ALBANY — A report released last week by the Environmental Protection Division concluded that Georgia’s current watershed laws are sufficient to protect the state’s drinking water, but several prominent environmental groups, including the Georgia Water Coalition, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Environment Georgia and the Altamaha Riverkeeper, expressed concern with those findings citing numerous documented cases of industry-caused groundwater contamination.
The report, commissioned during the 2015-2016 Georgia Legislative Session when the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1198, tasked the EPD with “review(ing) its regulations providing for the protection of underground drinking water.” The EPD was “encouraged” to issue a report detailing its findings by June 30, 2017.
When that report did not come, on July 11, the Georgia Water Coalition released a press statement (Required Groundwater Report Running Behind Schedule — Threats from Toxic Coal Ash Continue to Grow) condemning the EPD for missing its deadline and citing “new groundwater contamination identified since 2015 as a result of leaking coal ash ponds at coal-fired power plants around the state.”
Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, which contains toxic and carcinogenic metals, is stored, per current industry standards and state regulations, in landfills or ash ponds, many of which are unlined, around the state.
According to GWC, Georgia Power and EPD have detected groundwater contaminants — like arsenic and vanadium — around coal ash storage ponds and municipal solid waste landfills across Georgia where coal ash has been deposited.
Georgia Power’s website confirms contamination of specific sites such as Hammond, McIntosh, Yates, Branch, McDonough and McManus.
“In the one and a half years since this report was commissioned, we’ve uncovered dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium in the groundwater that Georgians rely on as a result of leaking coal ash ponds,” Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hillburn said. “Hopefully, the report will confirm what we already know: We need more protections for Georgia’s groundwater and drinking water.”
The same day (July 11) GWC released its statement criticizing EPD for missing its June 30 deadline, Hillburn’s hopes were dashed when EPD published the “HR1198 Review of Regulations Related to Aquifer Storage and Recovery” report on its website, detailing the findings of the HR1198 review.
According to the EPD report, which focused primarily on aquifer storage and recovery (ASR), a process of injecting treated surface water into the the aquifer for retrieval at a later time, Georgia’s current regulations are “sufficient to protect water supplies,” including underground drinking water.
“As directed by HR1198, EPD has reviewed the existing body of regulations,” the report said. “In its preliminary findings, EPD concludes that current regulations and the authorities they provide are sufficient to protect water supplies, including underground drinking water, and provide for the protection and preservation of the state’s aquifers.”
The HR1198 review findings are troubling, according to the Georgia Water Coalition, whose representatives said, “Georgia’s economy runs on water. About 20 percent of water used in Georgia homes and businesses is pumped from wells tapping the state’s underground aquifers. Communities from the mountains to the coast depend on these pristine sources that require little disinfection and treatment to make drinkable. This is especially true in coastal and south Georgia, where most residents get their drinking water from the Floridian aquifer. This massive underground lake spreads beneath 100,000 square miles of land from South Carolina to Mississippi and south into Florida.”
According to Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, coal ash contamination is just one of the threats this massive aquifer system faces.
“Our aquifers face a variety of threats,” Gayer said. “Toxic contamination from leaking coal ash ponds is certainly the most recent to come to light, but practices like aquifer storage and recovery, which involves injecting treated surface water into our aquifers, has been a threat since the moratorium on the practice ended in 2014.”
While the HR1198 review did address aquifer storage and recovery practices by identifying four required actions that must be taken before an ASR project permit will be approved, the review did not address the growing concern of coal ash contamination.
“The HR 1198 review was specifically focused on aquifer storage and recovery, so EPD was not going to go above and beyond and start looking at regulations relating to coal ash storage or hazardous waste sites or anything else,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney April Lipscomb said. “They are not going to go out there and do more than they were urged to do. But the bottom line is we only have one Floridian aquifer that is pristine and provides drinking water for tons of people in south and coastal Georgia, and we really shouldn’t be risking that aquifer.”