Statement: Coal ash ponds threatening Chattahoochee River near Metro Atlanta

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

Guest Blog | September 11, 2015 | Coal, Energy Policy

On September 9, 2015, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and our allies attended a public hearing to urge GA’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to protect the Chattahoochee River from toxic coal ash pollution at Plant McDonough, a Georgia Power facility in the suburban Atlanta area. Help us urge EPD to require excavation and removal of coal ash waste to lined storage away from rivers, lakes, and streams by sending a comment today (deadline September 17, 2015)

The McDonough permitting process is the first of several power plant water discharge permits that EPD is set to renew in the coming months, and the permit could set the precedent for how Georgia Power handles coal ash across its fleet. EPD has an opportunity to set the bar higher and protect surrounding communities from coal ash pollution.

Pediatrician and SACE member Dr. Yolanda Whyte attended the hearing to call for the strongest, tightest standards to preserve our water quality and prevent neurodevelopmental conditions in children like autism, ADHD, other learning disabilities and behavioral problems she sees in her patients. She pointed out that Georgia’s Water Compliance Summary report has already documented violations of the same heavy metals and radionuclides that are found in coal ash discharges.

“GA EPD can make a difference in reversing the rising trajectory of cancers and neurodevelopmental problems that we are seeing in children,” she said.

Heavy metals are not limited in the draft water discharge permit for Plant McDonough.

The oral comments I made at the EPD public hearing are printed here:

My name is Amelia Shenstone, and I am the Campaigns Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. SELC filed detailed comments on this permit in February on our behalf. My comments here reflect SACE’s outstanding concerns with the revised draft permit as well as my own concerns as an Atlanta resident.

First, I want to thank EPD for the opportunity to comment on this permit. We understand EPD is working hard to update permits for coal-fired power plants across the state, many of which were initially issued over 40 years ago and have been expired for several years. We support EPD in pressing forward to protect our waterways across the board, while not losing sight of the need to “get it right” at each plant.

Storing coal ash in giant unlined pits like those at Plant McDonough is an outdated method of waste disposal that threatens communities with catastrophic dam failure and pollutes rivers, groundwater, and drinking water supplies. This case is especially sensitive because over 50% of the population within 3 miles is African American. Ash stored at Plant McDonough is a classic example of “environmental injustice,” a trend of polluting facilities being disproportionately located in communities of color.

To address this injustice and set a strong example of environmental stewardship in metro Atlanta, EPD should require Georgia Power to demonstrate state-of-the-art cleanup of this dangerous waste.

The best way to mitigate the risks is to excavate and remove coal ash waste to lined storage away from rivers, lakes, and streams, as other leading southern utilities are already doing. That is our preferred option for cleanup at Plant McDonough-Atkinson. If this method of cleanup will not be undertaken at this site, the permit needs to be strengthened in several key areas.

First, the draft permit puts no limits on numerous dangerous toxics known to be present in coal ash discharges, including arsenic, selenium, mercury, and lead. Second, it lacks sufficient safeguards for preventing catastrophic failure of the dams holding the ash back from the river and surrounding communities. Finally, the draft permit doesn’t require Georgia Power to avoid polluting the groundwater, or even to monitor to determine whether groundwater pollution is occurring from the unlined pits.

EPD has a historic opportunity to set the bar higher and protect surrounding communities from coal ash pollution within the new NPDES permit for Plant McDonough-Atkinson. I urge EPD to use this permit to impose maximal safeguards that will protect the Chattahoochee River and surrounding communities from toxic coal ash pollution to the fullest extent possible.

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