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Georgia Power’s coal ash ponds are leaking toxins into water supply, report finds

Georgia Power coal ash ponds leaking toxins into groundwater

Eleven of twelve of Georgia’s coal-fired power plants are leaking toxic pollutants into the groundwater, according to a recent report.

Toxic coal ash pollutants are leaking into groundwater from 92 percent of Georgia coal-fired power plants, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice of industry data made available for the first time this year.

Georgia Power owns most of these power plants reported in the study, 10 of 11 to be exact.

“Georgia is at a crossroads with respect to the toxic legacy of coal-burning,” said Environmental Integrity Project attorney Abel Russ, one of the authors of the report. “If coal ash is left buried in groundwater, then the contamination we see now will only get worse, and it will continue for generations. Hopefully, Georgia will take the other path, and require the real cleanup of all coal ash dumps, including those that were abandoned years ago.”

Activists associated with the two organizations are hoping the new report will bolster legislative action this year in the Georgia General Assembly which convenes in January.

“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,” said Earthjustice Senior Counsel Lisa Evans, co-author of the report. “Now that communities can see the evidence of toxic pollution leaking from these ponds, they can hold utilities accountable. Georgia Power should not be let off the hook.”

Coal ash is known to contain many toxins which include arsenic, cadmium, and lead. Those toxins can cause illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Coal ash is the byproduct of the combustion of coal burned in coal-fired power plants.

Coal ash is known to contain toxins mentioned above, which is linked to cancer. In addition, coal ash can be categorized into many forms that can leach into the groundwater supply, including:

  • Fly Ash, a very fine, powdery material composed mostly of silica made from the burning of finely ground coal in a boiler.
  • Bottom Ash, a coarse, angular ash particle that is too large to be carried up into the smokestacks so it forms in the bottom of the coal furnace.
  • Boiler Slag, molten bottom ash from slag tap and cyclone type furnaces that turns into pellets that have a smooth glassy appearance after it is cooled with water.
  • Flue Gas Desulfurization Material, a material leftover from the process of reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from a coal-fired boiler that can be a wet sludge consisting of calcium sulfite or calcium sulfate or a dry powdered material that is a mixture of sulfites and sulfates.

Some power plants may dispose of it in surface impoundments or in landfills. Others may discharge it into a nearby waterway under the plant’s water discharge permit.

Federal law states that the coal ash disposal and storage in ponds that should be built more than five feet above groundwater with no source of underground water underneath the pond as to prevent leakage of pollutants into an aquifer.

Georgia Power has operated power plants that generate tens of millions of tons of coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal, as reported in the NY Times. The coal ash was mixed with water and dumped primarily in unlined basins or ponds near the plants. These ponds operated for years with little or no state or federal oversight.

Earlier this year, utilities like Georgia Power were required to report their data based on EPA regulations which is how the “Georgia at a Crossroads” report was generated from the groundwater data.

“We call on Georgia Power, Governor-elect Kemp and the Georgia Legislature to prevent further contamination of our waterways from coal ash,” said Jennette Gayer, the Director of Environment Georgia.

The report, “Georgia at a Cross Roads,” features data released by power companies on their websites for the first time in 2018 in response to requirements in the 2015 EPA coal ash regulations. Some of the local examples highlighted in the report include:

  • At Plant Hammond in Floyd County, the groundwater has levels of arsenic (a carcinogen) up to 40 times the federal standard;
  • At Plant Bowen near Euharlee, located 50 miles northwest of Atlanta, groundwater has levels of boron (an element that can cause low birth weight and stunted growth in children as well as harm male reproductive organs) up to 10 times its safe level; and levels  of antimony (which can also reduce fetal growth) up to 3 times its safe level;
  • At the now-closed Plant Harlee Branch in Milledgeville, southeast of Atlanta, cobalt (which can cause heart damage) exceeds safe levels in five wells, with concentrations up to 50 times the health-based standard;
  • At Plant McIntosh near Rincon, north of Savannah, both arsenic and lithium levels are more than 3 times their safe levels;
  • Plant Scherer in Juliette, in central Georgia, has a widespread cobalt contamination problem, with average levels in eight wells exceeding the health-based standard, in some cases by 20 times or more;
  • Plant Wansley near Carrollton, in West Georgia, also has a cobalt problem, with unsafe levels in 11 wells, and also has unsafe levels of boron, lithium, radium, and sulfate;
  • At Plant Yates, near Newnan, southwest of Atlanta, beryllium, boron and cobalt all exceed safe levels in one or more wells.

Although it is known that coal ash can cause health issues, this report said that most drinking water wells near the coal ash sites have not been tested for toxins, so it is unclear whether contaminated groundwater is threatening public health.








Jeremy Spencer grew up in rural South Georgia and has served as a healthcare provider, high school science teacher, school administrator, and state education official. Jeremy is currently the market and content manager for All on Georgia-Camden and Glynn Counties. Jeremy’s focus is local news, statewide education issues, and statewide political commentary for the All on Georgia News Network. Jeremy has served as an education policy analyst for local legislators and state education leaders as well as a campaign strategist for local and statewide political campaigns. Jeremy holds degrees in science and education from the University of Georgia, Piedmont College, and Valdosta State University. Jeremy has lived in Camden County for over 17 years.

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