This story was originally covered on WBHF Radio airwaves.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division heard many speakers during a recent virtual public hearing, and nearly all of them had the same message: Georgia Power must change course on its plans to close a coal ash pond at Plant Bowen.
The attendees are not against the closure of the ash pond itself. The method of closure is their main concern.
Bowen’s Ash Pond 1 in Euharlee, Georgia received coal combustion residuals from 1970 to 2020. These residuals are the toxic leftovers of burning coal, and AP-1 has a capacity of 20.4 million cubic yards.
Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, which is why the formation of a four acre-wide sinkhole under Plant Bowen in 2002 forced downstream water intakes to suspend operations. The spill released 2.25 million gallons of coal ash into bordering Euharlee Creek, which caused arsenic levels to rise to over 120 times federal drinking water standards. More sinkholes developed in 2008.
Those sinkholes drive environmental advocates’ concerns about GP’s current plans for AP-1.
EPD regulations allow an operator to choose whether they close an ash pond in place with an engineered cover system or close by removal. GP intends to close in place.
At the public hearing, GP Director of Environmental Affairs Aaron Mitchell explained that they would excavate the ash, install a synthetic liner, and replace the ash on the liner with a cap over the top to create a new lime storage facility.
“Georgia is one of three states approved by the EPA to operate its own [Coal Combustion Residuals] permitting program,” said Mitchell. “[This is] an indication the EPA has reviewed, approved, and has confidence in Georgia’s regulation of the closure of ash ponds.”
However, The Sierra Club and other members of the public say the area’s karst landscape will not protect groundwater or surface water from the toxic residual waste. Sinkholes are most common in karst terrain, where rock below the surface can be easily dissolved by circulating groundwater.
Barbara Tustian is a resident of Cartersville in Bartow County, a few miles from Plant Bowen. Last week, Tustian told WBHF she would like to see the coal ash moved to another site.
“Because that area is prone to sinkholes, it doesn’t seem the safest thing to do to leave that coal ash in place,” said Tustian.
This sentiment was echoed by all but one public speaker – GP’s Mitchell – at the meeting.
The closure process requires at least thirty years of groundwater monitoring, but Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman of the Coosa River Basin Initiative said this timeframe is insufficient as well.
“Thirty years is about the same time between the start-up of Plant Bowen and when these instability issues, the sinkholes, began to occur,” said Demonbreun-Chapman. “In geological times, that’s a blip. That’s not a long time at all, and it’s certainly insufficient to maintain this site and to guarantee that local residents and users of the waterways are safe from this hazardous material.”
The Oct. 14 Zoom public hearing was held as part of EPD’s public comment period, when they aim to collect opinions on GP’s draft CCR Permit. This period ends at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, after which the EPD will amend GP’s permit based on feedback from the public, respond to comments in writing, and post comments to its website.
“Our young people are furious at us,” said Colette Fricks at the meeting. “Not only about climate change but also about pollution and the fact that we have left a huge mess for them to figure out how to clean up without giving them enough time to figure it out. I’m asking you to please think of them when you consider what to do with this. They’re the ones who are going […] to be dealing with the cleanup. Not you, and not me.”