Southeast River Runs Part 7: Coal ash on the ACF River Basin

Guest Blog | July 30, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the seventh blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Dan Tonsmiere, Apalachicola Riverkeeper and Juliet Cohen of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper who contributed to this post.

The Chattahoochie River Recreation Area has over 3 million visitors a year and is home to the second most southern trout fishery. Source: Chattahoochie Riverkeeper
The Chattahoochee River Recreation Area has over 3 million visitors a year and is home to the second most southern trout fishery. Source: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, or ACF, covers 19,800 square miles in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Beginning in the Appalachian mountains, the Chattahoochee flows almost the entire length of Georgia to converge with the Flint River at Lake Seminole. Here, the Apalachicola River is formed, which flows 107 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at the Apalachicola Bay.

The nutrients carried from the river basin affect biological communities for over 250 miles out to sea, supporting a billion dollar offshore seafood industry. The Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive in the Northern Hemisphere, providing over 13% of the nation’s oyster harvest each year. In addition to commercial species, the ACF is home to dozens of rare and endangered species including the Gulf sturgeon (click read more for a picture!).

The Flint River, renowned for its scenic beauty and biodiversity, is also home to many species found no where else in the world. It is one of only 40 rivers in the U.S. which remain undammed for more than 200 miles. However, plans to dam a 50 mile stretch of the Flint have landed the river on the top of the list of America’s 10 most endangered rivers.

Overall, the ACF River basin is very rural, dominated by agriculture and forest lands. According to Dan Tonsmiere, Apalachicola Riverkeeper, the rivers are still very much entwined in the social and cultural heritage of communities in this area. “Generations have grown up hunting, fishing, and making a living on this river and people are still tuned into and appreciate the river.”

Historically a water-rich region, communities in the Southeast depend on rivers for drinking water and electricity production. Sixteen dams are built along the ACF’s rivers, containing about 50% of the basin’s water flow. These reservoirs support dozens of communities; the Chattahoochee alone provides drinking water for almost 4 million people including 70% of Atlanta.

However, these demands, exacerbated by rapid population growth and the effects of climate change, wreak havoc on our river systems. Communities are increasingly left vulnerable during periods of extended drought and heat. And ironically, even though so many people depend on the ACF for clean drinking water, these rivers are still a dumping ground for toxic coal ash from Southern Company coal plants. 

A prehistoric species, the Gulf sturgeon can live to sixty years of age, fifteen feet in length and over eight hundred pounds. Source: Kayla Kimmel, USFWS

Three Georgia Power plants (Yates, Wansley, McDonough) and one operated by Gulf Power (Scholz) are located on the ACF’s rivers. At last official count their 27 coal ash impoundments contained at least 7.7 billion gallons of coal combustion waste dumped near the rivers’ banks. That’s enough to cover 17,300 football fields in toxic sludge. The waste at Plant McDonough near Smyrna, Georgia is contained in one of the 49 coal ash impoundments rated high hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency. The dams earned this rating because a dam failure (like TVA’s Kingston coal ash disaster) would likely result in loss of life and significant damage to the Chattahoochee River.

These impoundments can and often do leak heavy metals and other pollutants to groundwater and rivers alike because they are unlined, threatening these important resources. Generating electricity also impacts the ACF in other ways by consuming massive amounts of water and discharging heated water back into the river. A new report released on July 16, 2013 by the Union of Concerned Scientists takes a look at the multiple stressors facing the ACF (and ACT), since this basin could be one of the hardest hit by energy impacts in the coming years. The report focused on water quantity and quality (in terms of thermal pollution) and the analysis shows that, if current power generation and climate trends continue, water flow in the ACF from 2040 to 2049 could be 17 percent below the historical average. Considering that communities have been fighting for water from the ACF for years, its easy to imagine how devastating this drop in water would be to communities across Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

The good news is that we can make different decisions, choosing energy sources that reverse these trends and protect the ACF. Alternate scenarios in the UCS report show the positive effects of replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Sorting oysters in Apalachicola bay. Source: University of Florida

Communities along the ACF’s rivers have already taken steps to protect these rivers by cleaning up water pollution, protecting habitat and removing dams. Making sustainable energy choices is just one more way we can protect these vital resources for generations to come.

Right now we also have an opportunity to put stronger protections from power plant water pollution in place. Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution to the ACF, and all rivers nationwide.

Meanwhile, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today asking that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Riverkeepers are non-profit organizations working towards the vision of a swimmable, drinkable, fishable ACF River Basin by actively addressing the issues that threaten it. To learn more about these rivers, or get involved to help out, visit their webpages at and

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