About 200 Georgians Met with Legislators Urging Passage of Critical Coal Ash Legislation

Guest Blog | February 16, 2017 | Coal, Energy Policy
Georgians gather on the steps of the Capitol Building before entering to talk to legislators.

Yesterday, as about 200 Georgians gathered at the Capitol Building, State Representative Jeff Jones (R-Brunswick) filed legislation to address Georgia’s toxic coal ash pollution.

H.B. 387 requires utilities to submit a “major modification” to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) water discharge permits before releasing coal ash wastewater into Georgia’s waterways.

H.B. 388 requires landfill owners to create a management plan if they receive or are planning to receive coal ash.

Community members from all across the state, including bus loads traveling from the coast and north Georgia, gathered in Atlanta for Capitol Conservation Day, an annual gathering organized by Georgia Water Coalition. SACE and these volunteer citizen lobbyists of all ages, led by staff of water coalition member groups, met with dozens of legislators to urge them to support H.B. 387 & 388 and State Senator William Ligon‘s (Republican – 3) S.B. 165, which ensures liability for coal ash remains with the original producers of the ash.

Rep. Jones discusses his coal ash bills at a gathering of community members during Capitol Conservation Day.

What We Accomplished Together

Capitol Conservation Day was action and information-packed. Georgia State Representatives Debbie Buckner and Jeff Jones and State Senator William Ligon kicked off the day by remarking on the importance of citizens meeting with their legislators. Rep. Jones shared how important he felt it was to make sure that coal ash wastewater is properly treated.

SACE staff briefed attendees on Georgia Power’s closure plans for coal ash pits across the state and shared our analysis of why these plans will not adequately address groundwater and surface water contamination concerns.

After an excellent training on how to effectively talk to legislators led by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper staff, we were ready for action. Throughout the day, we talked to dozens legislators about coal ash pollution concerns and other priority issues for the Georgia Water Coalition including stream buffers and preventing the legislature from undermining a key Georgia stormwater management funding source.

Outside a General Assembly session, SACE and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper staff met with with several legislators, including Georgia House Minority Leader Representative Stacey Abrams (D), who represents parts of Atlanta and Decatur. She assured us she shared our concerns with coal ash.

The event was a smashing success. We and the Georgians with whom we worked closely left the Capitol knowing that we had an impact on legislators. But this is just the beginning.

Georgia’s Coal Ash Problems and How Proposed Legislation Could Help

For decades, utilities across the Southeast have stored toxic coal ash and wastewater in pits beside the rivers, lakes, and streams we depend on for drinking water and recreation.

From left to right: Amelia Shenstone (SACE), Rep. Stacy Abrams, Jess Sterling (Chattahoochee Riverkeeper)

In Georgia, the vast majority (89 to 91%) of the 86 million tons of toxic coal ash in the state is slated to be left in pits next to waterways as the pits are “closed” by removing water and placing a cap on top. These pits do not have liners beneath the ash to prevent it from contaminating groundwater and, potentially, neighboring drinking water wells. We recommend using Southeastcoalash.org to see if ash is stored at a power plant near you.

The first step in the coal ash pit closure process involves discharging an estimated 5 billion gallons of contaminated wastewater into Georgia’s waterways. There is currently no requirement to treat it to remove dangerous contaminants  present in coal ash.

Thankfully, H.B. 387 would require coal ash pit operators to modify their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits before discharging coal ash wastewater into Georgia’s waterways. The required modifications will give local water users and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) a clearer picture of what’s being released into our water and whether releases are dangerous. The public would have a chance to comment as part of the permit update process.

Rather than leaving ash in unlined pits, many utilities are taking a better step and removing it to a lined landfill. However, under Georgia’s current laws, out-of-state utilities and Georgia Power could ship ash to household waste landfills, many of which are not designed to handle it. H.B. 388 would codify EPD’s guidance on appropriate landfill storage and improve protections for communities living near landfill sites.

Senator Ligon’s S.B. 165 also aims to reduce the risks of coal ash by assigning responsibility for the ash to the utility that created it (even if it is no longer stored on that utility’s property), and requiring a substantial bond from out-of-state utilities.

What’s Next?

Capitol Conservation Day participants flood the halls outside of the General Assembly.

Capitol Conservation Day was an important kick off for Georgia Water Coalition and SACE’s efforts to pass critical new protections from toxic coal ash pollution through Georgia’s legislature.

Members of the legislature have stepped up as champions, and hundreds of Georgians have shown their legislators that these protections are important to them.

EPD recently incorporated federal minimum standards for safe storage and handling of coal ash into state solid waste rules, but these requirements do not go far enough toward protecting Georgia’s communities and water. In this session and future sessions, we will be urging legislators to strengthen state protections by:

  • Increasing the frequency of groundwater testing at coal ash disposal sites;
  • Adding strong remediation requirements for persistent groundwater contamination; and
  • Requiring owners of coal ash pits to provide neighboring well owners with safe, alternative water supplies when coal ash contamination is discovered.

The best way to make sure that our water and communities are protected is to follow these bills and coal ash issues closely, and make sure your representatives and senator hear from you. Please email Adam [at] cleanenergy [dot] org if you’d like help contacting your legislator about coal ash.

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