EPA objects to Georgia Power coal ash storage plan

Georgia Power, which operated the now-closed coal plant in Floyd County, said in a statement its plans are designed to comply with the federal rules. (Photo of Plant Hammond courtesy Coosa River Basin Initiative)

(Georgia Recorder) — Federal regulators are pushing back on a Georgia Power plan for storing coal ash that had been approved by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. In a letter last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency echoed concerns raised by environmental advocates about the ash from a retired coal-fired power plant in North Georgia.

The EPA has rules about storing coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Before the EPA regulations, power companies would store the ash mixed with water in large open pits called coal ash ponds. Environmental groups and other advocates have long been concerned about the risk those ponds pose to groundwater and water supplies.

In Georgia, it’s up to EPD to make sure that the tens of millions of tons of coal ash in the state are stored according to federal standards.

EPD issued a permit in November that allows Georgia Power to put a cap on a coal ash pond at Plant Hammond but otherwise leave the ash in place in the ground.  The permit also requires monitoring groundwater for contamination for at least 30 years.

But a letter to EPD from EPA Region Four Acting Administrator Jeaneanne Gettle says the monitoring plan isn’t adequate, and the permit “may be less protective than the federal regulations require.” The letter says ten percent of the pond’s coal ash remained in contact with groundwater when the pond was closed.

“The EPA is committed to working with the GAEPD to resolve its concerns regarding program implementation…and to find a path to address Plant Hammond’s existing Permit,” Gettle wrote.

In a statement, Georgia EPD said staff “thoroughly reviewed” the permit and took public input.

“The issued permit meets the federal and state performance standards and the requirements for Georgia’s delegated program,” said EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips in an email. “EPD will also continue to work with EPA to ensure all issued permits are protective of human health and the environment.”

Georgia Power, which operated the now-closed coal plant in Floyd County, said in a statement that its plans are designed to comply with federal rules.

“We are aware of the letter from EPA to Georgia EPD and anticipate that there may be future discussions between the agencies,” said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft in an email. “We continue to work to ensure that our ash pond closure plans are protective of the environment and the communities we serve.”

Georgia is one of three states with what’s known as delegated authority, meaning the EPA has approved a state permitting program and the state – rather than federal regulators – is responsible for enforcing the federal coal ash storage rules. But environmental groups have been calling on the EPA to intervene in Georgia’s program.

“I would argue that EPA has to act,” Chris Bowers of the Southern Environmental Law Center told WABE when EPD issued the Plant Hammond permit in November. “If they don’t act here in Georgia, states can basically say [the federal rule] means whatever they want it to say, instead of what it actually says.”

Last year, the EPA announced it planned to deny Alabama’s bid for delegated authority because the state plans didn’t meet federal standards. Georgia activists applauded that decision and hoped Georgia’s coal ash program would come under scrutiny next.

In her letter, Gettle noted that the EPA raised concerns about the closure and monitoring plan for the coal ash pond at Plant Hammond “during several meetings” before the permit was issued. After reviewing the permit, she wrote that EPA believes those concerns “were not adequately addressed.”

This coverage is made possible through a news partnership with WABE and Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email