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New state coal ash bill could complicate Georgia Power's plans

SNL Image

Georgia Power's Scherer coal-fired plant in 2017.
Source: AP Photo

Democratic Georgia lawmakers are proposing more stringent requirements for cleaning up coal ash that could exert greater pressure on Georgia Power Co. and the state to aggressively tackle ash disposal.

Rep. Robert Trammell, the Georgia General Assembly's House minority leader, and five other representatives filed House Bill 756 on Jan. 13. The legislation mandates that coal combustion residuals, or CCR, would need to "be disposed of in solid waste facilities that, at a minimum, contain liners and leachate collection systems that meet or exceed the design standards for new municipal solid waste landfills disposing of household garbage."

If a CCR disposal facility does not meet those standards, the party behind the facility would not receive a permit. That provision would not apply to CCR surface impoundments that either have or will have its coal ash removed.

While H.B. 756 faces a long road becoming law, it could present some challenges to how Georgia and its utilities handles coal ash disposal. Georgia Power, a Southern Co. subsidiary, is in the middle of excavating 19 ash ponds. However, it plans to close 10 ponds in place without liners, which could potentially conflict with H.B. 756 if it is enacted.

Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft said the utility is aware of the bill and will review it.

"Georgia Power's ash pond closure plans fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, as well as the more stringent requirements of Georgia's state CCR rule," Kraft said in an email. "The company will continue to be in full compliance with all rules and regulations at both the state and federal level."

The legislation comes shortly after utility regulators in December 2019 approved a three-year alternative rate plan that lets the utility collect an additional $909 million starting Jan. 1, 2020, with $557 million of that increase going toward complying with federal and state regulations for CCR asset retirement obligations. Environmental groups and activists criticized Georgia Power's intent to use rates to cover coal ash-related costs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also approved the state's coal ash permitting program last month, as the federal agency looks to give states and electric utilities more control over regulating coal ash ponds.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, an environmental grassroots organization that advocated for H.B. 756, said in a phone interview that the legislation would also "retroactively apply these standards" to legacy ash ponds at five Georgia Power plants: Hammond, Scherer, Wansley, McDonough and Yates.

"Georgia HB 756 is much needed as Georgia Power plans to leave over 46 million tons of coal ash with no liner at five Georgia facilities," Mark Woodall, the legislative chair for the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, said in an email. "This plan of Georgia Power is known as 'cap and run' or 'pollute in place' as it would leave the coal ash in contact with groundwater."