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Coal ash battle alive in Ga. Court of Appeals, new ‘Rising from the Ashes’ video

By David Pendered

The campaign to remediate coal ash in Georgia is now active in two venues: A court that will help influence if customers or shareholders pay a $525 million cleanup bill; and a persuasion campaign built around a new video documentary.

Georgia Power’s plan for managing coal ash at Plant Hammond, near Rome, calls for closure and removal of three ash ponds, closure of one pond to remain in place, and an ongoing coal ash landfill, according to a March 31 filing with the PSC. File/Credit: Hunter Nichols via SELC

The Georgia Legislature is not in play at the moment because the 2021 session has ended. When lawmakers return in January 2022, they face two big proposals related to coal ash. The GOP and Democrats each presented a plan and neither became law.

Coal ash is an environmental threat because it contains toxic metals. Historically, it’s been stored near power plants. Questions now include how to store coal ash so that it doesn’t leak into water and onto surrounding land, and who should pay for the storage and monitoring of ash heaps. Georgia is estimated to have 92 million tons of coal ash.

The Georgia Court of Appeals is to intervene in the question of who’s to pay for the cleanup of coal ash created by Georgia Power’s plants. The case appears to involve the narrow issue of $525 million in cleanup costs. Total cleanup estimates are in excess of $7 billion.

Georgia Power contends its current customers should pay the $525 million. The state’s utility regulator supported Georgia Power. The Sierra Club contends the Georgia Public Service Commission erred in saddling customers with the cleanup bill and has appealed its case to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

In a brief filed April 9, the Sierra Club contends:

Georgia Power reported March 31 to the PSC that 19 coal ash ponds have been removed, 10 have been closed in place and 12 landfills are in place. Credit: Georgia Public Service Commission

  • “There is no evidence to support the Commission’s conclusions that the $525 million in CCR [coal combustion residuals] costs were just, reasonable, and prudent and not excessive. No witnesses were offered, no evidence was presented detailing how the $525 million would be spent or whether the items to be paid for by customers were the least cost alternative, or not excessive or unreasonable.”

Georgia Power contends the PSC acted only after a robust review of the materials presented. Spokesman John Kraft wrote in an email Monday afternoon:

  • “The issue of cost recovery was thoroughly discussed and evaluated through Georgia’s open and transparent regulatory process with the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) and the PSC’s decision was affirmed by the Superior Court of Fulton County. Georgia Power took early action to quickly and safely begin closing all of our ash ponds, and our closure plans fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule as well as the more stringent requirements of the state CCR rule. We strongly disagree with any claims to the contrary.”

The Sierra Club lost the original case in December. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shukura Millende ruled in favor the PSC and Georgia Power. The Sierra Club appealed to the next court in line.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club’s persuasion campaign is just starting to ramp up.

coal ash, coal fired plant

This diagram shows the key sources of waste streams from coal-fired steam electric power plants. File/Credit: epa.gov

“Rising from the Ashes,” a three-part docu-series, is to air on Zoom April 21 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The event is to conclude with a Q&A with the film makers, folks in the film and Sierra Club staff from the organization’s national Beyond Coal Campaign. An RSVP is available here.

The program is produced by the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter and the Beyond Coal Campaign. The series is described as, “a three-part documentary about coal ash in Georgia featuring community organizers, health experts, faith leaders, and environmental advocates.”

At the state Capitol, two bills related to coal ash await lawmakers when they return in January 2022. The House approved a GOP bill and the Senate did not take it up for consideration. The Senate did not consider a bill sponsored by Senate Democrats.

Georgia Power monitored the legislation and takes the position that no further regulations are needed, Kraft, the Georgia Power spokesman, wrote in the email Monday. Kraft’s full comment on the matter observes:

  • “Georgia Power’s ash pond closure plans fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, as well as the more stringent requirements of Georgia’s state CCR rule. The company was aware of the proposed bills and followed their progress during this year’s Session. Although we believe additional legislation is unnecessary given the comprehensive state and federal regulations, Georgia Power is committed to following all state and federal regulations.”
Duke, coal ash, lined

Senate Democrats have proposed requiring lined basins similar to this one used in North Carolina: A bottom layer, lined with 2 feet of compacted clay or similar material, a synthetic barrier, and a drainage layer to collect water leaching through the ash; and a top layer, lined with a synthetic barrier, drainage layer, topsoil layer, and vegetation layer. File/Credit: Duke Energy

This is a brief description of the two bills pending in the General Assembly:

  • House Bill 647 was sponsored by GOP members and was passed by the House and stalled in the Senate. It would require coal ash surface impoundments to be maintained to state standards for at least 50 years, and an executive summary of monitoring – including groundwater – be written in plain, non-technical language.
  • Senate Bill 230 was introduced by Democrats Feb. 23 and was not heard by the chamber’s Natural Resources and the Environment committee. It would require coal ash surface impoundments to be, at a minimum, lined and have leachate collection systems that at least meet the standards of landfills for household waste. Leachate is groundwater that picks up contaminants as it flows through an impoundment.
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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1 Comment

  1. Marc Theisen April 28, 2021 11:59 am

    Just read your informative article and pleased to see the fight continue on environmental justice. This is only part of the story regardless of closure in place or closure by removal, the utilities are capping the ash sites with synthetic turf to offset the costs of bringing in soil necessary for sustainable covers. Synthetic turf may be less expensive in the short-term, but my goodness, what are the long-term environment consequences of the huge carbon footprint and acceleration of global warming. Not in the least, an ability for the utilities to reserve carbon in the atmosphere by creating living, breathing natural cover systems that actually could re-create productive ecosystems. How we do stop this madness? Are the environmental agencies asleep at the switch?Report


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