“Dirty Dozen” 2016 presents yet another strike against coal-fired Plant Hammond

Guest Blog | November 21, 2016 | Coal, Energy Policy
The Georgia Water Coalition is a group of more than 200 advocacy groups concerned about water issues in Georgia. Each year, the coalition issues a report on the 12 biggest threats to Georgia's water resources. SACE and Sierra Club nominated EPD's failure to update Georgia Power's NPDES permits for inclusion in this year's report.

A new report, released on November 16, explains the concerning weaknesses of Georgia’s water pollution permits. When these permits are inevitably strengthened to limit mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxic discharges from Georgia Power’s power plants, it will make even less economic sense to run Plant Hammond – and Georgia’s water will be safer.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and our partners nominated the issue of outdated water pollution permits for inclusion in the report, which urges Georgia’s environmental regulator to update the permits as soon as possible to protect Georgia’s water from toxic pollution.

The imminent update to these permits is one more reason (piling on top of those we’ve highlighted before and recapped below) why we are calling on Georgia Power to set a firm retirement date for Plant Hammond and work with stakeholders in Rome, GA and the surrounding communities to begin a strategic transition away from dirty energy generation and toward a renewable energy future.

New national water pollution permit standards strengthen case for Plant Hammond retirement

Source: Waterkeeper Alliance

The Dirty Dozen 2016 Report shines a spotlight on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) failure to limit the amount of mercury, arsenic, and other dangerous pollutants that Georgia Power can dump into Georgia’s waterways.

Coal-fired power plants, like Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond in Rome, have a huge impact on water resources. They pull water in from lakes, rivers, and streams for steam generation to produce electricity. They also use the water to transport toxic-laden ash from coal boilers and waste from pollution controls out to holding pits, which are often unlined and sitting beside our rivers and streams.

The contaminated water is later discharged into waterways. Through the Clean Water Act, EPD issues permits that are part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”). The NPDES permit system is a linchpin of the Clean Water Act. Periodic updates to their technology requirements and limitations on toxic water pollution are supposed to reduce and eventually eliminate toxic industrial pollution into the waters of the US, including those that Georgians depend on for recreation, fishing, and drinking water.

Unfortunately, EPD’s current NPDES permits for Georgia Power’s coal plants hardly limit toxic pollution at all, even though power plants contribute nearly one-third of all the toxic pollutants discharged into surface water at a national level.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated its water discharge pollution and technology standards for steam electric power plants for the first time since 1982. When implemented, the new standards, called Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs), will place strict limits on heavy metals in sludge from air pollution control waste streams, and mostly eliminate the use of water to transport coal ash to storage pits.

Compliance with the new ELG standards is required as soon as possible after Nov. 1, 2018 but no later than Dec. 31, 2023. We and our partners are calling on EPD to require compliance by that 2018 deadline. The Dirty Dozen 2016 report makes a similar call to action:

EPD must immediately begin the process of updating and renewing permits for Plant Hammond and four other coal-fired power plants with expired permits. These new permits should comply with federal deadlines to eliminate…toxic discharges to Georgia’s rivers and streams.

Georgia Power is only approved by Georgia’s Public Utilities Commission for $5 million in annual capital spending at Plant Hammond for the next three years. It is likely impossible to address the numerous inadequacies of plant operations within that limit. Georgia Power should concentrate on properly cleaning up its coal ash mess and invest in clean energy instead of sinking more resources into an outdated plant, and act as soon as possible to set a retirement date for Hammond.

Plant Hammond is a threat to our water and environment

Georgia Power's Plant Hammond

Plant Hammond first went online in the 1950s and still uses an outdated “once-through” cooling system. On a daily basis, Hammond can withdraw about 590 million gallons of water, roughly equivalent to what the city of Atlanta uses daily. Its cooling system sucks water as well as fish and their eggs in from the Coosa River – killing an estimated 60,000 fish per year. It pours most of that water back into the river, but it’s hotter than before, creating oxygen-poor environments that further stress fish and other wildlife.

Georgia’s EPD promised to take up the NPDES permit covering Plant Hammond’s hot water discharge back in 2015, but we’re still waiting. Water advocates are calling for a permit that drastically cuts the volume and temperature of the plant’s discharge to the Coosa River in addition to cutting toxic pollution as required by the new ELG standards mentioned above. Technology is readily available to do so. Georgia Power could build a cooling tower to recycle water and reduce its temperature before it’s discharged. This fix could cost as much as $165 million, however, and investments in such technology rather than simply phasing out the plant would be throwing good money after bad.

The coal ash Georgia Power stores on site is another potential disaster. Georgia Power will excavate ash at three of its pits and close the fourth pit in place using “advanced” methods, though we have scant details about what “advanced” means. Already, the utility has discovered arsenic contamination at one groundwater monitoring well. We know that two of the pits contain a combined estimated total of 727,100 tons of ash and over 120 million gallons of wastewater. Closing pits without removing the ash has not been demonstrated to safely prevent further groundwater contamination.

We’re pleased to see Georgia Power removing ash from some of its pits, but we think the utility should remove all its ash to dry, lined storage away from rivers and waterways and in a manner that doesn’t place a disproportionate risk burden on low-income communities and communities of color. EPD also needs to ensure that Georgia Power doesn’t simply dump those millions of gallons of wastewater into the Coosa River under the current, inadequate NPDES permit.

Continuing to run Plant Hammond doesn’t make financial sense

A 2015 report from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis, commissioned by SACE, detailed how Plant Hammond’s performance and costs compare with other generation sources and how it closely resembles other plants that Georgia Power is planning to retire. From the report:

The cost of generating power at Plant Hammond already is very high compared to the cost of purchasing power from other plants. More important, due to dramatic declines in the cost of adding new solar and wind capacity, power generated by Plant Hammond already is much more expensive than buying power from utility-scale solar and wind projects through long-term (15- to 25-year) power purchase agreements. And the cost of generating power at Plant Hammond is likely to rise even higher in coming years as a result of costly upgrades to add cooling towers and effluent treatment controls

Plant Hammond is close in age, cost, and power production (shown below) to generating units at three other coal-fired plants Georgia Power agreed to retire by spring of 2016: Plant Branch, part of Plant Kraft, and Plant Yates.

Georgia Power will need to retire Plant Hammond. When the compliance costs of  new, necessary protections like the ELGs and heat discharge upgrades are combined with the already high cost of power generation at Hammond, the economic case is clear.

What would closure look like?

Setting a retirement date now, even if that date isn’t immediate, would ensure that Plant Hammond is on the right path for environmental and ratepayer protection. It could also spur the conversation about how northwest Georgia communities want to grow and thrive, new ways to create jobs, and economic development incentives that may be available – and how clean energy can be part of the solution. We hope Georgia Power would be part of this conversation, and a good way to start would be to lay out their intentions.

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