ATLANTA – Three Georgia environmental groups are asking an appellate court to let them intervene in a legal effort by a coalition of utilities including Atlanta-based Southern Co. to block a federal crackdown on coal ash ponds.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has filed a motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to give intervenor status to the Altamaha Riverkeeper, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Coosa River Basin Initiative.

The Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group acted after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in January it intends to enforce a 2015 rule prohibiting utilities from dumping ash generated by coal-burning power plants into unlined ponds. The Trump administration had backed away from enforcing the rule.

Coal ash contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water as well as air.

The EPA warned it would require utilities to “control, minimize or eliminate” contamination of groundwater from coal ash ponds. At that time, the agency rejected four ash pond closure plans submitted by utilities in the Northeast and Midwest.

The EPA then sent a letter asking the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to review pending coal ash pond closure permits to determine whether they need to be modified or reissued.

Southern subsidiary Georgia Power is in the process of spending an estimated $9 billion to close all 29 of its ash ponds at 11 plants across the state, a $9 billion investment. While the Atlanta-based utility’s plan calls for excavating and removing the ash from 19 of those ponds, the other 10 are to be closed in place.

An executive with Georgia Power disclosed last month that ash from four of those 10 ponds – at Plant Hammond near Rome, Plant McDonough south of Vinings, Plant Yates near Newnan and Plant Scherer near Macon – will continue to be exposed to groundwater after the closures are completed.

“It is long past time that Georgia Power’s risky, leaking coal ash lagoons are cleaned up and that Georgia’s rivers and communities are protected from this threat,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the SELC, said Friday. “By intervening, the groups that protect the Altamaha, Chattahoochee and Coosa rivers will be able to speak up for their rivers and the people who depend upon them.”

Aaron Mitchell, Georgia Power’s director of environmental affairs, told members of the state Public Service Commission during hearings last month the EPA has declared acceptable the utility’s plans to close its ash ponds – both those to be excavated and those to be closed in place.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.