FL, GA, and AL Failing to Properly Regulate Coal Ash

Guest Blog | May 12, 2016 | Energy Policy

This post is part two of a two-part series exploring the state of coal ash regulation and clean up in the Southeast. Part one focused on North and South Carolina and Tennessee. Part two focuses on Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. 

Environmental regulators in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama have so far failed to strengthen state policies to at least match EPA’s federal minimum standards for coal ash handling and storage. They have also allowed coal plant water pollution permits to expire and have neglected to integrate new, more protective standards for coal ash pollution into these permits, even though they would provide greater protection for waterways and public health.

South Carolina remains the only state in the southeast where utilities are excavating ash at all riverfront pits to lined, dry storage away from our rivers and waterways. One South Carolina utility is reducing arsenic contamination in groundwater by doing so.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently created new federal coal ash and effluent limitation guideline rules, which set minimum federal requirements for storage and handling of coal ash and liquid discharges from coal ash waste, respectively. In response, Alabama Power and Georgia Power announced plans to “close” their coal ash pits, though their plans are scant on detail and woefully inadequate based on publicly available documents. All three states have so far failed to integrate the new effluent limitation guidelines into their water pollution permits as described below in the section “Problems with Water Pollution Permits in All Three States.”

Lax Regulation Particularly Perilous in Florida

SACE staff recently helped organize screenings of “Coal Ash Stories” in Florida featuring four short films that explore the risks of coal ash waste. Scores of Floridians attending these screenings in five cities: Sarasota, Tampa, Lakeland, Jacksonville, and Pensacola. These cities are all near power plants and coal ash storage facilities. Many residents were concerned about the state’s porous geology and high water table, which increase the risk that toxics from coal ash stored in landfills and unlined pits will leach into drinking water supplies and pollute Florida’s pristine environmental treasures.

Coal ash across the southeast needs to be removed from unlined storage to lined landfills in stable terrain away from waterways. It’s particularly dangerous to store coal ash in Florida, where waterways are so ubiquitous and the ground so porous, even if it’s stored in lined landfills. That’s why Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) needs to incorporate the EPA’s minimum standards for handling, disposal, and storage of coal ash into state policy and hold utilities accountable for meeting those standards.

Plant CD McIntosh in Lakeland, owned by Lakeland Electric and Orlando Utilities Commission, provides an excellent example of why Floridians should be particularly concerned about where coal ash is stored in their state. The Sierra Club recently commissioned a University of South Florida expert in the hydrogeology of Florida to study the coal ash landfill at McIntosh.

The expert, Dr. Mark Stewart, found that McIntosh’s landfill cannot meet the key requirements of EPA’s coal ash rule, meaning the owners will need to close the landfill, potentially at a great cost. More alarmingly, Dr. Stewart found that conditions at the plant may lead to the formation of a catastrophic sinkhole which could drop toxic ash into the Floridan aquifer, threatening the drinking water supply in Lakeland and beyond.

Sierra Club’s report comes on the heels of a study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) commissioned by SACE, which clearly demonstrates that electricity from CD McIntosh’s coal boiler is already more expensive than available, cleaner generating options. We created a short video highlighting these and other issues with the plant.

It’s not all bad news in Florida. Thanks to a landmark settlement agreement in 2015, Gulf Power is cleaning up its coal ash mess at the retired Scholz Generating Plant near Sneads, Florida. SACE, Apalachicola Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, sued the utility under the federal Clean Water Act for allowing coal ash to leak from unlined pits into the Apalachicola River. Because of this legal action, Gulf Power is removing its coal ash from unlined pits at Scholz to an onsite landfill with an underground wall designed to prevent groundwater contamination. Gulf will monitor groundwater for signs of leakage.

This legal victory is achieving cleanup, but only at one of eleven sites in Florida. Without immediate action from the state’s DEP, it’s little wonder why Floridians are concerned about the threats coal ash pose to their health and the health of Florida’s environment.

EPD Needs to Protect Georgians

Georgia Power's Plant Wansley with its coal ash pits outlined in yellow. Source: SELC

In response to EPA’s coal ash rules, Southern Company subsidiary utility Georgia Power recently announced plans to “close” its ash pits, which collectively contain billions of gallons of toxic coal ash and wastewater. Unfortunately, the utility provided precious little detail about what “closure” will look like. SACE staff investigated publicly available documents and found that Georgia Power seems to favor placing a liner on top of its ash pits and leaving them where they are, threatening ground and surface water, presumably forever. The utility has yet to publicly provide actual closure plans for the majority of its ash ponds.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently signed a bill that ensures nearby residents are notified of toxic leaks at landfills. The General Assembly took up the issue after an investigative report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that coal ash waste leaked from now-closed coal ash facilities at a controversial south Georgia landfill.

The General Assembly also created a committee to study coal ash disposal issues more broadly. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is also hosting a stakeholder engagement meeting this afternoon to discuss rule changes related to coal ash. We’re hopeful these changes are a step in the right direction.

EPD needs to require Georgia Power to remove its coal ash from unlined pits to lined, dry storage away from rivers and waterways where it will not contaminate groundwater, or put already vulnerable environmental justice communities at additional risk. South Carolina utilities are proving that this method is not only possible – it can reduce arsenic contamination in groundwater. 

Alabama Power Reveals Almost No Details on Closure Plans

In 2015, sister Southern Company subsidiary Alabama Power also announced plans to close its coal ash storage ponds in response to EPA’s rules. However, the utility remains tight-lipped on the specifics. Alabama Power released some details of its plan to “close” one coal ash pond at Plant Gadsden because disclosure was required under EPA’s coal ash rule. Like Georgia Power, Alabama Power’s publicly available document contains scant details but reveals that the utility plans to pursue the highly problematic closure-in-place option.

Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley approved HB 50 in 2011, which removed exemptions for coal ash from Alabama’s solid waste disposal laws and gave the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) more authority over how the ash is disposed. So far, ADEM has failed to incorporate EPA’s minimum standards for coal ash handling, disposal, and storage into state policy, so Alabamians have plenty of cause for concern.

TVA, whose territory stretches into northern Alabama, is planning to place a liner over most of its coal ash pits, including at its two retired plants in Alabama, and leave coal ash in place, presumably forever. ADEM should take action immediately to require proper storage and disposal of coal ash to protect Alabamians’ health and the health of the environment.

Problems with Water Pollution Permits in All Three States

Source: Waterkeeper Alliance

Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, states are generally delegated the role of administering the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a permit program which limits water pollution from industrial activities. The new Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) provide strict new standards that will greatly limit dangerous liquid discharges from coal ash at power plants across the southeast. State regulators must incorporate these limits into power plant NPDES permits as soon as possible and by 2023 at the absolute latest.

Georgia: Sierra Club authored, and SACE signed (along with nine other public interest groups) a letter to EPD urging the agency to issue new NPDES permits for Georgia Power’s coal plants that reflect the toxic heavy metal pollution limits in the ELG rule. All the permits are currently expired. Additionally, we asked EPD to take comments for at least 60 days before finalizing draft permits and to engage stakeholders in the process of establishing timelines for compliance. The Clean Water Act was designed to continually improve the quality of our water by incorporating new pollution control technologies as they become available. It’s far past time for EPD to ensure Georgians are protected from pollutants like mercury and arsenic discharged from coal ash pits at Georgia Power’s plants.

Florida: Sierra Club authored and SACE signed (along with 11 other public interest groups) a letter to DEP urging DEP to ensure that Florida’s utilities bring all of Florida’s power plants into compliance with EPA’s ELG rules as soon as possible. Three of Florida’s plants, including CD McIntosh, are not covered under the NPDES permit system, but still must meet ELG requirements for their coal ash liquid waste. The letter urged DEP to ensure these plants are bringing their waste treatment strategies into compliance as soon as possible.

Alabama: All of Alabama Power and TVA’s NPDES permits in Alabama are expired, meaning ADEM is failing to do its best to protect the state’s waters from toxic coal ash pollution. We urge ADEM to address these expired permits as soon as possible and ensure they contain the latest ELG requirements.

Environmental Regulators Need to Act Immediately

Florida’s DEP needs to act immediately to ensure that ash pits throughout the state are safe, considering the risks storing ash on unstable terrain could pose to public health. So far, DEP has not acted with the urgency this situation demands. The owners of CD McIntosh and other utilities with coal ash in Florida need to take the risks of sinkhole collapse and groundwater contamination very seriously and act accordingly.

The actions by Georgia’s General Assembly and Governor to increase transparency around toxic ash contaminate releases and Georgia EPD’s stakeholder engagement process are steps in the right direction. Only time will tell if they will result in meaningful protections for Georgians, especially considering Georgia Power’s apparent desire to close ash pits in place.

ADEM has had the authority to do more to protect Alabamians from coal ash pollution for five years but has so far failed to use its authority to properly regulate coal ash. ADEM needs to ensure that Alabama Power doesn’t just leave coal ash in place where it has the potential to contaminate groundwater indefinitely.

All three states need to act immediately to make sure discharges from power plant facilities in their states have updated permits that incorporate the new ELG requirements. Given the failure of these agencies so far to take any of these actions on their own accord, it’s critical that communities continue sharing the risks of coal ash contamination with their neighbors, and holding regulators accountable.

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