Five years since Kingston: Juliette, Georgia still waiting for solutions

Guest Blog | November 28, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

Four weeks from now marks the fifth anniversary of the Kingston coal ash spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Leading up to the anniversary we are  posting a series of blogs highlighting communities throughout the Southeast impacted by  coal ash and its detrimental effects. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Donna Welch, resident of Juliette, Georgia, who contributed to this post. 

The Welch's well water is contaminated with extremely high levels of uranium, so they only drink bottled water. Photo Source: Heather Duncan

This Thanksgiving, you are probably looking forward to gathering with friends and family; taking time to rest, relax and enjoy a home cooked feast. But would you invite your family and friends to your home if there were a coal ash lagoon in your neighborhood, threatening a Kingston-like spill at any time? Would you cook that Thanksgiving meal if toxic heavy metals from the coal ash had seeped into your drinking water, making it impossible to safely drink and cook with the water that flows from your faucet? That is what faces many communities across the Southeast including Juliette, Georgia; home to the largest coal-fired power plant in the state.

Dozens of people living near the Scherer Power Station have found unsafe levels of uranium and other toxic heavy metals in their well water. This pollution, they say, comes from the plant’s huge, unlined coal ash dumps. Many have joined in a personal injury lawsuit seeking to hold Georgia Power responsible for the pollution’s impacts.

Donna Welch lives a little over four miles from the plant, and began suffering from mysterious illnesses several years ago. After exhaustive tests and visits to doctors and specialists who were unable to find the cause of her health problems, a doctor suggested they test her hair for toxins that might be building up in her body.

“My hair is 68 parts per million uranium,” Welch says. “And then my husband started breaking out in disfiguring hives. His kidneys started acting really bizarre.”

Ms. Welch was diagnosed with uranium poisoning, the cause of her family’s illnesses. That discovery caught the attention of University of Georgia researchers, who found more than 20 homes in the area with unsafe concentrations of uranium in their drinking water. The Welch’s well water was found to have uranium at 21 times the legal safe limit for uranium and radon; at the time it was the second-highest levels of heavy metals in the state. Independent testing conducted as part of the personal injury lawsuits reveal other pollutants associated with coal ash.

The Welch family isn’t the only one whose health is suffering, many of their neighbors have developed kidney disease, cancer, dementia and respiratory illnesses. Another Scherer neighbor, Wayne Smith built his home in 1969 and is now one of the closest to the coal ash ponds.

“We’re living a slow death,” says Smith. “I didn’t used to have asthma. I ain’t got proof of anything. I just know it’s dirty. Ash from the pond is all over everything we’ve got.”

Plant Scherer's coal ash lagoons cover 553 acres and contain at least 5.1 billion gallons of waste. They are located on the banks of Lake Juliette, which is heavily used for recreation and fishing.

For years, Southern Company has been purchasing homes near Plant Scherer, demolishing the houses and capping drinking water wells, though the utility denies there is any link to the coal ash and health problems in the area. A report by the Georgia Department of Public Health concluded that the uranium is naturally occurring, though there continue to be differing opinions about the uranium’s source. The tragic situation in Juliette is a perfect example of why federal coal ash regulations are needed to protect communities. In the absence of federal regulations, states are left to decide if and how to safeguard the public from this hazardous waste. According to analysis by EarthJustice, Georgia has some of the weakest coal ash disposal regulations in the nation (even though it is one of the top coal ash-producing states).

It’s high time for sensible, science-based regulations that protect communities, precious water resources, and wildlife from coal ash pollution. Tell your representatives in Congress and EPA know that we’ve waited long enough, that its time to stop the delays and finalize a coal ash rule before our nation experiences another another Kingston.

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