Transport of tons of coal ash to Georgia landfills worries neighbors

Each day more than 120 dump trucks filled with toxic coal ash leave the power plant along the Turtle River headed to a landfill 50 miles away.

Georgia Power is shipping 875,000 tons of ash and underlying soil to the massive trash dump alongside the Okefenokee Swamp that is already under investigation by state officials for a “significant” increase in vanadium, a potentially hazardous metal found in coal ash.

Waste Management, the landfill’s operator, says the vanadium poses no risk to public health or the environment and the addition of more coal ash will be properly handled. Georgia Power, which allowed a reporter to observe its coal ash cleanup at Plant McManus in Brunswick earlier this month, says the ash poses no danger here or at the Folkston landfill.

The Atlanta-based utility, in response to tightened federal rules on coal ash disposal, is in the early stages of scooping out millions of tons of ash from 16 ponds scattered across Georgia. In all, 81 million tons of ash sit in 29 ponds, Georgia Power said Tuesday. An additional 7 million tons remain on site in landfills.

Most of the ash, which contains arsenic and other toxic metals, will be recycled or kept on site in other ponds or landfills. Roughly 8 million tons, though, will be sent to off-site landfills across Georgia, worrying neighbors and environmentalists who say utilities, landfill operators and state officials don’t adequately monitor the handling and disposal of coal ash. Out-of-state utilities are also sending millions of tons of ash to Georgia.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division will hold a public hearing Wednesday in Atlanta to discuss proposed coal ash disposal rules.

The dangers of coal ash became apparent in 2008 when a Tennessee Valley Authority dike failed, spilling 1 billion gallons of ash into the Emory River and costing $1 billion to clean up. Six years later, a pond run by Duke Energy ruptured, sending 40,000 tons of coal ash sludge 70 miles down the Dan River into Virginia.

The Obama administration established disposal rules later that year for what it labeled “nonhazardous” material that could go in municipal dumps. Ash ponds and landfills must be inspected, with results posted online. New storage sites must be lined with plastic to keep the toxic metals from leaching into the ground.

Georgia’s EPD proposes tougher regulations, to be discussed at Wednesday’s hearing, that include penalties for leaks, stricter controls on recycled ash and notification to communities when ash is trucked in.

While generally pleased with the state’s plans, environmental groups want tougher monitoring and notification requirements.

“This rule still won’t get us all the way to the level of cleanup we need in Georgia,” said Amelia Shenstone, a coal expert with the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Atlanta. “We recommend, for example, that EPD require all drinking water wells within a half mile of an active or inactive coal ash unit be sampled annually by a third party. If contamination is detected, then the owner of the landfill or the pond must supply an alternative water supply.”

The alliance, along with the Georgia Water Coalition, also wants all coal ash removed from unlined ponds near streams and lakes.

Georgia Power, as part of its $1.5 billion cleanup, said last month that it won’t accept any more coal ash at its 29 ponds within three years. Ash from 16 of those ponds will be removed and added to other ponds and landfills on site or recycled. Yet 13 ponds will be “closed in place” with some preventive measures to keep the ash from leaking.

A pond at Plant Kraft, near Savannah, was excavated over the past two years with ash sent to two nearby landfills owned by Georgia Power and Waste Management.

The utility began scooping out 82 acres at Plant McManus in Brunswick earlier this year and should be finished by late 2017. About two-thirds of the site was covered with trees and shrubs. The water, though, was sucked out, filtered, dosed with chemicals and discharged into the river. The wet ash is piled into windrows to dry, sprayed with a polymer so it won’t blow away and loaded into dump trucks.

“We’ve got a lot of protective measures in place,” said Skip Varnado, who’s managing the cleanup for Georgia Power. “It’s very stringent.”

The ash is hauled to the Chesser Island Road Landfill near Folkston on the eastern boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. EPD officials are investigating a “statistically significant increase” of vanadium, a heavy metal that in large quantities may cause cancer or nerve damage, detected by a monitoring well. The vanadium levels have been “generally increasing” since 2012, according to a March 2016 EPD letter.

A Waste Management spokeswoman said this week that Georgia Power’s coal ash will sit atop a strengthened, plastic liner to prevent seepage into the soil. The company hired two employees to manage its coal ash.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year that beryllium and other toxic metals from coal ash had leached into the groundwater at a Wayne County landfill 50 miles north of Chesser Island. Georgia Power says it won’t ship ash to the landfill near Jesup.

But South Georgia residents who live near the dumps increasingly worry about the water they drink and the air they breathe.

“We weren’t warned about the environmental damage or nothing,” said Anna Rhoden, a retiree who lives in St. George, below the Chesser Island landfill. “If the ash is from another county, they should keep it there. I don’t think we should have to take it.”

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