Environmental groups call for federal action after regulators grant coal ash permit to Georgia Power – WABE

Environmentalists are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act after state regulators issued a final approval signing off on Georgia Power’s plans to partially leave coal ash in groundwater at Floyd County’s Hammond plant.

The permit is the first issued under Georgia’s state coal ash disposal permit program. More than 1 million tons of toxic coal ash sits on site in an unlined pit near the Coosa River in northwest Georgia.

The decision can be appealed within 30 days.

The state’s decision came nearly two years after the Biden administration rejected the utility’s plans to dispose of massive amounts of coal ash using a close-in-place method at five sites where the ash comes into contact with groundwater. Toxic ash is the waste left behind after decades of burning coal to generate electricity.

Last January, the federal agency announced it would enforce an Obama-era rule intended to limit the risk of coal ash toxins seeping into groundwater or waterways. The state EPD director at the time called it a “new interpretation” of the federal rule.

Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said the Rome-based organization was “deeply disappointed” by the state agency’s decision.

The federal agency is currently rejecting the state of Alabama’s plan to continue allowing Alabama Power to store coal ash in unlined ponds, saying the state has inadequately addressed groundwater infiltration.

In Georgia, the Hammond Power Plant permit has been closely watched as a guide to how the state might deal with other – and larger – coal ash sites across the state, where some observers now expect draft permits to be submitted soon. The state received nearly 2,000 public comments on approval for the Hammond plant.

Critics had also warned that the karst landscape of Plant Hammond, which was closed in 2019, also made the site vulnerable to sinkholes.

State regulators addressed many of those concerns in a written response issued this month. They argued that the regulations target water that enters the ground – like rainfall – rather than groundwater that moves laterally. The cover placed over the pond, they argued, protected against such vertical threats.

And they said there are other safeguards in place.

“The groundwater monitoring system and required reporting are designed to detect any migration of contaminants before any off-site impacts to human health or the environment occur,” the state agency wrote. “If contamination is present above legal limits, corrective action will be taken. Corrective actions can include a variety of remedial actions, including disposal of the waste.”

In response to the public comments and what the state agency called the EPA’s “modified interpretation,” the state added several conditions to the permit, including a requirement that the utility update the groundwater model to reflect all elevations and ash levels in the water Groundwater display 5 years.

A Georgia Power spokesman defended the utility’s approach to storing coal ash at the Hammond plant. The utility is covering nine ash ponds where they are while excavating 20 ash ponds, including three more at the Hammond plant, and transporting that waste to a lined landfill.

“Georgia Power continues to work in accordance with state and federal regulations to close its 29 ash ponds across the state,” Kelly Richardson said in a statement Friday. “At Plant Hammond, as with all of our ash ponds across the state, we utilize proven engineering practices and technology through tailored, site-specific closure processes. This permit issuance is an important step as we continue our efforts to close the ash pond at the Hammond Plant.”

“The gauntlet was essentially thrown down by Georgia EPD.”

But clean water advocates are urging federal officials to intervene. They argue that the EPA should no longer allow Georgia to operate its own permitting program to oversee the disposal of coal combustion residues. Georgia is one of three states that has established its own permitting program.

“The ball is in EPA’s court to answer a very simple question: Does a CCR rule ban groundwater ash for some states and not others?” said Chris Bowers, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The language is the same. The science is the same. The pollution is the same.

“So with this approval, Georgia has essentially thrown the gauntlet to EPD, and the big question is whether the EPA will allow states to fundamentally ignore the standards because of its permitting program,” he added.

Bowers argued the state permit was “not worth the paper it was printed on” because it did not comply with federal regulations against mixing coal ash with groundwater.

For Dori Jaffe, managing attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, the Hammond plant permit illustrates why the organization has always argued against Georgia implementing its own permitting program.

“We thought it would end there, but given the EPA’s preliminary decisions, we thought, well, maybe there’s a chance that EPD will do the right thing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” Jaffe said.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which is preparing for the Plant Scherer permit, said the federal agency should have seen the state’s decision not to revoke the Plant Hammond permit as a sign that Georgia officials “don’t “planned to play along.” .”

“The big question on my mind is whether the EPA will enforce the law or whether it will allow Georgia to be the only state where it does not enforce this administration’s third-highest environmental priority,” Sams said.

Asked how the EPA plans to respond, an agency spokeswoman, Angela Hackel, said in comments Friday that the federal agency and state regulators are “in a productive dialogue about closure strategies.”

But she also pointed out that federal regulations prohibit closing these surface impoundments if the coal ash continues to be saturated with groundwater.

“We will continue to work with EPD to ensure that CCR permits meet all applicable requirements and are consistent with the state-approved Georgia CCR permit program,” Hackel said. “We are committed to our partnership with Georgia and our shared goals of protecting groundwater from contamination and ensuring robust protections for communities.”

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.