On Monday, the Georgia Power Company announced that it will shut down operations at its 29 coal ash ponds in Georgia over the next three years. Coal ash is the waste left over when coal is burned to generate electricity. The EPA says it is one of the largest types of industrial waste in the country, with around 110 million tons produced in 2012. To deal with the massive amounts of solid waste, coal ash is mixed with water and dumped into ponds for storage. Even though coal ash is technically a nonhazardous material, coal ash ponds are frequently cited as environmental threats. They allow toxic materials and metals to leak into groundwater and to blow into the air as contaminants, endangering both humans and wildlife. Exposure to large quantities of the metals beryllium and zinc, which are present in coal ash, can cause cancer and nerve damage.
Georgia Power’s decision to shut down the ponds comes after the EPA issued a rule for coal ash storage last year. The EPA rule was in reaction to a massive coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008. The spill contaminated over 300 acres of land and affected both the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The rule issues guidance on how coal ash is to be stored and disposed of. It particularly encourages recycling coal ash for beneficial use. Coal ash is commonly reused in construction materials. Georgia Power says that about 50 percent of its coal ash is reused in concrete, cement, and cinder blocks.
Coal ash will be completely removed from 16 of the Georgia Power ponds. The other 13 will be “closed in place using advanced engineering methods” (let’s hope that means more than just burying it deeper in the ground). Georgia Power will work with the Georgia Environmental Protection Department to monitor the groundwater at the coal ash ponds during and after their closure. Here is a list of the 29 ponds and details on each one’s closure.
One has to wonder if there was more in play here than just the EPA guidance, maybe some good press for Georgia Power? Wayne County in south Georgia is at the center of a coal ash controversy. Central Virginia Properties has applied for a permit to build a new rail tract that will allow them to dump up to 10,000 tons of coal ash a day at the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill, a 250-acre site near Screven and Jesup. Broadhurst is operated by Central Virginia’s parent company Republic Services, one of the largest solid waste management companies in the country.
Wayne County residents and government officials are furious that they might become “the dumping ground for the East Coast” and that the nearby Altamaha River will be contaminated by coal ash. Broadhurst was previously used as a coal ash disposal site. However, in 2014 Republic stopped accepting coal ash due to concerns of a possible leakage (the EPD’s final report suggested that there was a leakage, but it was not conclusive). To some Wayne County residents, it looks like the same untrustworthy companies will be back to business as usual, still indifferent to the public health threat to the county.
Not Georgia Power though. They care.