Regulation of coal ash ponds like Plant Scherer’s is minimal

Neighbors near the plant want more testing

hduncan@macon.comApril 15, 2012 

The federal government regulates coal ash ponds only through their permits to release wastewater into public rivers or streams. Any further regulation is left up to states.

Georgia requires nothing additional until the ponds are closed. Only then is groundwater testing required.

Some neighbors of Monroe County’s Plant Scherer, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country, have expressed concern that the plant and its coal ash pond may be harming their health. Many of them say they want more testing to be required.

Although Monroe County commissioners are considering extending water lines to some neighborhoods with uranium contamination in their wells, those areas are generally south of the plant, whose immediate neighbors also rely on well water.

Four years ago, the earthen dam ruptured at a much smaller ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant near Knoxville. The tide of more than 1 billion gallons of liquid ash waste destroyed homes, damaged property and contaminated a creek and a river.

In 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations for coal ash, with two alternatives. One would treat it as a hazardous waste, triggering many more safeguards and expensive storage and reporting requirements. The other would basically ask power companies to police themselves, with enforcement coming through citizen lawsuits.

Both versions would have required groundwater testing around the ponds. But despite an unusually long time lag, no decision has been made. EPA officials have said they hope to issue a final rule sometime this year.

EPA spokeswoman Stacy Kika stated in an e-mail: “EPA is aware of the concerns around coal ash management and disposal and the agency is committed to protecting people’s health and the environment. ... We are reviewing the more than 450,000 comments received on the proposed rule” and will make a decision only after evaluating them all.

Earlier this month, the law firm Earthjustice, on behalf of a consortium of environmental groups, filed suit to force the EPA to issue a rule. The Sierra Club and the French Broad Riverkeeper are among the groups that signed on.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out what happens if you dump a bunch of toxic sludge in an unlined hole: It’s going to leach into the groundwater and flow toward the river,” said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad riverkeeper.

Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said the company would not object to more groundwater testing around Scherer’s ash pond.

“We fully support additional testing by (the Georgia Environmental Protection Division) and other regulatory agencies and will aggressively work with them to develop a testing regime that provides the answers they seek,” he said in an e-mail. “We have a proven record at Plant Scherer -- and at all of our plants -- of doing what it takes to not just meet but exceed state safety regulations, and we will continue to uphold that commitment to our community.”

Residents say they want state officials to gather more information so they’ll know for sure.

Mark Goolsby, whose elderly mother lives on Luther Smith Road next to the ash pond, thinks hair samples should be tested for uranium and arsenic. His neighbor Don Yost said he’d like to see air testing under a variety of conditions, since some of the coal ash is stored dry.

Most concerns about toxicity from ash ponds focus on heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.

Water samples from neighbors’ wells were taken by University of Georgia researchers recently and will be tested for more than a dozen heavy metals and other pollutants common in ash ponds, with the results reported to residents in about a month, said Seth Gunning, a conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in Georgia.

Data from the federal Toxic Release Inventory show Plant Scherer and Plant Branch among those across the country that deposit the most toxic heavy metals in their ash ponds. Scherer ranked fourth in the country for such releases in 2006, according to a TRI analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies.

“Right now, families simply have no protections against toxic heavy metals that are potentially leaching from coal waste into drinking water, and because (there) is no active monitoring the community has no information about the risk these facilities pose to the health and livelihood of their families,” Gunning said in an e-mail. “We hope that this preliminary investigation will help the community both identify potential sources of toxins already found in drinking water, and to shed additional light on the extent of the contamination.”

Uranium contamination

More than 30 Monroe County residents have found unsafe levels of uranium in their well water. Some residents have had their hair tested and discovered that they have uranium poisoning. Digesting uranium can cause kidney dysfunction, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

UGA data shows most of the wells with elevated uranium were in Juliette but south of Plant Scherer. The few Luther Smith Road residents interviewed who had tested their well water said their results showed no uranium problems.

Cooperative Extension and health department officials have said the uranium contamination probably comes from naturally occurring uranium beneath the bedrock of the Piedmont region.

“The natural occurrence of uranium in well water has been well documented,” said Williams, the Georgia Power spokesman, citing past statements by University of Georgia officials.

But residents wonder if the ash pond might be contributing.

It’s hard to know for sure, since few wells outside Monroe County have been tested for comparison, and there is no regular groundwater testing around the ash pond. Georgia Power officials have said tests of a well next to the pond in 2008 turned up no unsafe levels of toxic or radioactive contaminants.

Although Georgia Power must report the amount of various toxic elements it releases into the ash pond every year, radioactive uranium is not among them. EPA officials in Atlanta and Washington were unable to locate any information about the amount of uranium in Scherer’s pond, saying it did not appear to be something the company is required to report.

Uranium is generally present in coal ash, but in smaller amounts than other radioactive elements such as strontium, vanadium and thallium, according to a 2009 report by the Electric Power Research Institute.

Scherer released more thallium into its coal ash pond between 2000 and 2006 than any other power plant in the country, according to a 2009 coal ash report based on Toxic Release Inventory data. Thallium can harm the heart, nervous system, liver or kidneys and cause death from a very low dose.

Radioactive elements in coal ash are generally 10 times more concentrated than they were in the original coal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of North Dakota Energy and Environment Research Center.

But the amount of radiation in coal ash varies with the type of coal used. And its ability to be transported to the groundwater is influenced by the acidity of the water as well as the nature of the soil, according to a 1997 report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

That report stated, “Radioactive elements in coal and fly ash should not be sources of alarm. The vast majority of coal and the majority of fly ash are not significantly enriched in radioactive elements, or in associated radioactivity, compared to common soils or rocks.”

Nevertheless, attorney Lisa Evans argues that “the residents of Juliette are certainly justified in looking to the coal plant as a potential source of uranium.” Evans is senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, the law firm that is suing the Obama administration over failing to issue new coal ash rules.

“Because Plant Scherer’s unlined coal ash pond appears to be the closest source of toxic chemicals to the neighborhood, the logical first step is to thoroughly investigate this source,” Evans said in an e-mail. “Testing should also include the coal ash itself because residents may also be exposed to fugitive dust that contains radioactivity.”

Evans said the EPA or the state should immediately require Plant Scherer to install a groundwater monitoring system around the pond.

“It is inexcusable that Plant Scherer was not already doing this in light of the pond’s proximity to drinking water wells,” she said. “It is also inexcusable that the state of Georgia does not require such monitoring. If this was a dump containing banana peels and not toxic waste, the state would have required a liner and groundwater monitoring. Nonsensically, the fact that the pond contains toxic coal ash gives it a pass under state and federal law.”

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

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