A new report published Dec. 13 by environmental groups shows that 11 out of 12 of Georgia's coal-fired power plants have contaminated groundwater with one or more toxic pollutants. The report, produced by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, draws on data utilities were required to publicly post online under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals rule.
In addition to setting minimum national standards for the safe handling and storage of coal residuals — a byproduct of burning the fossil fuel for electricity — the rule requires utilities to conduct testing around coal ash storage sites and post the data online for the first time.
Coal-fired power plant operators generally dispose of ash and other coal residuals by dumping it into dry landfills or mixing it with water and channeling it into wet surface impoundments known as basins. The problem is that those basins are at risk of structural failure and can contaminate the underlying soil and groundwater. Coal ash contains numerous hazardous pollutants including arsenic and lead, which can severely harm humans, fish and wildlife.
The report follows similar reviews of utility-reported data that show nearly all of the unlined coal ash storage basins in North Carolina, South Carolina and Illinois are polluting groundwater. In Georgia, public filings show unhealthy levels of pollutants, including arsenic, cobalt and lithium, in groundwater at nearly all of the state's coal-fired power plants, according to the report.
The report noted that 11 of the state's 12 coal plants are operated by Georgia Power Co., 10 of which are leaching pollutants into groundwater.
At the company's coal-fired Hammond plant in Floyd County, for example, filings indicate that groundwater contains levels of arsenic up to 40 times the EPA's advisory for safe drinking water. At the retired Plant Branch, also known as Harllee Branch in Milledgeville, southeast of Atlanta, cobalt was detected in five wells at concentrations up to 50 times the EPA standard.
"Because utilities were forced to report groundwater monitoring data by the 2015 coal ash rule, as well as report whether their coal ash ponds are actually sitting in groundwater, we now know the scope and severity of water contamination from coal ash in Georgia," Lisa Evans, a senior attorney with Earthjustice and co-author of the report, said in a Dec. 13 statement.
Among its many requirements, the Coal Combustion Residuals rule mandates that unlined coal ash basins be located at least 5 feet from the uppermost aquifer. Under the rule, basins in violation of groundwater standards must close by October 2020. A closure can be performed by excavating the coal ash, which can be a costly and time-consuming process, or by capping the ash in place if certain criteria are met.
In August, Georgia Power said it planned to designate 19 ash basins for complete excavation, with 10 remaining basins to be capped. The company did not respond to a request for comment Dec. 13. A spokesman with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was also unavailable for comment.
Chris Bowers, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a Dec. 13 statement that capping the coal ash in place is an inadequate solution. "Moving coal ash to dry, lined storage out of our groundwater and away from our rivers is the only solution that we know works to stop this ongoing pollution."