Who made Georgia’s Dirty Dozen list? Coal and nuclear plants, that’s who!

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | November 20, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy, Nuclear
Last week Georgia’s leading water protection group, the Georgia Water Coalition, of which Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) is an active partner, announced the “Dirty Dozen” for 2013, highlighting 12 of the year’s worst offenses to Georgia’s waters. The annual Dirty Dozen report shines a spotlight on state policies and failures that ultimately harm Georgia property owners, taxpayers, downstream communities, fish and wildlife, hunters and anglers, and boaters and swimmers. This year, 3 of the 12 were polluting and water-intensive existing and proposed nuclear and coal-fired power plants: Plant Vogtle, Plant Scherer, and Plant Washington. The full report details the history of each selection and suggests solutions to correct these ongoing problems and eliminate the listed threats.

As described by April Ingle, Executive Director of the Georgia River Network, “The Dirty Dozen is not a list of the most polluted water bodies in Georgia, nor are they ranked in any particular order. It’s a list of problems that exemplify the results of inadequate funding for environmental protections, lack of political will to enforce environmental laws and ultimately misguided water planning and spending priorities that flow from the very top of Georgia’s leadership.”

Additionally, Gordon Rogers with the Flint Riverkeeper mentioned that, “Over the past decade, the health of Georgia’s waterways and the health and safety of Georgia citizens has been compromised as funding for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has not kept pace with population and economic growth.”

The report highlighted existing and proposed coal-fired and nuclear power plants (items 6, 8 and 12 in the report—representing four different plants) that harm water quality and quantity in Georgia’s rivers by withdrawing massive amounts of water, discharging heated water back to the waterways, and generating toxic pollution from coal ash dumps and airborne pollution. A fuller picture of these power plant-related “offenders” is described below.

Plant Scherer and Coal Ash

This is the first year that a coal ash waste impoundment site made the Dirty Dozen list — the Scherer Power Station on the Ocmulgee River where over 5 billion gallons of potentially toxic coal ash waste is stored right across the Ocmulgee River from the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge. In Georgia at least 17 billion gallons of coal ash waste are stored in huge lagoons that are mostly aging, unlined and close to waterways. Coal ash is full of toxic heavy metals, a hazardous waste by definition, though current Georgia and federal regulations fail to protect vital waterways and communities from pollution and the threat of another catastrophic dam failure as this region experienced in Kingston, Tennessee five years ago.

Testing of residential wells near Scherer revealed high levels of uranium, radon and other toxic heavy metals in groundwater–that is undoubtedly flowing into the Ocmulgee River and Lake Juliette. Many of Scherer’s neighbors blame the coal ash for polluting their drinking water and causing illnesses ranging from respiratory and kidney disease to cancer, prompting a wave of lawsuits.

Proposed Plant Washington

Plant Washington, one of the last new coal plant proposals in the country, made the list this year due to the threat it poses to the Ogeechee and Oconee rivers. If built, it would draw up to 16 million gallons of water a day, first from the Oconee River, and if there isn’t enough there, from groundwater that feeds the Ogeechee River (check out local news coverage here). In addition to its potential large thirst, Plant Washington is also problematic from its pollution threats: toxic mercury, piling on to a river system in which fish are already too contaminated to eat and no ability to mitigate the massive global warming pollution profile.

SACE started challenging the Plant Washington proposal upon its inception in 2008, due to its water and air pollution impacts and its extreme financial risk for utility co-op customers. Cost estimates for the plant haven’t been updated since 2008, but a 2011 consumer group study showed it might total close to $4 billion, in an era when wind and solar energy provide increasingly cost effective power. You can learn more and get involved on our take action page.

Proposed Vogtle Reactors and Plant McIntosh

The proposed two water-guzzling nuclear reactors under construction at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle along the Savannah River made the list again this year but was joined by the outdated coal-fired power plant downstream, Plant McIntosh, which is up for a renewal of its nearly 130 million gallons per day (MGD) surface water withdrawal permit.

If these water withdrawal permits are issued and renewed a serious problem will be made worse. For instance, the existing two Vogtle reactors are already large water users – permitted to withdraw up to 127 MGD. Vogtle currently withdraws 67 MGD on average with consumptive use of approximately 43 MGD, returning less than one-third of what is withdrawn. The two proposed reactors seek withdrawal permits for 74 MGD maximum daily and 62 MGD monthly average. Documentation from EPD stated “the worst case equates to a 49 MGD withdrawal, 8 MGD return … This scenario causes a consumptive loss to the Savannah River of 88%.”

To put the projected consumptive water loss from Vogtle in perspective, with average per capita daily water use in Georgia at 75 gallons from surface and ground water sources, this means the two existing and two proposed Vogtle reactors alone could consume enough water to supply over 1.1 million Georgians with drinking water.[1]

It’s clear that this year’s Dirty Dozen report reflects the large, negative impacts that the electricity sector is having and will continue to have on Georgia’s precious water resources unless wiser decisions are made about the state’s energy future. Less water intensive energy options, such as wind, solar and energy efficiency, exist and can protect our water resources.

The impacts of energy production on our region’s water resources were closely examined by the Union of Concerned Scientists through their Energy and Water in a Warming World (EW3) initiative, which included a look at the impacts of future energy choices. In their recent report, Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World, future scenarios with larger reliance on energy efficiency and renewables were more protective of both water quality and supply all while reducing carbon emissions, including in Georgia. Access additional information here.

As April Ingle said regarding the Dirty Dozen report release, “The Georgia Water Coalition publishes this annual list as a call to action for our state’s leaders and its citizens to come together to correct pollution problems, eliminate the wasteful use of our state and local tax dollars and restore our streams, rivers, lakes and coastal wetlands.” We believe it’s more than time for the crucial connection between energy and water to be at the forefront of decision-making here in Georgia.

–SACE’s Southeast Energy Organizer, Amelia Shenstone, and High Risk Energy Coordinator, Joan Walker, contributed to this blog post.


[1] The average per capita daily water use in Georgia is 75 gallons from surface and ground water sources, http://water.usgs.gov/watuse/tables/dotab.st.html. With water consumption for all 4 reactors (2 existing and 2 proposed) projected at approximately 84 mgd (43 mgd for the existing two reactors and 41 mgd for the proposed two reactors) that could mean the equivalent of over 1.1 million residents.

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