Toxic Coal Ash Pollutes the Water and Endangers People’s Health

Neil Sardana's photo.

photo from Georgia Coal Ash Communities Facebook Group

All the information in this report comes from Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, a documentary produced by the Georgia chapter of Sierra Club, and Beyond Coal Campaign. 

Decades of burning coal to generate electricity in Georgia have resulted in 92 million tons of toxic coal ash stored in thirteen locations across the state of Georgia. 

Toxic coal ash pollutants are leaking into groundwater from 92 percent of Georgia coal-fired power plants. Eleven of the state’s 12 coal-fired power plants are leaking pollution into the state’s underground water supplies, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.

Some of the most dangerous known toxic chemicals on Earth-like arsenic, lead, mercury, antimony, chromium, cobalt, boron, lithium, molybdenum, cadmium, radium, selenium, sulfate, and more  – are found in coal ash. These chemicals have been found to raise the risk for cancer, heart disease, stroke, neurological damage, multiple other health risks, and can inflict permanent brain damage on children.

These toxic chemicals have been found seeping into groundwater at nearly every coal ash site and can leach into rivers and streams.  This means the lake or river you swim in, the fish you catch and eat, and the water you drink may not be safe. 

CHART SHOWING HARM TO HUMAN HEALTH FROM COAL ASH TOXINS 

A REPORT BY EARTHJUSTICE AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRITY PROJECT ON GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION AT GEORGIA POWER’S COAL ASH PLANTS.

1. PLANT BOWEN is located near Cartersville. The groundwater at Plant Bowen is unsafe with coal ash contaminants of antimony, boron, cobalt, molybdenum, radium, and sulfate.  It is the fourth-largest coal-fired power plant in the United States. There are four coal ash units at Bowen, including one unlined ash pond and three unlined landfill areas.

In 2002 a four-acre sinkhole beneath the 254-acre coal ash pond caused two million pounds of coal ash and 260 pounds of arsenic to enter the Etowah River.

Georgia Power intends to consolidate a 144-acre coal ash pond with a fully-lined disposal facility within the current footprint of the pond.  This will not be safe because the pond is in contact with the underlying groundwater and the ground is unstable.

2. PLANT HARLLEE BRANCH is a retired coal plant located in Milledgeville on Lake Sinclair. There are four ash ponds at Plant Branch. The groundwater is contaminated and seeps into Lake Sinclair. Pollutants at Plant Branch include beryllium in one well and cobalt levels are nearly 50 times the safe drinking water level in multiple wells.

The company plans to excavate all the ash from the ponds on-site and store the 11.5 million tons of coal ash in a new, lined landfill on plant property.  This landfill will be regulated by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

3. PLANT HAMMOND is located in Floyd County, ten miles west of Rome. The groundwater at Hammond is contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, molybdenum, and sulfate. The groundwater has arsenic levels up to 40 times the federal standard, and molybdenum levels more than 10 times the safe level. 

There are three coal ash ponds unlined and one landfill that contains over 600,000 cubic yards of ash. These ash ponds are 150 to 375 feet north of the Coosa River. 

4. PLANT McDONOUGH is located six miles northwest of Atlanta on the Chattahoochee River. Its coal-fired units are retired and currently operate three natural gas units. It operated four unlined ash ponds, including two large high hazard ponds bounded by the Chattahoochee River. 

The groundwater at this site is contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic, beryllium, boron, cobalt, lithium, radium, selenium, and sulfate.  This site has 4.9 million cubic tons of coal ash. Leaving the ash in place at depths of 75 and 120 feet in unlined ash ponds will likely create a permanent source of groundwater contamination from this site.

5. PLANT KRAFT is a retired coal plant at the Port of Savannah. All the coal ash has been removed from this site but despite the removal, two rounds of monitoring data show that the groundwater has unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, radium, and sulfate. 

6. PLANT McINTOSH is located in Effingham County near Rincon along the Savannah River. 

This site has two regulated coal ash units: Ash Pond 1 and Landfill 4. Ash Pond 1 is unsafe for drinking with elevated concentrations of arsenic, boron, cobalt, and lithium. Landfill 4 showed elevated calcium, fluoride, and in one well boron and chloride. If Georgia Power did conduct assessment monitoring at the landfill, it would likely find statistically significant increases (SSIs) for chromium and cobalt in more wells.

7. PLANT McMANUS is located on Crispen Island on the Turtle River near Brunswick. Unknown amounts of coal ash spilled into Georgia’s Golden Isles during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The groundwater is contaminated with coal ash toxins and is unsafe with arsenic concentrations at levels of more than 40 times the maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for arsenic.

McManus has one unlined hazardous coal ash pond undergoing closure.

Georgia Power should clean up the high levels of toxins like arsenic, that have already polluted groundwater at the site.

8. PLANT MITCHELL located near Albany was retired in 2015. Georgia Power has indicated that coal ash will be removed from the ash ponds and disposed of in an off-site landfill.

9. PLANT SCHERER, located on Lake Juliette in Juliette, Georgia.  It is the largest coal-fired power plant in the United States.

It has three regulated coal ash units, including an unlined, high-hazard ash pond which contains more than 30 million cubic tons of ash and wastewater.  The groundwater is unsafe with cobalt and boron concentrations in wells. 

Georgia Power plans to close the 553-acre ash pond by leaving the 63 feet deep ash pond in place. The coal ash is in contact with underlying groundwater so toxic contaminants will continue to leak indefinitely into the groundwater and likely flow into the nearby Lake Juliette or to wells. 

The plant also operates a large ash landfill with two units. Monitoring at the landfill found multiple SSIs for boron, calcium, chloride, sulfate but Georgia Power did not initiate the monitoring.  If it did assessment monitoring, the company would likely find cobalt and other contaminants. 

10.PLANT WANSLEY is located near Carrollton along the Chattahoochee River. It has two regulated coal ash units. A large unlined ash pond and a landfill complex consisting of three cells. 

The groundwater is unsafe to drink with unsafe levels of cobalt that’s 10 to 20 times higher than the EPA  Regional Screening Level for cobalt. Wells around the ash pons show elevated boron, calcium, chloride, fluoride, sulfate, and TDS.

The coal ash is in contact with underlying groundwater, so toxic contaminants will continue to leak indefinitely and will likely flow offsite into the Chattahoochee River and well.

Detection monitoring SSIs around the landfill finds boron, elevated cobalt, chloride, and fluoride in wells. 

12.PLANT YATES is located near Newnan on the Chattahoochee River. It has six unlined coal ash ponds and one or more coal ash landfills. 

Coal ash from one or more of these sources has contaminated the groundwater with unsafe levels of beryllium, boron cobalt, and sulfate. The coal ash is in contact with underlying groundwater, so toxic contaminants will continue to leak indefinitely into the groundwater and likely flow offsite into the Chattahoochee River or to wells. Georgia Power plans to close three of the six as ponds by leaving the ash in place.

The landfill is subject to the federal coal ash rule but Georgia Power has not complied with multiple federal requirements applicable to the landfill.

13. PLANT CRISP is located near Warwick and it is owned by the Crisp County Power Commission. (CCPC). It is the only power plant in Georgia with a coal ash disposal unit that is not owned and operated by Georgia Power. 

There is an unlined ash pond near Lake Blackshear and the Flint River.  The site should be in assessment monitoring because it appears the ash pond is leaking into the groundwater. CCPC plans to close its ash pond and remove the ash and dispose of it off-site.

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE 

It is mainly People of Color and low-income people that populate areas around coal plants.  The pollution from coal ash ponds disproportionately impacts these communities but as the pollution spreads via water, it threatens to harm the quality of life for all Georgians who value clean water, rivers, lakes, and their own health.

HOW TO PROTECT OUR WATER FROM COAL ASH

Georgia Power plans to leave half of these sites or over 50 million tons of coal ash in place and stored in unlined pits with no barrier to protect groundwater from leaking toxic metals. This is a problem because coal ash ponds are all located next to a body of water and you don’t have to dig very deep to hit the water.

Georgia Power’s own data shows that groundwater is moving through the areas where the ash is being consolidated. To leave 50 million tons of coal ash in place in unlined pits will harm Georgia’s water resources as coal ash contaminants continue to seep into the water and endanger the state’s aquatic ecosystems and potentially the health of its residents.

These unlined ash ponds are time bombs and the only safe solution is to excavate the coal ash and move it away from water sources. Georgia Power says it is too expensive to excavate because they are prioritizing their bottom line versus clean water and people’s health. But you can’t put a price on clean water and people’s health.

The only way to protect the water and communities is to excavate and move coal ash to dry-lined storage away from waterways. Currently, there are no plans by the polluter, Georgia Power, or the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to require such removal. 

COST OF CLEAN UP OF COAL ASH PONDS

Georgia Power created this toxic mess and they should fix the problem without sacrificing the safety of our water and people’s health.

Georgia Power and its shareholders must pay their fair share for the safest possible clean-up which is excavation and moving the coal ash away from water. The estimated coal ash clean-up cost is $8 billion dollars and Georgia Power expects its customers to pay $525 million of that cost.

Georgia Power expects to get permits from the EPD over 2021 & 2022 to say yes it is ok to leave 6 million tons of coal ash in Cobb County, and 15 million tons at Plant Wansley forever.  Also, millions of more tons of coal ash in unlined ponds to be “capped in place” to continue to slowly leak into the groundwater forever.

Georgia Power will probably get those permits because they are a monopoly with massive political influence.

However, the one action that can stop this from happening is for public comment to the EPD to demand that Georgia Power stop keeping coal ash in unsafe unlined pits next to the water. 

If Georgia Power takes the cheap route by leaving over 50 million tons of coal ash in place, the future cost of clean-up will be much higher. Georgia citizens deserve better and want responsible handling of coal ash not just “cap in place” in unlined pits, so it does not show from the surface while continuing to leak into groundwater.

WHAT YOU CAN DO 

Get involved and click on on https://www.georgiacoalash.org/ and sign up on the take action page to get alerts on how you can help. 

One thought on “Toxic Coal Ash Pollutes the Water and Endangers People’s Health

  1. Thanks for doing one on this issue, Gloria. It’s easily ignored or hidden. Right on, sister! ??

    Lorraine Fontana

    410 Candler Park Drive, NE, Apt. C-5

    Atlanta, GA 30307

    (678) 595-6188

    Pronouns: She/Her

    I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.

    —Toni Morrison

    ________________________________

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