Plant Scherer ash pond worries neighbors as Georgia Power buys, levels homes

hduncan@macon.comApril 14, 2012 

The home among the trees was supposed to be Mark Goolsby’s inheritance. His 78-year-old mother now lives in the large, white, wood farmhouse that his family built before the Civil War.

But Goolsby says he’ll never live there now.

That’s because across the street and through those trees is one of the largest coal ash ponds in the country. It belongs to Plant Scherer, a coal-fired plant that came to the neighborhood considerably later than the Goolsby family. In the mid-1970s, Goolsby said, “when (Georgia Power) bought 350 acres from my dad, they told him we’d never know they were there.”

Those acres are now part of an unlined pond where Georgia Power deposits about 1,000 pounds of toxic coal ash a day. Neither federal nor Georgia rules require groundwater monitoring around the pond. The federal Toxic Release Inventory shows that in 2010 alone, the pond received ash containing thousands of pounds of heavy metals and radioactive compounds including arsenic, vanadium, and chromium.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 1 in 50 residents nationally who live near ash ponds could get cancer from the arsenic leaking into wells. The EPA also predicts that unlined ash ponds can increase other health risks, such as damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, from contaminants such as lead.

A massive 2008 spill from a Tennessee coal ash pond led to greater scrutiny of the dams that hold these ponds in place, and the EPA promised new rules for storing coal ash. The process led to broader awareness of a more long-term health threat: groundwater contamination from the ponds.

After the Tennessee spill, the EPA requested groundwater testing near selected power plants, finding ash pond contaminants in the water near 29 power plants in 16 states, including Florida and the Carolinas.

Nevertheless, four years later, new coal ash rules still haven’t been finalized, and a lawsuit was filed April 5 to force the Obama administration to act.

Meanwhile, Goolsby and some of his neighbors have begun wondering whether their health has been harmed by the wind-blown ash from piles next to the pond or the water seeping from the pond into the ground. Georgia Power, majority owner of the plant, has been buying residential property in the area and tearing down the houses.

Residents’ concerns led the Georgia Department of Public Health to decide last week that it will gather information about Scherer’s pollution and its health effects. Also last week the Sierra Club, working with University of Georgia researchers, took well water samples from about a dozen neighbors to test for toxic heavy metals.

Wayne Smith, who built his home on Luther Smith Road in 1969 and is now one of the closest to Plant Scherer, awaits his well water results. Sitting in a swing next to a sandbox crowded with his grandson’s toy trucks, he described the asthma and sinus problems that require him to see a lung specialist.

“We’re living a slow death,” he said. “I didn’t used to have asthma. I ain’t got proof of anything. I just know it’s dirty. ... Ash from the pond is all over everything we’ve got.”

Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said the pond complies with all environmental laws and received the highest possible rating when the EPA last inspected it.

Purchase and demolish

Monroe County property records show Georgia Power has spent about $1.1 million buying property near Plant Scherer between 2008 and the end of 2010. But the true number may be higher. It doesn’t include some known purchases, and Georgia Power property doesn’t normally show up on a Monroe County property search because it is not taxed in the same manner as typical residential property. (The state Department of Revenue sets the property value of Plant Scherer, and Georgia Power pays its portion of taxes to Monroe County based on the county’s millage rate.)

The purchases visible on the Monroe County property appraiser’s website include acreage on Ga. 87, Luther Williams Road and Turkey Run Road.

Homes in the area range from brick houses with benches scattered under the trees to decades-old trailers with porch roofs made from tarps.

From Luther Smith Road, the smokestacks of Plant Scherer are visible through meadows dotted with pine trees where deer scamper. Part of the land around the ash pond is leased to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife management area, frequented by bow hunters and bird watchers.

Goolsby’s aunt, Gloria Dorsett, recently sold her white brick house on Luther Smith Road to Georgia Power and moved away. She had spoken to The Telegraph and written letters to a local paper in prior years, complaining of the ash eating away at her home and causing her to have nosebleeds, among other health problems. She signed a nondisclosure agreement when she sold to Georgia Power.

Dorsett is one of four Luther Smith Road residents who sold their homes to Georgia Power. In at least some of the cases, the company demolished the houses and capped the wells. Dorsett’s former property is now an empty field surrounded by barbed wire.

The flurry of purchases and demolitions, combined with recent uranium contamination problems in many Juliette wells, has some Plant Scherer neighbors suspecting that the company knows of problems with the water.

But Georgia Power officials say they are simply responding to neighbors’ wishes to sell their property as the plant expands.

“Georgia Power routinely purchases land located near its power plants, including Plant Scherer,” spokeswoman Konswello Monroe said in an e-mail.

She noted that ongoing construction at Plant Scherer has meant the company is using an additional 120 acres for operations.

“As the operational footprint at the plant expands, Georgia Power will continue to consider acquiring additional properties on a case-by-case basis” when property owners approach the company wishing to sell, Monroe said.

Carla Coley, environmental director for the North Central Health District, said capping the wells heightened her concern about the safety of the groundwater. Many residents had the same reaction.

But Williams, the Georgia Power spokesman, said the company demolishes structures that don’t have a good business use, and Georgia law requires that abandoned wells be capped for safety reasons.

Although most neighbors don’t really want to move, many of them expressed interest in selling to Georgia Power.

Don Yost, who built his home “nail by nail” alongside his wife 30 years ago, said, “I got to sell to them or no one. No one else will buy it.”

Some family and neighbors of residents who sold to Georgia Power say they believe the company is not only buying land but paying settlements to those who move away.

Williams, with Georgia Power, said, “We have never settled any lawsuits with anyone living near Plant Scherer, and we don’t comment on our agreements with individuals.”

Macon personal injury attorney Brian Adams said he thinks taking a buyout is “a terrible solution until more research is done and we know more about what the cause is.” He said his firm is interested in representing plaintiffs who believe they’ve been harmed by pollution from Plant Scherer, adding that a lawsuit could provide access to documents that could be used to hold the company or its employees accountable.

Health concerns

The Georgia Department of Public Health plans to conduct a “scoping” process early this summer to gather available information about the health effects of Plant Scherer’s pollution. Health officials will identify gaps in that information and questions that need to be asked.

Residents who live near Plant Scherer express varying degrees of alarm about the plant’s impact on their health, but they all have plenty of questions.

Kristal Smith, Wayne Smith’s daughter-in-law, said her family has let Georgia Power know they are interested in selling, but they haven’t heard back yet. The Smith properties back up to a new gypsum pond next to the ash pond.

“Either way, we’re moving in the near future” because of their health concerns, she said. It’s a tough decision, especially for her husband, who was raised in the house next door and whose parents live next door.

But Kristal Smith -- a trained paramedic who at age 34 is experiencing unexplained hair loss -- is worried about her children, ages 4 and 12. Her 4-year-old son has begun having apparent neurological problems in recent weeks.

Smith says some of the family’s abundant breathing problems are likely inherited, and she says she doesn’t have enough information to blame Georgia Power for the other health issues.

“I’m not fearful of Georgia Power,” she emphasized. “But when you’re talking about your child and what prolonged exposure might mean for them, it’s kind of scary.”

The Smiths and others perceive that the airborne ash has become more pronounced in the last couple of years. During that period, Plant Scherer starting building a pond to store gypsum that is a byproduct of scrubbers that reduce the plant’s greenhouse gas and ozone pollution. Georgia Power also cut down more of the trees that formed a buffer between Luther Smith Road homes and the plant.

Another factor could be that the company stores some ash dry and, Williams said, has been setting materials related to ongoing plant construction on this “dry area of the pond.” He said this presents no safety threat to employees, equipment or the pond’s dike.

But residents say the arrangement means that vehicles drive over the ash regularly, stirring up dust. Kevin Chambers, communications director for the state Environmental Protection Division, said the state does not inspect coal ash piles, and there are no rules requiring power companies to limit airborne dust from them.

Goolsby wonders whether the plant’s switch to Western low-sulphur coal may have somehow changed the nature of the ash, which he says coats cars and furniture with a sparkly brown film.

Goolsby’s mother has had chronic asthma and bronchitis, as well as recurrent kidney infections. His father died a decade ago of a rare form of liver cancer, he said.

Don Yost has had trouble breathing, and his wife’s hair has thinned.

“We’ve had health problems, but I don’t know if it’s anything to do with the plant,” said Yost, who spent his career working for power companies (although not Georgia Power) before his retirement. He emphasized that he’s not against Plant Scherer, but he’d like more environmental testing.

Residents keep track of health problems in the neighborhood. Kristal Smith said her neighbors have experienced a range of types of cancers, various breathing or lung problems and joint pain.

“I think everybody has the headaches and sinus problems across the board,” said Cindy Griffin, who lives across Ga. 87 from Plant Scherer. She has questions about runoff and groundwater from the plant, especially after finding some contamination in her well.

Some residents completed a recent public health survey that focused on uranium and radon. Officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health have said they may distribute another survey more focused on Plant Scherer neighbors and the contaminants present in coal ash.

Depending on the results, the state could then do a “cluster” study to find out whether there is a cluster of particular health problems in the area.

A certain number of cancers and common health problems such as heart disease will occur in any neighborhood. But a cluster study looks for uncommon illnesses, patterns of symptoms among neighbors, or victims who don’t fit the typical profile for their health condition.

“The age of people dying around here is what bothers me so much,” said Terry Lancaster, rattling off a list of people who contracted cancer or died suddenly in their 50s.

Lancaster has lived in her Luther Smith Road home for 22 years, raising children and now grandchildren there, but she’s interested in contacting Georgia Power to see if the company might buy her house.

As she spoke, her toddler grandson in his diaper and dinosaur T-shirt listened silently as a fan circled slowly overhead. She scooped him up, hugged him and said, “This is why I’m worried.”

Lancaster gestured to the ceiling fan, which was laden with a quarter inch of dust just a few weeks after she last cleaned it. She’s also seen how the water from her well rusts the inside of one washing machine after another. Lancaster, who said she doesn’t have health insurance, is afraid to drink her water but still cooks with it.

“You hear a lot of stuff, and you don’t know what’s true and not true,” Lancaster said. “But stuff coming out of that plant cannot be good for you.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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