Georgia Power’s plans to leave more than 1 million tons of toxic coal ash partially sitting in groundwater in northwest Georgia drew public indignation during a hearing held Tuesday.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

More than three dozen residents from all over the state dialed into the virtual hearing focused on Plant Hammond in Rome, as speaker after speaker Zoomed in to urge the state Environmental Protection Division to reverse course on approving the utility’s plans.

“Is it too much to expect a utility company we all pay every month – many of us for decades and lifetimes – to conduct business ethically and responsibly and clean up their messes?” said Melissa Keefe, who lives in Rome.

Keefe said she was warned not to drink the water when she first moved to Rome seven years ago, so she uses filtered water for drinking and cooking. But what about the people who cannot afford water filters, she asked, and do the filters even protect her?

Coal ash is the toxic waste left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, and the debate over what to do with the massive piles of coal ash in Georgia has entered a new phase as the state’s largest electric utility seeks approval from regulators to seal in place the waste where it sits in unlined pits at five plants.

Setting a precedent for other ponds

The permit for Hammond is being closely watched by environmentalists and others who are opposed to coal ash being capped in place without a protective liner and a leachate collection system to protect groundwater. If Hammond’s permit is approved, they worry close-in-place permits soon will follow at larger sites, like Plant Scherer in Juliette.

At all five plants where Georgia Power plans to seal-in-place, the coal ash is sitting in groundwater. The bottom of the coal ash is submerged in as little as a foot of groundwater to more than 50 feet of groundwater.

All told, Georgia Power’s plans call for digging up and moving the ash at 19 ponds and capping-in-place 10 others in unlined pits that have been drained of water.

At Hammond, which opened in the 1950s and was retired two years ago, three of the plant’s coal ash ponds were relocated to a lined landfill.

But the utility is getting public pushback on its plans to cap-in-place about 1.1 million tons of toxic coal ash at the Rome plant, where it sits in an unlined pit and partially submerged in the groundwater. Georgia Power has already done the work, draining the water and installing a cover back in 2018.

“Let’s please remember our neighbors in Juliette, Georgia, and not risk other people’s health here in Rome and Floyd County and beyond,” said Julia Barnes, a Floyd County resident who said she lives near Plant Hammond.

Polluted wells loom

The small town of Juliette in Monroe County – once best known as the film location for ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ – has quickly become a cautionary tale for others. Polluted well water and mystery illnesses angered the community, prompting a large group of residents to show up at the state Capitol last year.

The county is now spending $20 million to extend a water line out to about 850 homes near Plant Scherer. Some residents say a water line is not enough to solve the problem.

“Even though they say they are following all of the rules and the requirements, I have to ask: What is the safest way to close the ponds?” said Gini Seitz, who lives in Juliette and who advocated at the Capitol last year for coal ash to be stored in lined landfills. “And I hope that EPD considers that.”

Company says ponds aren’t culprit

Georgia Power has long argued there’s no evidence their coal ash ponds have endangered public health or the state’s drinking water. Aaron Mitchell, the utility’s director of environmental affairs, noted corrective action will be required if groundwater monitoring indicates a problem.

If approved, Georgia Power would have to monitor the groundwater for at least 30 years. A bill that would have raised the minimum time up to 50 years cleared the state House this year before stalling in the Senate.

“Georgia Power takes our commitment to ensuring protection of environment very seriously,” Mitchell said. “Our employees, our retirees are members of the community. They’re around the plant and the safe, effective closure of Plant Hammond’s ash pond 3 is an important part of our continued commitment to the community.”

Several speakers, though, accused the utility of putting its bottom line and shareholders ahead of the public’s wellbeing. Some also questioned why all the toxic waste sites were not treated the same.

“All communities have equal rights to clean drinking water,” said Hannah Shultz, Georgia Interfaith Power and Light. “It is unjust for Georgia Power to excavate toxic coal ash from some unlined pits but cap-in-place others. If the safer solution is right for some Georgia communities, it should be right for all of them.”

State regulators, though, could still require the state’s largest electric utility to relocate the toxic waste to a lined landfill.

For now, the state Environmental Protection Division is poised to issue the permit but is seeking public input first. A virtual hearing was held Tuesday evening, and written comments are due by 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 to

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...