A Middle Georgia landfill is accepting test loads of coal ash waste this week from a historic Tennessee spill.
The Veolia landfill in the Taylor County town of Mauk is vying to receive the roughly 5.4 million cubic yards of waste from the spill.
Earlier this week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency pronounced the December spill in Harriman, Tenn., “one of the largest and most serious environmental releases in American history.”
It happened when an ash storage pond collapsed at a coal-fired power plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wet ash flowed over half a square mile, 9 feet deep in some places. It contaminated the Emory River, which the TVA is now being required to dredge.
Test loads of that dredged and dried material started traveling by train Monday to two landfills, one in Alabama and one in Georgia, TVA spokesman Gil Francis said. He said he did not know which landfills were the destination.
But Jeff Cown, solid waste program manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the ash is headed for the Veolia Environmental Services landfill in the Taylor County town of Mauk.
Veolia officials referred all questions to the TVA.
Francis said TVA had requested proposals from companies interested in either transporting or storing the ash. TVA is comparing how the different contenders handle loading, transporting and unloading the ash from rail cars this week before choosing which contractors will handle the job.
He said that decision could be made as early as today.
With one of the largest capacities of any landfill in Georgia — almost 48 million cubic yards — the Veolia landfill at Mauk has plenty of space for the ash. According to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the landfill isn’t expected to fill until 2076.
Veolia ES is a division of Veolia Environnement, which says it is the world’s largest waste services company. Veolia is the latest in a string of private companies to own the Mauk landfill.
Residents of Taylor and Talbot counties contacted this week knew little or nothing about the coal ash coming to Mauk. Most of them expressed concern, noting that the landfill is perched on sandy soils and the water table is only 20 to 30 feet down.
“Putting coal ash with toxic metals in it over an aquifer recharge area is about as stupid a decision as you could make,” said Mark Woodall, who became an environmental activist two decades ago when the state proposed to put a hazardous waste incinerator and storage facility in Taylor County.
State Rep. Debbie Buckner, who lives in nearby Junction City, was dismayed to learn of the coal ash shipments to the Mauk landfill, which towers above the trees enough to have earned the nickname “Mount Trashmore” from Buckner and Woodall.
“It’s very much to the disadvantage of the community, and it saddens me” said Buckner. “It’s got some real implications for the groundwater.”
‘DISMAL LACK OF PUBLIC NOTICE’
Jack McGlaun of Butler said artesian springs around the landfill are part of a large aquifer. “This is not just a Taylor County thing,” he said. “This aquifer goes to Montezuma and all these other towns below us into south Georgia.”
McGlaun said the community just fought off a medical waste incinerator project about 18 months ago.
“Taylor County seems to get more than their fair share of proposals to dump other people’s waste,” said Justine Thompson, an attorney for the Atlanta firm Greenlaw.
“They irony is the very same week a report is released about the dangers of coal ash to those who live near it, a test project was launched to put it in our state,” she said. “The most disturbing aspect is the dismal lack of public notice.”
Thompson referred to a report issued by two environmental groups last week detailing the EPA’s analysis of the health risks posed by unlined coal ash ponds. Those risks include increased cases of cancer, liver and kidney damage and other illnesses among neighbors who drink well water.
However, the Veolia landfill in Mauk has a liner, and the coal ash would be put there in a solid form. These factors mean it’s not as risky as the ash ponds that the EPA focused on.
Coal ash does contain trace metals that are concentrated after burning. Tests of the spill ash, conducted by Tennessee environmental regulators, showed arsenic levels from 20 parts per million to 100 parts per million.
According to EPA cleanup standards, arsenic levels shouldn’t be higher than 20 parts per million in residential areas.
The TVA has conducted its own tests, which show arsenic, beryllium, silver, selenium and thallium in the ash at higher levels than naturally occur in the soil around Harriman, in Tennessee.
If consumed in large amounts, these heavy metals can cause poisoning, as well as various lung and nervous system problems. Some of them have been linked to cancer.
However, none was found in levels that the federal government considers hazardous. That means it may be put in any municipal landfill that has a liner, collects the liquid that leaks out and monitors groundwater.
Francis said the TVA has looked for suitable landfills in many states, including Tennessee, and it also considered using abandoned mines or quarries to store the coal ash. The TVA Web site indicates that the authority will start shipping out the bulk of the ash waste starting this summer.
The EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation must approve the company’s disposal plan. But no special approval is required from Georgia’s environmental regulators if the ash is put in a landfill here.
“We will be observing the results of the tests,” Cown said. “Even though we don’t have to have a role, we want to have a role to make sure it’s done right.”
The state periodically inspects the Mauk landfill, as it does all landfills that accept industrial or household waste.
Cown said his division would probably conduct more monitoring of the landfill if it accepts a large amount of coal ash.
But the Taylor County facility wouldn’t be the first in Georgia to accept coal ash from out of state, Cown said. He knows of at least four others in south Georgia, including the Veolia landfill in Lowndes County, that take coal ash from Florida power plants.
Buckner said Georgia’s waste disposal fees, among the lowest in the Southeast, may be a factor in bringing the coal ash here. A bill in the state Legislature this year would have increased the state surcharge on solid waste disposal from 75 cents to $2.25 per ton, but it went nowhere.
Buckner, who serves on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said such a change in state law would help keep Georgia from becoming a dumping ground.
Woodall agreed. “It’s one thing to be the dumping ground for Atlanta, but another to be the dumping ground for everything from New Jersey to Florida.”
The Telegraph archives contributed to this report.