Report: Georgia among worst in nation regarding dangerous coal ash ponds

The Environmental Protection Agency has for years concluded that coal ash ponds at power plants increase cancer and other health risks to neighbors and wildlife, although the agency hid some of the information for years, according to a report released Thursday by two national environmental groups.

The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report called “Coming Clean: What EPA Knows About the Dangers of Coal Ash” as they urged the Obama administration to ban the use of ash ponds.

The ponds are widely used to contain ash from burned coal, often mixed with other coal waste, in a liquid form. The “Coming Clean” report identified which U.S. plants met the EPA’s criteria for having the highest risk factors.

The report’s assessment of EPA data showed 11 Georgia Power plants, including Plant Scherer in Monroe County, Plant Branch in Putnam County and the former Plant Arkwright in Bibb County, were among the 200 or so riskiest in the nation. Georgia was fifth among states with the highest number of high-risk sites, according to the report.

The EPA estimates that up to 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from the arsenic leaking into wells from unlined ponds that mix ash with coal waste. The EPA also predicts that these unlined ponds can increase other health risks, such as damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, from other contaminants like lead.

National attention turned to coal ash ponds this past December when a 40-acre Tennessee Valley Authority pond in Harriman, Tenn., collapsed and covered hundreds of acres with contaminated muck as deep as 9 feet.

Plant Scherer, the largest coal-fired powered plant in the country, has an ash pond almost 19 times the size of the Kingston Fossil Plant near Harriman. According to Georgia Power, it accepts more than 1,000 tons of coal ash a day.

Georgia Power estimates that the pond’s nearest residential neighbors are about half a mile away.All the Middle Georgia coal-fired power plants had the highest risk factors identified by EPA: They are unlined and store a mixture of coal ash and other coal combustion waste. Except for Arkwright, which has been closed, ground water has not been tested near any of the ponds.

Closed ponds such as Arkwright’s aren’t necessarily safe, the report indicates. EPA warns pollution from ash ponds can peak about 78 to 105 years after they were first used.

The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice indicated the extent of the problem could be much larger than originally thought. All the information about specific ash ponds is based on EPA data that is almost 15 years old. After the Kingston spill, the EPA asked power companies to report their ash ponds. The resulting number, 427, was almost 40 percent higher than previous government estimates.

Georgia Power officials weren’t very familiar with the report and had little comment. Jeff Wilson, Georgia Power spokesman, said after the TVA spill that Georgia Power inspected all its ash ponds and found no structural problems. He said the state Environmental Protection Division also inspected the ponds at Plant Branch in January, finding no problems.

The “Coming Clean” report was based on EPA risk assessments first completed in 2002 but kept from the public until 2007, when some were released. The administration of former President George W. Bush refused to release or blacked out some of the information when it was requested under federal sunshine laws, according to Earthjustice attorneys.

New information from the 2002 EPA internal assessment, released for the first time in March by the Obama administration, indicates that government scientists predicted coal ash ponds would pose high risks to fish and wildlife, said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.

For example, boron levels were predicted to run 200 times higher than those deemed safe for aquatic life. Selenium and arsenic are also predicted to exceed safe levels by 10 to 20 times. Selenium can accumulate in the tissue of animals that ingest it and be passed up the food chain when people eat contaminated fish.

Plant Scherer’s ash pond has been lauded by state wildlife biologists as a haven for water birds, and it is partially surrounded by Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is open to public hunting.Evans said the EPA needs to require that coal ash be stored in dry landfills with a double liner, and require ground water monitoring.Eric Schaeffer, founder of the Environmental Integrity Project, added that old coal ash ponds should be phased out and not “grandfathered” under new rules. Schaeffer was director of the EPA Office of Regulatory Enforcement until resigning in 2002 after protesting the Bush administration’s weakening of environmental laws.

“In the last administration, there was a certain reluctance to regulate the coal industry at all,” he said, while expressing confidence that current EPA administrator Lisa Jackson will follow through on her promise to regulate coal ash ponds. “There’s really no good logic for continuing to drop fly ash into these ponds. You really are buying a long-term and potentially very serious problem.”

Information from the Telegraph’s archive was used in this report.

To contact writer Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.