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Group takes aim at Georgia Power's 'cap-in-place' coal ash closure plans


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Group takes aim at Georgia Power's 'cap-in-place' coal ash closure plans

An environmental group plans to use an upcoming public hearing to highlight alleged flaws in Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power Co.'s proposal to leave industrial waste in place at nine unlined coal ash ponds in Georgia.

The hearing, set for Aug. 6 in Atlanta, centers on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal in June to approve Georgia's coal ash permitting program. But the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, plans to submit lengthy testimony at the hearing that challenges the technical analysis underpinning Georgia Power's proposal to cap in place nearly 50 million tons of coal ash at five power plants, instead of fully excavating the material.

"These waste sites were originally selected for the convenience of the company, not for suitability for permanent waste disposal as a result, they are in some of the least suitable locations imaginable: flood zones, state-designated 'most significant groundwater recharge areas,' and populated areas," the group asserted in the testimony, which was released Aug. 5. Regulators should reject Georgia Power's permit applications because the plans would violate state and federal solid waste handling laws, the SELC says.

The sites at issue are governed by the EPA's 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals, or CCR, rule, which established the first minimum national standards for the safe handling and storage of coal ash.

Legislation the U.S. Congress passed in 2016 allowed states to form their own CCR programs as long as they are at least as protective as the federal rule. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources adopted its state rule that same year, largely incorporating the federal CCR rule's provisions. In November 2018, Georgia Power submitted solid waste permit applications to the state, proposing to cap in place nine coal ash storage sites at its Scherer, Wansley, Yates, Jack McDonough, and Hammond coal-fired plants. A month later, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report based on the utility's compliance filings that showed that all but one of Georgia Power's coal-fired power plants were contaminating groundwater at unsafe levels.

Company finds no risk

While the EPA has proposed approving Georgia's coal ash management program, state regulators have yet to act on Georgia Power's permit applications for the nine storage sites.

A Georgia Power spokesperson said the company is still reviewing the SELC's testimony and stands behind testing data from approximately 500 groundwater monitoring wells. "Based on the extensive data collected, the company has identified no risk to public health or drinking water," spokeswoman Holly Crawford said.

The SELC's testimony disputes that claim, noting that all of Georgia Power's proposed "close-in-place" impoundments at the five generating facilities are unlined. The utility's closure plans call for leaving coal ash submerged in groundwater adjacent to nearby waterways at depths of up to more than 85 feet, according to a technical analysis conducted by Mark Hutson, a leading coal ash remediation consultant hired by the group.

In addition, the SELC called Georgia Power's proposed closure plan at its McDonough plant "reminiscent" of a coal ash disposal configuration at Duke Energy Corp.'s retired Dan River plant in North Carolina. In 2014, a break in a 48-inch stormwater pipe running beneath an ash pond there caused one of the worst coal ash spills in U.S. history.

SELC Senior Attorney Chris Bowers said Aug. 5 that the group has other concerns with the state's proposed coal ash plan, noting that the program does not allow members of the public to request a hearing concerning draft CCR permits.