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Can a Coal Ash Spill Happen in Georgia?

February 17, 2014

Not unlike the answer to my last post regarding January’s economically disruptive Elk River chemical spill in Charleston, WVa., toxic coal ash has spilled in Georgia as it recently did into the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia.  More troubling than Georgia’s past coal ash spill is the reality that another toxic spill could easily happen in Georgia’s future.  Unless we decide we don’t want that to happen.

What is coal ash?  Put simply, coal ash is a by-product of burning coal to boil water to generate steam to produce electricity.  Coal ash is highly toxic and contains arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and zinc.  Coal ash can be stored in a dry and a wet manner.  However, coal ash sites – particularly wet coal ash ponds – are unlined.  Unlined ponds can and do leak (14 of Duke Energy’s North Carolina ponds are leaking) meaning that coal ash sites have and will continue to contaminate ground and surface water unless they are better managed and regulated.

Furthermore, the ‘dams’ and earthen berms surrounding artificial coal ash ponds have Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “hazard” ratings.  This means we know that many toxic coal ash pounds are at risk of failing and collapsing if they were not properly constructed or maintained.  Visit the Southeast Coal Ash Waste website to identify if a coal ash site is near you.

Consciousness Raising: In December 2008, the nation’s largest coal ash disaster occurred when the Tennessee Valley Authority’s pond in Kingston failed.  More than 1,000,000,000 (billion) gallons of liquid coal ash spilled into the Emory River.  The river bed filled with coal ash, snuffing out aquatic wildlife and swallowing up homes.  With this dramatic wake-up call, national attention has focused on reforming the national toxic coal ash regulatory framework.

The Dan: On the afternoon of February 2, 2014, a security guard patrolling Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. noticed a drop in the coal ash pond’s level.  Upon further inspection, staff discovered a storm water pipe running under the pond and directly to the river had collapsed.  The public would have to wait more than 24-hours before learning that tons of coal ash had been discharged into the Dan River.  Estimates of the discharge now range from 30,000 to 82,000 tons of ash, and up to 27 million gallons of water flowed into the river over a ten days.  Yet another discharge was discovered on February 13.  The Dan River coal ash spill is considered the third largest in the nation, according to EPA.

This coal-fired steam plant – retired in 2012 – is six miles upstream from Danville, Va.’s municipal drinking water intake.  Danville Utilities’ authorities have asserted that regardless of the contaminates in the water column that may be entering the water treatment plant – which potentially included arsenic levels four times the state’s human health standards – the treated water delivered to its 43,000 customers is safe and clean.

On February 12, 2014, the N.C. Department of Health issued an advisory declaring that individuals should avoid contact with the Dan River and that the river’s fish and mussels are not fit for human consumption.  But anglers had already expressed skepticism about eating the fish after the spill, and others simply think Duke, N.C. agencies and EPA are “hiding things” and information about the full extent of the spill.  The news one day later – that a federal grand jury has opened an “official criminal investigation of a suspected felony” and issued subpoenas to Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources – suggests somebody else thinks something is indeed ‘hiding.’

Taking Coal Ash to Court: Suits levied in South Carolina against South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper Power over coal ash management at the Waccamaw and Wateree stations resulted in agreements to remove coal ash from unlined ponds on the rivers’ banks and into lined facilities located away from the rivers.

Then in 2013, a coalition of environmental groups announced their intent to launch multiple Clean Water Act citizen suits against Duke Energy for illegal discharges from the Asheville Steam Station’s, the Riverbend Steam Station’s and the L.V. Sutton Plant’s coal ash ponds.  The state of North Carolina intervened in these cases to shield Duke from full-blown CWA suits and has proposed settlements.  The state’s proposed settlement and consent decree was already contested by the public before the Dan River breach and remain in a holding pattern.

In October 2013, Duke Energy – the nation’s largest energy utility – agreed in related suits and settlements to pay $1,800,000 to connect Flemington, N.C. to a local water utility because the community’s ground water wells had been contaminated by the Sutton Plant’s coal ash pond.  Duke also agreed to provide water to a homeowner living adjacent to the Asheville Power Station and coal ash pond.

Georgia Coal Ash: There are forty-one active and inactive coal ash impoundments – including twenty-nine coals ash ponds – in Georgia.  Two of the ponds have a “high hazard” rating and ten are considered “significant hazards.”  And at least one of these sites has already failed.  On July 28, 2002, Plant Bowen’s (Georgia Power) coal ash pond failed and discharged more than 2,000,000 pounds (218 tons) of toxin-laden coal ash into the Euharlee Creek (an Etowah River tributary), upstream of Rome’s municipal drinking water intake.

And another site – Plant Scherer (Georgia Power) in Juliette and upstream of Macon – has become a target of 123 Monroe County current and former property owners who claim toxic coal ash is responsible for off-site groundwater contamination.  Scherer – one of the nation’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide – is home to an unlined pond containing at least 5,000,000,000 (billion) gallons of toxic coal ash.

What can be done?  Federal regulators, Georgia’s coal ash site operators, and state regulators and legislators can make choices to secure toxic coal ash sites now.

First, EPA must issue long promised coal ash rules to establish federal minimum standards for coal ash management.

Second, Georgia’s legislators and regulators must develop a robust regulatory process requiring groundwater monitoring and reporting for active and inactive sites; transfer of coal ash from unlined to lined sites; liners for new ash storage facilities; emergency action plans; and inundation maps should a pond fail.

Furthermore, HB 136 (sponsored by Representative Mary Margaret Oliver) would add a definition of “coal combustion waste” and require a permit for coal ash storage in lined ponds.  However, the bill has been denied the hearing that it deserves, leaving Georgia’s rivers and communities like Juliette exposed to the toxic coal ash threats.

The consequences of the chemical spill in the Elk River and the coal ash spill into the Dan River demonstrate that cries to de-regulate industry to promote business is a losing proposition.  When a chemical spill can wreck a city’s water treatment and distribution system, and coal ash spills threaten to do the same, we should interpret regulation not as a burden but as an imperative for healthy communities and economies.

-Chris Manganiello


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