For the past 25 years, Joella Pipkin has worried about her water supply.
Living in Monroe County just south of Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer, the 73-year-old Pipkin fears that contaminants in her well may have adversely affected her health.
“I hate that ash pond up the road,” Pipkin said of the utility’s method of disposing of residue from the coal-fired plant.
The toxic heavy metals can include arsenic and lead that can leach into groundwater.
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Pipkin now has county water, but she still buys bottled water because she thinks it tastes better and believes it is safer.
She was relieved to learn that Georgia Power is moving forward with plans to close the coal ash pond at Scherer and shut down all 29 ponds across the state.
“I have a lot of health issues, and I talked to a lawyer about it when I found out there was something in the water,” Pipkin said.
Aaron Mitchell, Georgia Power’s general manager of environmental affairs, said the company initially announced its plans last fall and now estimates it will spend up to $2 billion to build new disposal systems and close the ponds.
“We will cease use of our ash ponds within three years. We will no longer put ash in the ponds,” Mitchell said.
New dry ash handling systems will be built at the plants.
Around Lake Juliette, the utility is seeking to purchase several private properties to increase the buffer zone between the plant and neighbors such as Pipkin.
In 2015, Plant Scherer burned 10.8 million tons of coal and produced a little more than 500,000 tons of coal ash, company spokesman Jacob Hawkins said.
About 70 percent of that coal ash was recycled last year, Hawkins said.
From 2005 to 2015, Georgia Power reduced by 25 percent the coal burned at Plant Scherer and produced 28 percent less coal ash, Hawkins said.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been working on new regulations since the 2008 spill of more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry from the Kingston Steam Plant in Tennessee. The new rules follow extensive study of the effects of coal ash on the environment and public health.
Mark Berry, Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs, said in a recent statement that the company will be using advanced technologies and engineering practices to ensure that groundwater is protected as they shift to newer technologies.
“We are aggressively working to close our ash ponds as quickly and safely as possible to meet EPA’s new standards for handling coal ash,” Berry said in the release.
Over the past five years, Georgia Power has reduced its coal-fired generation by nearly half by switching fuel and retiring some facilities, such as Plant Harllee Branch on Lake Sinclair.
As work continues to dismantle the plant near the border of Putnam and Baldwin counties, Georgia Power will remove four of Plant Branch’s coal ash ponds and close the other one on the premises, which is the same plan for the pond at Plant Scherer.
Through advanced engineering methods, impermeable barriers will go in around those ponds to protect groundwater.
“It’s a big construction process,” Mitchell said. “In the first three years, we will put in new equipment to handle the dry ash.”
Nearly half of the ash generated from burning coal at Plant Scherer is expected to be recycled into concrete, Portland cement and blocks.
Closure procedures vary depending on the site characteristics, but a team of independent, professional engineers will oversee the procedure, according to the company’s statement.
Even after the ponds are closed, Georgia Power plans to continue to monitor more than 500 groundwater monitoring wells around its plants.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy lauded the company’s recent announcement as a “positive development.”
The alliance favors using landfills at power plants to protect other communities from “bearing the brunt of this toxic pollution.”
“Removing this festering problem from public waterways is a critical step for protecting human health and the environment,” said Amelia Shenstone, campaigns director for the group.
The reaction to Georgia Power’s announcement was mixed from Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
In his statement, Ebersbach welcomed removing the ash from smaller ponds, but he questioned why the company would try to close the larger ponds in place.
“To protect our clean water and drinking water supplies, Georgia Power must move all of its coal ash to safe, dry, lined storage out of Georgia’s groundwater and away from Georgia’s drinking water supplies and rivers — as is happening across the state line in South Carolina, where coal ash pollution has plummeted as a result,” Ebersbach stated.
According to the 2014 Toxic Release Inventory, Georgia Power already has reduced all production-related waste by about two-thirds since 2003.
Mitchell stressed that the state Environmental Protection Division will regulate the cleanup process, which is expected to stretch beyond the three years for closing the ponds.