New rules set by Georgia EPD for coal ash disposal and storage

The smoke stack and coal mounds can be seen outside of Georgia Power's Plant Mitchell, south of Albany. (Staff Photo: Jon Gosa)

ALBANY — On Oct. 26, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division released amendments to the rules for solid waste management adopted by the state as it pertains to the final storage and disposal of coal ash, an industrial waste produced by coal-burning power plants.

“These rules are an important step forward, but they do not go far enough,” said Chris Bowers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The state rules improve upon the federal coal ash rule in key ways: They apply to a broader set of coal ash storage and disposal sites; they require landfills that accept coal ash to submit a coal ash management plan and test groundwater for coal ash contaminants, and they require all coal ash storage and disposal sites to be permitted by EPD.”

Coal ash, also referred to as coal combustion residuals (CCRs), is produced primarily from the burning of coal in electricity-producing power plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The industrial waste contains toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury and several other heavy metals, which, if ingested or inhaled, can cause cancer and other health problems and diseases.

According to the EPA, coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste material generated in the United States, with more than 130 million tons produced each year. Typically, power plants dispose of coal ash by storing it in water, in what is known as an “ash pond.”

Recent EPD amendments to solid waste management regulations come on the heels of Georgia Power Co.’s announced plans to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds across the state, which sparked concern and criticism from environmental groups about the safety of closure methods used.

According to Jeff Cown, chief of the EPD Land Branch Protection Division, the new amendments have improved safety standards.

“We adopted the federal regulation by reference,” said Cown. “The federal regulation is a self-implementing regulation, and it only applies to CCR units at active electric utilities. The proposed Georgia rule, which has been accepted by the board, included the CCR units at inactive utilities. We also created a permit program; the units will have to have a permit. All of them will now have groundwater monitoring. Some of them, the active ones, already had to have groundwater monitoring based on federal rules, but we pulled in the inactive units in our rule.”

Cown pointed out that the new amendments addressed post-closure actions as well as requirements for municipal landfills accepting CCRs.

“They will have to have financial assurance for post-closure care and corrective action,” said Cown. “Municipal solid waste landfills that propose to accept CCRs, now have to submit a CCR management plan.”

Although improvements to the federal rules were adopted in Georgia, according to Bowers, the EPD amendments failed to address several important issues.

“Existing coal ash waste is still allowed to stay in place,” said Bowers. “It (EPD) did not require the excavation of those coal ash storage sites, nor did they call for it to be retrofitted with a bottom liner.”

Failing to excavate ash ponds or to retrofit the storage sites with a bottom liner does not prevent the slow percolation of toxic pollutants into the ground and ultimately the groundwater, Bowers points out.

“Water and coal ash are not a good mixture because pollutants that are contained in the ash, once in contact with water, become mobilized,” he said. “They then find themselves wherever that water goes. Water tends to carry those pollutants into the aquifer and in places where they may do harm to wildlife and eventually people.”

The classification of coal ash, as solid waste and not hazardous waste, which was determined federally by EPA, also plays a major role in the regulation of the substance, according to Bowers.

“The classification question was made by the EPA, the U.S. EPA,” he said. “There was a lot of study that went into that, which we were not involved in. I can only tell you that the classification bears on how this waste is treated and a number of other restrictions that would otherwise attach to a hazardous waste classification. We don’t feel that practice is a long-term solution.”

Cown dismissed the idea that coal ash is a hazardous waste, even though it contains known carcinogens.

“First off, I really don’t know what the definition of a hazardous material is,” said Cown. “The EPA regulates CCR as a solid waste, not a hazardous waste. That was a federal determination. Just because there is a carcinogen in a waste does not, in itself, make it a hazardous waste. The decision to regulate (coal ash) as a solid waste was a federal determination. As far as digging it all up, the federal rule does not require it all to be dug up. I have no state authority to require it all to be dug up.”

Cown describes the EPD’s approach as a three-option “balanced rule,” mixed with potential corrective action.

“What is happening is that we have a rule, a balanced rule that allows for removal, consolidation and cap-in-place,” he said. “Now, if they cap-in-place, it is all monitored. Once monitoring begins and we get a background monitoring on it, if there is a release from that facility, then they have to go into assessment and then ultimately into corrective action. Corrective action can run the gamut from continued monitoring once you cut the water source off from it where it is no longer leaching, all the way to if there is a problem that can not be corrected without source removal. Then, through the corrective action plan, the EPD could require it to be removed, but if you dig it all up, you have to have a place to put it.”

According to Bowers, at sites that already have contaminated groundwater, such as Bowen, Branch, Hammond, McDonough, Scherer, Wansley and Yates, the EPD will be gathering data as it comes in and the agency reserves some ability to take corrective action.

“It may entail requiring them to clean it up,” said Bowers. “There are a lot of maybes.”

Monitoring results from documented, contaminated sites are establishing background monitoring, according to Cown, and since rules were not in place when those sites were determined to be contaminated, corrective action is not necessarily required, although it is a possibility.

According to Cown, once detection monitoring begins, if a significant increase over the background is detected, only then would the site have to assess whether or not to take corrective action.

“Once the detection monitoring begins, if they have a statistically significant increase over background of a constituent, then they begin assessing that,” said Cown. “And, ultimately, they should go into corrective action. Part of the assessment is to make sure that it is not lab error or it’s not naturally occurring, and once that’s all determined they move it into corrective action.”

Bowers points out that the new amendments are a major step forward and an improvement for coal ash storage/disposal. But he said the Southern Environmental Law Center will continue to push for more protective regulation.

“Coal ash ponds have been largely unregulated by EPD thus far, so these regulations will fill a very big regulatory gap,” said Bowers. “That said, we continue to advocate for stronger, more protective rules, especially in light of the fact that initial groundwater monitoring results show high levels of coal ash contaminants. Leaving the ash behind in unlined, leaking pits is not an acceptable solution for Georgia.”

I am primarily the public safety reporter, but also cover a variety of other news events and special features. I am a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in Philosophy and have been with the Herald since April of 2016.

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