arsenic in one of the groundwater monitoring wells.
The utility has indicated it could be related to long-term use of an arsenic-laced herbicide years ago.
Bowers said the utility hasn’t revealed the depth of the well that detected the arsenic.
“If it were a shallow well that may weigh in favor of the theory,” Bowers said. “If it were a deeper well that may be a different story.”
Mitchell said the lone well that detected arsenic at Plant Hammond was approximately 37-feet deep.
“That was one well, and 32 others that were sampled all met state standards,” Mitchell said. “We did additional testing around that one well and found that it was very isolated.”
He said that supports his theory that the contamination is linked to herbicide use at that substation.
Mitchell said he doesn’t know if an herbicide was used in other areas around the plant and that is what they are trying to determine.