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EPA just rejected Alabama’s plan for a state-run coal ash program. What does it mean for Georgia?

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EPA just rejected Alabama’s plan for a state-run coal ash program. What does it mean for Georgia?

May 28, 2024 | 3:00 am ET
By Jill Nolin Stanley Dunlap
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EPA just rejected Alabama’s plan for a state-run coal ash program. What does it mean for Georgia?
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An under construction cap to a coal ash pond at Georgia Power's Plant Yates on Sept. 7, 2023. Plant Yates is one of five sites where Georgia Power intends to cap ponds where coal ash sits partially submerged in groundwater. Grant Blankenship/GPB News

This story was updated at 7:40 p.m. on May 28 with a response from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Georgia environmental advocates say they hope the Biden administration’s recent decision to deny Alabama’s application for a state-run coal ash disposal will have implications for Georgia Power.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its final decision last week after a public comment period that drew Georgia advocates and residents who live near sites like Plant Scherer in Juliette where coal ash is in contact with groundwater. Coal ash is the toxic waste left behind after decades of burning coal for energy. 

The federal agency concluded that Alabama’s permitting decisions fall short of the required standards, particularly when it comes to the risk of spreading contamination in groundwater after coal ash ponds are closed.

Specifically, federal regulators identified deficiencies in Alabama’s permits when it comes to unlined coal ash ponds, groundwater monitoring and corrective action like investigations and clean-ups.

“EPA is laser focused on protecting people from exposure to pollution, like coal ash, that can cause cancer risks and other serious health issues,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement.

“Our job is to work closely with states to make sure that every community is protected from contamination, and that’s especially true for those that have been overburdened by pollution for too long. EPA stands ready to continue working with Alabama so that they can submit an approvable application and implement a program that is as protective of public health as the federal standards.”

The federal agency’s final decision was met with cheers from environmental advocates in Georgia. Although the decision is specific to Alabama, long-time critics of Georgia Power’s coal ash disposal plans say they hope EPA will turn to Georgia next.

“I’m thrilled that this administration is enforcing the law and protecting communities from coal ash pollution in 49 states. My hope is that they eventually will protect Georgians with the same vigor,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which is objecting to the closure plans at Plant Scherer.

EPA just rejected Alabama’s plan for a state-run coal ash program. What does it mean for Georgia?
Plant Scherer in Juliette is one of the plants where Georgia Power plans to leave coal ash waste in unlined pits, where it sits in groundwater. Photo contributed by Altamaha Riverkeeper

The EPA’s decision last week in Alabama represents the agency’s attempt to crack down on coal ash pollution, which the Biden administration announced as one of its enforcement priorities last year. 

Questions remain whether the EPA’s crackdown on coal ash will force Georgia’s largest utility company to abandon plans to let coal ash sit in groundwater at some of its sites. Georgia Power once operated nine coal-fired power plants across the state. 

A key difference is that Georgia’s coal ash program is already in place. Georgia is one of just three states with federal authority to have their own coal ash permitting programs, though these states are still bound to federal law governing coal ash waste.

Georgia Power’s closure plan involves removing ash from 20 ponds by relocating it to lined landfills, disposing of it in existing ash ponds or by recycling the waste. The company says it recycles more than 85% of coal ash it currently produces into cement and concrete.

The remaining nine ash ponds will be “capped in place,” a process that involves removing water from the pit before installing a cover to protect it from rainwater.  Environmental groups warn that the cap-in-place method will lead to toxic waste contaminating groundwater and posing health risks to the public and surrounding ecosystem.  

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said the company was aware of the EPA’s decision to deny the Alabama permit application and that Georgia Power will continue to make sure that its ash pond closures protect the environment and public.

“It is important to note that EPA has previously approved Georgia’s state CCR program with oversight by Georgia EPD,” wrote Kraft in an email Friday. “We have consistently said, and continue to maintain, that our ash pond closure plans are designed to comply with both the federal and state CCR rules. We will continue to work with Georgia EPD to ensure our closure plans remain in compliance with state and federal rules.”

In an email sent to the Georgia Recorder on Tuesday, the EPA said that it continues to work with Georgia EPD on aligning state coal ash closure plans with federal standards.

Georgia EPD’s partial coal ash permit program was approved by the EPA in 2019, but under current federal regulations, the ash cannot be stored in a manner that can contaminate groundwater.

 “We are committed to our partnership with Georgia, and to pursuing our shared goals of protecting groundwater from contamination and ensuring robust protections for communities,” the EPA statement said. 

There have been major disasters in recent years caused by coal ash ponds collapsing, including one in Tennessee in 2008 that spread more than a billion tons of hazardous waste across several hundred acres. More than a dozen workers died from illnesses connected to cleaning up the waste while hundreds of others continue to deal with long-term health effects, EarthJustice detailed in a May 2023 report.  

Under its state-run program, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has so far finalized the permit at Plant Hammond in Floyd County, where coal ash is in contact with groundwater.

Sierra Club Georgia Chapter Director G Webber called on the EPA to revoke Georgia’s authority to approve coal ash disposal permits if state regulators do not change course.

“The EPA’s decision to deny Alabama’s dangerous coal ash permitting program sends a clear signal that states can’t cut corners when disposing of this toxic material. It’s time to stop putting the health of our communities at risk,” Webber said in a statement.

“We know coal ash is full of dangerous and harmful substances, we know these substances are seeping into groundwater at sites across Georgia, and we know Georgia Power has spent years lobbying the Georgia EPD to approve its inadequate coal ash closure plans,” Webber added, referring to reporting from ProPublica.

But Alabama regulators see the matter as anything but settled. In a statement Thursday, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said the state agency plans to challenge the EPA’s decision in federal court.

The agency accused the EPA of trying to force compliance with what it called “novel and questionable reinterpretations of numerous longstanding federal requirements.”

“Further, EPA has sought to shift the goalpost with a new rule it adopted within the last month, seeking to provide a basis to deny the program,” the Alabama environmental department said in a statement. “EPA is claiming the (coal ash) permits ADEM issued several years ago do not comply with EPA’s just-adopted rule.”

Biden’s EPA is trumpeting its stricter regulations on coal ash and other fossil fuel pollution as Biden campaigns for the Nov. 5 election rematch against former Republican President Donald Trump.

In April, the Biden-Harris administration introduced a final set of rules intended to force power plants that run on coal, natural gas and oil to comply with stricter national standards protecting air water and land from pollutants. 

Several clean energy nonprofits hailed the April announcement as a powerful federal law that will reduce health risks associated with toxic metals disposed of in coal ash ponds and landfills, a byproduct of now-shuttered Georgia Power plants.

In one of the latest rules, new emissions standards will apply to new gas-fired plants and existing coal-fired plants, which will be required to reduce their carbon emissions by 90% by 2032 in order to remain operating beyond 2039.