Residents worried coal ash was contaminating their water. New data suggests it might be

Longtime Monroe County resident discusses neighborhood, Plant Scherer

Longtime Monroe County resident Kimbell Duckworth talks about his neighborhood and its biggest neighbor, Plant Scherer.
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Longtime Monroe County resident Kimbell Duckworth talks about his neighborhood and its biggest neighbor, Plant Scherer.

Karl Cass has lived on the same quiet stretch of Pine Lane Trail in Juliette his entire life. Cass’s parents moved there in 1975, and he and his wife built their own home on the property two decades later.

He’s never wanted to live anywhere else.

But soon, Cass might not have a choice. His home is less than a mile from Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer, the largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. Cass wonders if living so close to an ash pond teaming with toxic waste is safe.

And he’s not alone.

A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found that 11 of Georgia’s 12 coal plants are leaching toxic coal ash pollutants into the groundwater beneath them. At Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer, the authors reported elevated levels of boron and cobalt, in some cases 10 to 20 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s health-based threshold.

It’s the first comprehensive report of coal ash pollution since the EPA passed a new set of regulations in 2015, mandating utility companies to monitor and report groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds. The results are clear: pollution levels at coal-fired power plants across the state exceed safe levels.

And those toxins could make nearby residents sick.

Many of Cass’s neighbors have suffered strange ailments since Plant Scherer opened in the early 1980s. And he can’t help but wonder if the power plant has something to do with it.

Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn, who contributed to the report, has conducted her own water testing around the plant for years. In nearby wells, she’s found high levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen often linked to cancer.

“You do have wells with hexavalent chromium much, much higher than your normal cancer risk,” Hilburn said during a teleconference Thursday. “Then you have a community that has a high incidence of cancer. So, I would consider that suspicious.”

Cass’s son battled testicular cancer as a senior in high school, and his niece, who lives up the road, was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma at four years old. Neither type of cancer runs in the family, he said.

Neighbors down the road have survived lymphoma and melanoma and others have suffered from lung illnesses. Every household in the area has been affected, Cass said.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something’s wrong.” he said.

‘This is home’

It wasn’t always like this, said Kimbell Duckworth, who’s lived in his home on Woodland Way, just around the corner from Cass, since 1970. He and his wife both grew up in Juliette, and they jumped at the chance to buy a place of their own on a peaceful corner lot in the woods.

“It was just what I wanted,” he said.

But the 78-year-old has seen the neighborhood evolve since Plant Scherer opened in 1982. Duckworth’s watched layers of black grime coat the sides of his home and settle in the water bowls he leaves in the yard for his dogs. He power washes thick dust off of his driveway every six weeks.

And Duckworth’s lost dozens of neighbors over the years. Some have died of terminal illnesses and others have been bought out by Georgia Power.

The energy company has purchased and razed nearly every home within a half-mile of the plant, creating a buffer zone between coal ash contamination and residential areas.

But Georgia Power hasn’t specified how far the buffer zone might eventually extend or when it plans to acquire more properties, Duckworth said. He tries not to worry about it, but the fear of losing his home always lurks in the back of his mind.

Duckworth expects the whole neighborhood will be gone in the next few years.

“It makes me feel like I’m being run over,” he said. “I haven’t done anything out here for anybody to want to tear my house down and move me out. And I don’t feel like I can replace this house for what I got in it.”

Duckworth’s home may not be worth much to the next man, he said, but it’s worth a lot to him. Another house wouldn’t be the same.

“This is home,” Duckworth said. “That’ll just be somewhere you stay out of the weather.”

Stuck in limbo

Kim Brock can hear the low hum of the power plant from his home at the end of Woodland Way. He’s wondered for years what impact the black crusty ash that covers his property might have on his health.

“It’s an unknown,” Brock said.

At this point, all Brock knows is what he’s observed on his own or researched online.

The new report reveals Brock and his neighbors have reason to worry.

All but one well at Plant Scherer revealed unsafe concentrations of cobalt, which can cause lung issues, cell damage, birth defects and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Another had high levels of boron, which can be toxic if ingested in high doses.

Georgia Power is in the process of closing all 29 ash ponds at its coal-fired power plants, including the 553-acre ash pond at Plant Scherer. Most ponds will be completely excavated, but at the Juliette plant, 15.5 million tons of ash will be sealed in place.

The power company determined site-specific plans for ash pond closures based on pond size, location, geology and amount of material, with certification from a team of independent engineers, according to a press release issued Thursday.

“Georgia Power plans to dewater the ash pond at Plant Scherer, consolidate the ash into a smaller ‘footprint’ and then close the pond in place using advanced engineering methods to ensure a safe, secure and stable facility,” Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft said in an email to The Telegraph.

But environmentalists worry about the long-term ramifications of an unlined pit filled with coal ash waste.

“These coal ash ponds are leaking on the surface and into our groundwater. They have been for years,” Hilburn said. “They continue to pollute our communities’ recreation and drinking water. And in order to protect our communities, Georgia Power absolutely must excavate all of these ponds.”

Brock wonders what groundwater toxins might be floating in his well water. Monroe County is in the process of extending its water lines, but many residents who live near the plant, like Brock, still rely on wells.

Third-party contractors for Georgia Power have collected and analyzed extensive data on well water quality near the plant and have “identified no risk to public health or drinking water,” Kraft said.

But as the buffer zone expands, Brock’s seen Georgia Power fill one well after the next with concrete, never to be drank from again.

“When they go in and, you know, raze the property and tear down all the buildings and stuff and pour a well full of concrete,” Brock said, “makes you wonder, you know, is there something – is there something in the water?”

Brock acknowledged Georgia Power has made substantial efforts to curb its environmental impact. And he’s grateful for the company’s economic contributions to the community.

Brock’s not sure if the company’s done enough, though. He wishes Georgia Power were more transparent.

“If there’s some environmental concerns or health concerns to be had from anything that is happening or has happened there in the past, we need to be aware of it,” he said. “And, you know, if they’re wanting to buy more buffer zone around here, I wish they would go ahead and let people know, because it would help us to kind of plan our futures, as well.”

Brock wouldn’t mind selling his home to the power company. Georgia Power representatives have told him over the phone they eventually plan to purchase properties in the area, he said.

But there’s too much sentimental value to leave just yet, Brock said. His family has lived on the property since 1974.

“It’s kind of a limbo of my own making, in some ways, ‘cause I chose to continue to live here,” Brock said. “It’s just a nice place to be.”

Plans for the future

Georgia Power is on track to permanently close all of its coal ash ponds in the next few years and plans to switch to dry handling of its coal waste by 2019. In the meantime, it will continue to conduct detection and assessment monitoring of its groundwater, in accordance with both EPA and state regulations.

The Georgia Protection Division established its own coal ash regulations in March and has applied for EPA authorization to manage a state-run coal ash permit program, which would reach beyond federal requirements to protect the environment from pollution.

But if toxins have already seeped into the groundwater, in some areas, it might be too late.

Cass has started to reassess his plans for the future as more information about groundwater contamination has come to light. The father of two had once hoped his adult sons would eventually move back to Juliette, to raise their families on the same land where generations of Casses have grown up.

Now, Cass knows that’s not an option. It wouldn’t be worth the risk.

Cass already has one child with cancer. He worries who might be next.

“Do I have cancer?” Cass wonders. “Does my wife have cancer? Does my youngest son that’s not been diagnosed with any health-related issues, does he have something going on that we’re not aware of?”

The anxiety keeps him up at night.

“I guess they think we’re just a bunch of dumb southerners that don’t know any different and really don’t care, as long as cousin so and so’s working out there, and they’ve got a job and uncle so and so’s got a job. And, you know, life’s grand,” Cass said. “Well, I don’t have direct family working out there, you know. And even if I did, you gotta use common sense. And I think it’s contaminating our community.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.