The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed weakening some of its own Obama-era regulations dictating how utilities clean water contaminated by coal ash and how the ash is stored.
But the rollback won’t affect Cobb County, according to environmentalists and Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility. More than 6 million tons of coal ash waste generated by Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson is stored near the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Cobb.
Coal accounts for most of Georgia Power’s generating capacity, and the company has five sites across the state that utilize coal.
Plant McDonough-Atkinson was converted from a coal-fueled plant to a natural gas-fueled plant in 2011, and its ash ponds have not been used since. But it still has four coal ash ponds of various sizes, according to Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Statewide, Georgia Power has 29 ash ponds at 11 sites. In April, it announced it was in the process of completely excavating 19 ash ponds located adjacent to lakes and rivers with the remaining 10 being closed in place using advanced engineering methods and closure technologies.
Georgia Power has proposed capping the ash ponds at Plant McDonough-Atkinson rather than excavating them and placing them in a lined, impermeable pit. The company says that will be enough to keep the area’s drinking water supply safe.
But state Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta, said capping the pond is insufficient. Earlier this year, she sponsored a resolution that urged the company to move its coal ash to a lined pit far from water. It sits close enough to the Chattahoochee River that she fears it is only a matter of time before toxins from the pond eventually make their way to the river.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash contains pollutants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which scientists say can lead to cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders, learning disabilities and more. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air, the EPA says.
The Obama regulations established national standards governing the disposal of coal ash from electric utilities in landfills and surface impoundments.
The EPA’s proposed changes would give power plants more time to decide how to safely dispose of the coal ash. It would also relax, among other things, the permissible amount of selenium —a naturally occurring element that is nutritionally essential but toxic at high concentrations — allowing utilities to adopt less costly water treatment technology.
“Today’s draft rules from EPA have no impact on Plant McDonough operations and ash pond closure plans,” Georgia Power spokeswoman Holly Crawford said in an email earlier this week.
Chris Bowers, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, agrees.
The EPA’s proposal to amend the rules regarding water treatment technology “only deals with steam electric coal-fired plants, and so it does not involve Plant McDonough’s wastewater treatment,” he said.
The change, however, could impact the timing and selection of technology the company will use at plants Bowen (northwest of Acworth), Scherer (north of Macon) and Wansley (south of Carrollton), Bowers said, although it has already committed to upgrading the wastewater treatment technology it uses to treat their water.
At Plant McDonough-Atkinson, Georgia Power was also in compliance with the coal ash storage regulation the EPA would like to change, as it already has plans to close its ash ponds there, Bowers said, although the SELC has argued that those plans are insufficient.