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Georgia eyes higher coal ash fee; residents seek more action

File photo
File photo

ATLANTA – Georgia senators are passing a measure that would increase the fee for dumping coal ash in the state.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 123 on Monday by a vote of 52-2, sending it to the House for more work.

The measure would raise the fee for dumping coal ash from $1 a ton to $2.50 a ton, equaling what it costs to dispose of other kinds of garbage at Georgia landfills. Lawmakers raised the fee for other garbage in 2018 but left the fee for coal ash at $1.

Coal ash has become a flashpoint in the current General Assembly session and in the state at large. A 2018 report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found contaminated groundwater near 11 of 12 coal-fired power plants.

The refuse contains heavy metals and other contaminates that can leach into groundwater. Near Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Scherer in Juliette, environmentalists have been conducting tests that have found residents have contaminated well water.

State Environmental Protection Division records show more than 1.4 million tons of coal ash were buried in Georgia landfills in 2018, with the largest amounts buried at landfills near Folkston and Homer operated by Waste Management.

That company operates four of the five landfills in Georgia that state records show buried coal ash that year. It’s unclear how much has been buried since, because state reports run behind.

More than 30 Juliette residents traveled to the Georgia Capitol on Monday to demand that all coal ash be dug up and placed in lined landfills and that their community be connected to a central water system.

Gloria Hammond has been living near Plant Scherer since it was built. She said her husband died last year of a rapidly spreading cancer. She’s been buying roughly 20 gallons of water a week. Hammond said Monroe County officials placed a large water tank at the community’s volunteer fire station in recent days.

“Georgia Power and them said our water was fine,” Hammond said.

Environmentalists want power companies forced to excavate the ash ponds where they have placed waste and bury it in lined landfills, as is required for common household trash, to prevent waste from seeping into groundwater. Georgia Power plans to close its 29 coal ash ponds, but does not plan to bury the waste for all of them in lined landfills.

Representatives of Georgia Power say the Plant Scherer ash pond can safely be capped in place without an unlined bottom and that the company’s 57 monitoring wells find no violations.

“Those are showing no detection above federal or state drinking water standards,” said John Kraft, a spokesman for the unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Juliette residents presented a petition to Gov. Brian Kemp, but expressed frustration that many lawmakers didn’t believe them and were demanding testing other than that conducted by environmental group Altamaha Riverkeeeper.

“I’ll go on record and say I’ve been embarrassed up here by my fellow Republicans who say you need some more water samples,” said Juliette resident Karl Cass.

Rep. Dale Washburn, a Macon Republican who represents the area, is among those who wants to see residents’ tests and consider more testing.

“We’re seeking more information, not to dispute this, but to verify,” Washburn said. He said that if the data shows contamination, he will support burying all coal ash in lined landfills.

There was far less dispute over Monday’s bill, which supporters say will help keep Georgia from being a target for coal ash from other states.

“The hope is this will stop Georgia from being a depository of coal ash,” said state Sen. William Ligon, a Brunswick Republican.

Republic Services abandoned a plan to bury coal ash in a landfill near Screven in 2017 following concerns over water contamination.