The ash can be used to make concrete and other building materials, but it contains toxic heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, according to the EPA.
Georgia Power is looking to permanently store coal ash from its 29 ponds across the state. At some sites, the company is already extracting the ashes and transporting them to lined landfills. But at its plants near Smyrna, Rome, Newnan, Carrollton and Juliet, Georgia Power has asked permission to leave most tailings in unlined pits. In some cases, the material would be in contact with groundwater.
Last month, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), a trade group that represents utility companies in waste management matters, petitioned the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to d review the actions of the EPA.
The EPA says it has always maintained that ash ponds cannot be closed when the material is in contact with groundwater. A USWAG spokesperson said his group disagreed.
“We believe there has been a significant shift in policy from longstanding regulations, guidelines and past interpretation,” said Dan Chartier, executive director of USWAG.
Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) — a nonprofit legal defense organization — said he sees no change to the EPA’s coal ash rules.
“They are unambiguous, clearly written and anyone who can read the English language knows what they provide,” he said. The SELC has been involved in other coal ash litigation, but is not currently involved in this case. Holleman said the organization plans to intervene on behalf of Georgia drinking water advocacy groups.
Georgia is one of only three states in the country that has been allowed by the EPA to run its own coal ash pond closure program. The other two are Texas and Oklahoma. However, as Georgia Power acknowledged in its filings, the company must follow federal and state regulations.
Georgia Power is not a party to the case, but the company is a member of the USWAG through its parent company, Southern Company. A Georgia Power spokesperson said the company supports the review.
A Georgia EPD spokesperson declined to comment.
Environmental activists denounced the petition and said Georgia Power should fulfill its duty to clean up its hazardous waste.
“It’s past time for Georgia Power to deliver on our promises and be ‘a citizen wherever we serve,'” Fletcher Sams, executive director of the nonprofit Altamaha Riverkeeper, said in an email. , referring to a slogan coined by the company’s first president.
Environmental groups and neighbors worry that leaving ash in unlined ponds could contaminate groundwater. Residents of Juliet, about 25 miles northwest of Macon, Georgia Power sued, claiming waste from the nearby Scherer plant had poisoned their well water. The utility denied the allegation.
It’s unclear when the court will rule, but last month the USWAG petition was combined with a similar petition filed by individual utilities. The court asked the USWAG to provide more information before May 12.