Report slams Plant Scherer for ash ponds

A report released Wednesday indicates that Plant Scherer in Monroe County is among the coal-fired power plants in the U.S. that put the most toxic heavy metals into ash ponds like the one that collapsed in Tennessee just before Christmas, flooding more than 300 acres.

The report was compiled by a consortium of environmental groups, the Environmental Integrity Project with Earthjustice, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Mountain Defense. Its findings were based on data filed by the companies themselves with the federal Toxic Release Registry between 2000 and 2006.

The failure of the ash pond at the Kingston power plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority in Harriman, Tenn., has renewed national attention on coal ash ponds. Power plants use these man-made impoundments to store a slurry of wet coal ash that is the waste product of burning coal to make electricity.

When the earthen dam at the Kingston ash pond ruptured, it destroyed three houses, damaged the homes and property of more than 40 families and contaminated a creek and a river with more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry. Since then, testing by the Environmental Protection Agency has found that area groundwater contains arsenic at levels 149 times above the federal standard and lead at amounts five times acceptable ranges.

A separate report recently compiled by the Institute for Southern Studies, also based on toxic release inventory data, indicates that Plant Scherer releases so much coal ash to its pond that the pond is probably among the five largest coal ash ponds in the United States.

“Our ash ponds are designed to accommodate the size of our plants,” said Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson. “We conduct total visual weekly inspections of the pond at Plant Scherer.” That pond contains plenty of toxic heavy metals: more arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium and thalium than the Kingston plant contained, according to data compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project.

Scherer, the largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S., is owned mostly by Georgia Power. According to Wednesday’s report, many of the company’s other power plants were also among the top 50 for heavy metals in their ash ponds, including Plant Branch in Milledgeville, Plant Wansley in Carrollton, Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Plant Hammond near Rome and Plant Yates in Newnan.

According to the coal ash report released Wednesday, Scherer released more thallium into its coal ash pond between 2000 and 2006 than any other power plant in the country. Thallium can negatively affect the heart, nervous system, liver or kidneys and cause death from a very low dose.

Although the Kingston plant and many others reported no thallium releases at all, thallium was measured at unsafe levels after the spill.

During a teleconference Wednesday, Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said the report tracks arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium and thallium because they are typically found in coal ash, are very toxic in very small quantities and easily leach out of ash in wet conditions.

Many of the metals are known carcinogens and can cause immediate illness or death in large amounts and chronic disease or developmental problems in smaller amounts over time.

Although the EPA had decided to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste in 2000, it reversed itself within months.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, argued during the news conference that coal ash should be regulated as hazardous waste by the federal government. Now its regulation is almost completely up to states.

“It is to me a very sad day indeed when residential garbage is more regulated than toxic coal ash,” he said. “There are a number of these facilities around the country that are chronically leaking this material into ground and surface water.”

Smith and others said the ponds pose a threat even when functioning properly because they could be leaching toxins into groundwater. The pond at Plant Scherer and those at most other old power plants are not lined.

Local activists have voiced concerns about Plant Scherer’s ash pond for years.

“My greatest concerns have always been for the heavy metals,” said Macon resident Susan Hanberry-Martin. “Just knowing where the ash ponds are, we could see contamination into Lake Juliette and surrounding areas.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.