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20th January 2022
...Continued from Part One

After the test results were publicized, Fletcher Sams, head of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, attended a closed-door meeting in February 2020 with several Juliette residents, local officials, state lawmakers and Georgia Power lobbyists. (ProPublica and Georgia Health News described parts of the meeting in a story last year.) The environmental advocate told attendees that his samples had revealed concerning levels of boron, calcium and sulfate — all indicators of coal ash. There was also evidence of a contaminant researchers had linked to cancer, hexavalent chromium, which had previously been discovered in some California drinking wells by environmental advocate Erin Brockovich. Georgia Power has acknowledged the presence of boron, calcium and sulfate but said that the hexavalent chromium is “naturally occurring.”

Sams, along with the Juliette residents, hoped Georgia Power would excavate Plant Scherer’s coal ash and put it in a lined landfill. But Aaron Mitchell, one of the utility’s top environmental lobbyists, insisted the company’s plan complied with environmental standards. However, after being peppered with questions by Sams, Mitchell acknowledged that the coal ash would still be submerged in groundwater if its plan to bury the waste was approved by state regulators.

Hearing that, Sams turned to the lone state regulator in the room, Chuck Mueller. He asked Mueller if Georgia Power’s plans to let water come into contact with dry ash met the state’s environmental standards.

“It’s allowed by the rules,” Mueller replied.

Shortly after Joe Biden was elected president, he chose a new EPA administrator with deep knowledge about the perils of coal ash. Michael Regan was the head of the environmental agency in North Carolina, a state that had seen one of the nation’s worst coal ash disasters in 2014, when a ruptured pipe sent 39,000 tons of coal ash pouring into the Dan River. Six years later, Regan convinced the state’s largest utility to excavate coal ash from its unlined ponds, which was done in order to protect residents from possible groundwater contamination.

Following Regan’s confirmation, environmental advocates urged federal officials to address the language in the coal ash rule that Georgia Power had tried to exploit. GEPD pushed ahead with the narrower definition of infiltration.

In June 2021, three months after Georgia Health News and ProPublica’s investigation into Georgia Power’s coal ash handling practices in Juliette, EPA officials met with GEPD to discuss the issue of infiltration. According to records obtained by ProPublica, state regulators said that Georgia Power could leave waste below the water table because the company had placed monitoring wells around the edge of those ash ponds to detect if heavy metals were migrating toward nearby residents’ homes.

The following month, GEPD began the process of issuing permits for unlined ponds where ash would remain submerged in groundwater. State regulators issued a draft permit for the first of these sites, one of Plant Hammond’s ash ponds, a step that then allowed the public to comment on the closure plan. Chambers, the GEPD spokesperson, said that the agency used “the commonly accepted meaning of ‘infiltration’” — and determined that Georgia Power’s proposal was “allowable under the rule.”

Last week, the EPA rejected the premise that groundwater legally could remain in contact with the dry ash — a statement that will likely impact Georgia Power’s closure plans at Scherer and four other plant sites. In its letter to GEPD, the EPA urged the state regulators to review the reasons why the federal agency intended to deny a plan to bury waste at southeast Ohio’s General James M. Gavin Power Plant, one of the largest power stations in the country. In that proposed decision, the EPA noted that the plant operators had failed to demonstrate how their closure plan would prevent infiltration.

The EPA’s filing notes that “infiltration” explicitly means “any liquid passing into or through” the coal ash pond “from any direction, including the top, sides, and bottom of the unit.” To Sams, the EPA’s announcement means that Georgia Power and GEPD cannot move forward with an “incorrect interpretation” of the country’s coal ash regulation. The EPA “restated in bold-crayon-block letters what we’ve been saying: You can’t store this waste full of toxic metals in groundwater,” Sams said.

Meiburg, the former EPA deputy administrator, said utilities could still challenge the agency’s clarification on the concept of infiltration because it did not go through the full rule-making process. But if GEPD ultimately approves permits that are less protective than what the federal regulation requires, the EPA has the power to strip Georgia of its ability to issue permits, according to Evans, the Earthjustice attorney.

Gloria Hammond, for her part, sees the EPA’s announcement as an important first step toward someday restoring the quality of Juliette’s groundwater. In the coming months, GEPD is expected to make a decision about Georgia Power’s permit at Plant Scherer. After feeling long ignored by environmental regulators, she hopes that GEPD requires Georgia Power to remove the ash from Juliette’s aquifer for good.

“I’m praying Georgia will take that into consideration,” Hammond said. “I hope they follow the EPA.”