A showdown over what’s in the water

In a small Georgia town, residents worry that their neighbor, a giant coal plant, has tainted their drinking water. Some are relying on the help of the Altamaha Riverkeeper to find answers.

By Max Blau 

Without Tony Bowdoin’s grandfather, Georgia Power might never have come to the quiet town of Juliette.

The central Georgia hamlet, just off the Ocmulgee River and a little more than an hour’s drive south of Atlanta, is mostly known for having some of the state’s best shoal bass fishing. Juliette’s other claim to fame is as the setting for the 1991 Oscar-nominated film “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Bowdoin’s grandfather, Marvin, not only helped sell the utility on Juliette, he sold Juliette on the utility’s promises of jobs, benefits and pensions. In the late 1960s, Georgia Power had started planning to build the Robert W. Scherer Power Plant. More than a decade later, in 1982, its first unit opened in Juliette. It breathed life into the old mill town, employing some 400 locals and pumping nearly $7 million annually into Monroe County’s coffers.

But there were downsides: Georgia Power had seized hundreds of acres — including homes — via eminent domain during its early years in town. Tony Bowdoin had also heard whispers about pollution over the years. Bowdoin, who’s now 57, had seen the “Save Juliette” graffiti scrawled across a nearby salon and stop sign. But his life’s work — running the family grocery — had left little time to investigate further.

So when a neighbor recently called with the news that her tap water contained so many contaminants that she had switched to drinking bottled water, he called an environmental nonprofit to get his drinking water tested.

Plant Scherer

On a sweltering late August day, Jen Hilburn and Fletcher Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeeper arrived with sampling kits. The organization is primarily responsible for protecting the mighty Altamaha, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean some 200 miles southeast of Juliette, but the Ocmulgee River is one of the Altamaha’s northern tributaries, so any risk to the Ocmulgee and its surroundings could wind up in the Riverkeeper’s purview.

Because Juliette is far enough from the two closest cities with municipal water systems, Macon and Forsyth, most of its residents rely on wells that draw up groundwater. So Hilburn and Sams already had begun a covert water-testing campaign in Juliette, where they suspected there was widespread groundwater contamination linked to Plant Scherer’s operations.

Bowdoin, Hilburn, and Sams headed to the side of the vinyl-sided house, where Bowdoin’s well is located. Hilburn, who bears a slight resemblance to actress Amy Poehler, squeezed her hands into a pair of blue latex gloves. Then she broke the seal on a sterile plastic bottle, unscrewed the cap, and delicately filled the bottle one cap full at a time.

Monroe County

She repeated this process two more times, as the samples were catalogued by Sams, a stocky 38-year-old former political operative dressed in a button-down and khakis. The three samples would be sent to Pace Analytical, a North Carolina environmental lab, to test for boron and strontium — the DNA fingerprints of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal — as well as cobalt, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium, the toxic chemical that Erin Brockovich found in Southern California drinking wells, which turns up in coal ash disposal sites from Massachusetts to Nevada.

“Nobody’s ever cared about Juliette,” Bowdoin said. He liked Hilburn and Sams — and he trusted them — because they took residents’ concerns seriously. So much so that, after Hilburn and Sams finished testing his well, Bowdoin got into his Ford pickup and volunteered to lead them to the homes of his friends and relatives for more sampling.

They eventually reached a stretch of Luther Smith Road, a largely unpaved street that runs along Scherer’s northern edge. On one side, a thick black slurry of coal ash glistened through the cracks among the Georgia pines. On the other, Georgia Power’s “no trespassing” signs lined the fences of properties it had purchased from families, mostly within the past five years.

The acquired land could tell a story about the environmental and public health costs of inviting the coal industry to town. The Riverkeeper hopes its testing will provide answers to questions that have troubled growing numbers of residents grappling with stories of sickness and premature death. Its findings could not only tell of contamination that’s already taken hold, but help prevent the burial of tons of black slurry that’s likely to bring more. The environmental advocates are racing against the clock — as the very business of coal ash disposal in states like Georgia is in flux, potentially endangering towns like Juliette.

The Riverkeeper’s results could give the people of Juliette the power to fight back.

The coal ash problem 

Bowdoin is one of more than 1 million Americans who reside within three miles of a coal plant. Every hour, Plant Scherer pulverizes roughly 1,300 tons of coal into a fine powder, which is scorched to produce steam that helps spin a generator. Once coal is burned, the waste is left behind is coal ash. Georgia Power mixes it with water, and stores it in ponds collectively large enough to hold roughly 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contents. Most of America’s coal ash ponds, including Scherer, are unlined, according to the nonprofit Earthjustice.

To-date, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not deemed coal ash hazardous, even though many of the chemicals in it are acknowledged poisons. Thus, unlined coal ash ponds deep enough that they close in on the water table can contaminate local groundwater supplies, said Chris Groves, a Western Kentucky University hydrogeology professor. A recent report by the Southern Environmental Law Center found that Scherer’s coal ash was at least 75 feet deep, less than five feet above the water table. It stated that coal ash in an unlined pond “will be capable of leaching toxic metals into Georgia’s groundwater.”

In homes that have private wells, a pump is used to draw water up a pipe, which is then filtered for sediment. Some residents have purchased additional water filters to reduce the levels of heavy metals that may be in the water, while others boil their water as a precaution, though Hilburn notes that neither fully eliminates the threat.

Hilburn and Sams test the well of Sidney Newsome (with umbrella).

During the Obama administration, a series of regulations designed to protect the environment sent shock waves through the coal industry. Rules governing air pollution and the spewing of toxic chemicals like mercury from plant smokestacks prompted utilities like Georgia Power to retire plants in part due to the costs of complying with regulations. While the plant at Juliette will remain open, Georgia Power announced plans to shutter 29 ash ponds in early 2016, including Scherer’s, as a result of the administration’s 2015 coal ash rule, the nation’s largest set of regulations for the byproduct.

The utility currently recycles about three-quarters of newly produced coal ash at Scherer and other plants for use in products like cement, drywall, and cinder blocks, but for the existing waste, Georgia Power intends to “dewater” millions of cubic yards of ash and pack it into a smaller space. With unlined ponds, there’s no protective layer to prevent coal ash from seeping into groundwater.

Chris Bowers, a SELC attorney, said allowing Scherer’s coal ash disposal site to remain unlined would exacerbate what he describes as a “slower-moving, but equally concerning, kind of disaster” on par with headline-grabbing coal ash spills at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant and Duke Energy’s Dan River site. (At the beginning of 2020, North Carolina announced that in the wake of the 2014 Dan River accident, it had come to an agreement with Duke on “the largest coal ash cleanup in the nation’s history,” with the utility pledging to excavate close to 80 million tons and move it to lined landfills.)

Hilburn and Sams have gathered samples that they say show coal ash has leaked into Lake Juliette and into groundwater consumed by residents. They’ve tested 29 wells, and nearly every sample has contained potentially unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, which is linked to ulcers, liver and kidney failure, and cancer. Sams says those initial findings suggest groundwater near Scherer could be more widely contaminated than the utility has previously reported.

Under the Obama-era coal ash rules, Georgia Power has had to monitor for potential leaks. The company’s own tests have detected elevated levels of cobalt — which can cause thyroid damage — according to a 2018 analysis of the utility’s data by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group made up of ex-EPA staffers. The two environmental organizations also found that 11 of Georgia’s 12 coal-fired plants, including Scherer, have contaminated nearby groundwater.

That finding is all the more alarming, environmental experts and advocates say, considering that nearly two years ago the state requested permission to take over regulation of coal ash disposal from the federal government. The move would continue to exempt some Georgia plants from having to line their coal ash ponds and potentially limit the ability to sue over environmental concerns.

A vandal tagged a stop sign near Scherer with the phrase “Save Juliette.”

Sams hopes the Riverkeeper’s testing will pressure Georgia Power into creating a safer coal ash disposal plan. This past summer, Hilburn and Sams joined a small army of residents, advocates, and scientists who spoke at an Atlanta EPA hearing, and asked the three-person panel from the agency to deny the state’s coal ash regulation request. Hilburn warned that Georgia’s environmental regulators have too little funding and staffing to properly monitor how the ash was disposed. The opponents said they worried the state would limit public input on future permits for waste sites. (A Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokesperson declined comment.)

Advocates say Juliette shows how listening to locals is necessary. Georgia Power’s own monitoring of Scherer’s wells detected “elevated concentrations” of cobalt and boron. But Hilburn said those test results were buried in complex reports that left many Juliette residents in the dark. Further, Hilburn and Sams believe that Juliette’s reliance on groundwater as its primary source of drinking water amplifies the threat from unlined coal ash ponds.

Holly Crawford, a spokesperson for Georgia Power, said “the company has identified no risk to public health or drinking water.” Last month, the EPA’s top boss, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, approved Georgia’s permit.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper has already plotted its next steps in Juliette. More home visits. More well testing. More evidence. “Georgians deserve better,” Sams said.

A ‘banana peel’ proposal

Hilburn and Sams had been through a lot before squaring off against Georgia Power, which is the state’s largest utility and is a subsidiary of Southern Company, the second-largest U.S. energy provider. A former ornithologist, Hilburn was drawn into citizen advocacy, and joined the Riverkeeper in 2014. Sams, a former paratrooper who returned home to become a political operative, joined Hilburn last year. They focused their testing on homes nearest to Scherer — particularly the homes that remained on Luther Smith Road.

About a decade ago, Georgia Power began purchasing land around Scherer’s northern and eastern edges. Since 2015, the company has gone on a buying spree. According to an analysis conducted by the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Georgia Power paid $11.7 million to acquire over 1,500 acres that were appraised at just $2.1 million in total. On Luther Smith Road, Georgia Power quickly razed family homes and sealed drinking wells —  making them nearly impossible to test, even if one were to trespass on that property. Crawford said Georgia Power purchased property to increase the “buffer area” around the plant to “ensure safe operations and to minimize both short and long-term inconvenience for our neighbors.”

In February 2019, Mark Goolsby, who then lived on Luther Smith Road, told the Cobb County Courier he had “pictures of groundwater coming out of the ground like oil,” along with a well that had high concentrations of boron, cobalt, and hexavalent chromium. “Pictures don’t lie,” he said. “Now we’re having to sell.” By then Hilburn had already tested his well and others along the road. Confidentiality agreements have largely forced the families who sold their properties above market value — including the Goolsbys — to stay silent, according to family members with direct knowledge of those deals who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns over retribution. Crawford noted that confidentiality agreements are common in Georgia Power’s land deals, and did not explain why the utility overpaid for the land. But Hilburn suspects that the utility paid a premium for that land in part because of their well testing.

Hilburn and Sams recently tested the well of Sidney and Linda Newsome, to whom they were introduced by Bowdoin and whose house sits a short drive from Luther Smith Road. Homeowners since the late ‘80s, they had declined Georgia Power’s offer to buy a portion of their land. When they asked about the Riverkeeper’s preliminary findings, Hilburn replied that the problem was “bigger than we thought.”

In late August, Hilburn and Sams met with a dozen Democratic state lawmakers to sketch out potential legislative action the lawmakers could take. Those ideas would pit them against GOP lawmakers, who control the Legislature, and a utility with one of the largest lobbying forces in the state. A Georgia Health News-Grist review found that Southern Company and Georgia Power, along with affiliated political action committees and individual employees, donated over $1.7 million to state lawmakers — mostly Republicans — between 2014 and 2019.

Sams presented two options: First, there was the “Virginia” bill, modeled after legislation that required Richmond-based Dominion Energy to excavate coal ash from unlined ponds, and either recycle it into cement and other products, or move into landfills.

The second option was the so-called “banana peel” bill, which they said would be a simpler and more politically feasible. As Sams explained, Georgia law prohibits solid-waste landfills from operating within two miles of a “recharge zone,” the surface area in which water can enter an aquifer, but coal ash ponds have long been exempt from this rule. It would really only be necessary, the two argued, to change the definition of “solid waste” to include coal ash.

The banana peel nickname, Sams said, is because under the current law on solid waste, “household garbage [such as] banana peels and coffee grounds,” is treated more strictly than some serious pollutants.

A well-testing campaign

If Georgia Power is allowed to seal the coal ash in place at Scherer, Sams fears that Juliette residents will spend their lives threatened by dangerous leaks. So the Riverkeeper recruited attorney Stacey Evans —  a former Democratic state representative who ran for governor in 2018 and is now running to get back into the General Assembly — to help represent Juliette residents in a planned series of lawsuits against Georgia Power over exposure to carcinogens like hexavalent chromium. And the lawmakers who met with Sams in late summer have said they expect to introduce the “banana peel” bill around the start of the 2020 legislative session, which begins this week. In the meantime, the Altamaha Riverkeeper will keep testing.

Word had spread about the organization’s campaign. And in early October, a dozen Juliette residents were awaiting Hilburn inside Karl Cass’s living room just down the road from Bowdoin’s home. Some had children diagnosed with cancers. Others said they had lost spouses or parents too early. They all sought answers, peace and hope. As Cass’s sister, Gini Seitz, handed out bottled water, Hilburn gave a brief presentation about coal ash, the organization’s efforts to end the use of unlined ponds, and why Juliette residents needed their water tested.

“Why would a person not want their water to be tested?” asked one resident, wearing a camouflage Make America Great Again hat.

“People often don’t want to believe it’s true,” Hilburn said.

“People had to be quiet for a long time,” added Seitz, who until recently was married to an air quality inspector at Scherer. “Georgia Power put the food on the table for my family.”

Seitz and nearly two dozen other central Georgians have joined the Riverkeeper to pitch in on a canvassing and well-testing campaign. Sams is now running the campaign, after Hilburn left the Riverkeeper in the fall. Hilburn said that after five years of watching over the Altamaha drainage basin and the many Georgia counties it touches, she now hopes to focus on environmental issues affecting the Georgia coast, where she lives.

The first thing Sams had to do for Seitz and the other volunteers was convince them that this round of testing would be worth their trouble. They’d been down this road before. Residents filed a lawsuit in 2013 against Georgia Power and the plant’s minority owners claiming the utility had knowingly released toxins contained in coal ash into Juliette’s air and groundwater. The lawsuit contended the utility’s actions caused a “loss of potable water supply and increased risk of diseases.” That same year a Georgia Department of Public Health report found that kidney cancer rates in Monroe County “were significantly higher than the state as a whole,” but noted that they were clustered in more populated parts of the county as opposed to Juliette. A judge dismissed the case without prejudice in 2014, leaving the door open for future claims.

This time would be different, Sams assured them, because the effort would be more transparent, and would happen alongside legislative and legal efforts. He asked the volunteers to canvass 1,000 residents within a 2-mile radius of the plant and have their neighbors take a “Scherer community concern” survey, which asks about their water consumption, wells, and worries. Emory University researchers will then conduct a more detailed health survey with any interested resident.

For its part, Georgia Power “stand[s] by the data delivered” from 57 groundwater monitoring wells at Scherer, indicating there’s been no seepage from Plant Scherer’s coal ash ponds, said spokesperson Crawford. The monitoring complies with federal and state laws and regulations that are analyzed by “third-party contractors for sampling and accredited independent laboratories for analysis.” And the company argues that its pond closure plans use “proven engineering methods specifically designed to be protective of groundwater and the environment.”

Sams doesn’t buy it. In the upcoming year, he hopes to collect 100 more samples, which he’s sure will turn up more contaminated drinking water. That evidence could spur more outrage. And that outrage could potentially force Georgia Power to store its coal ash somewhere other than unlined ponds. He noted that the data would be made public so that he and the residents could use it for personal injury lawsuits, advocate for change with state lawmakers, and raise funding for more testing.

“If Georgia Power has their way, the groundwater will forever be contaminated,” he said. “If we can’t convince them to excavate, it’s over. This is our last hurrah.”

‘I’ve quit drinking the water’

This past fall, shortly before she left the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Hilburn walked into Tony Bowdoin’s Juliette home and handed him a manila envelope with the test results from his well’s water. There were detectable levels of strontium, a constituent of coal ash linked to possible bone damage, and hexavalent chromium at a level of 4.3 parts per billion.

Bowdoin in his pickup truck

The EPA does not have a drinking water standard solely for hexavalent chromium, but several states have strong standards for the carcinogen. California set a public health goal of 0.02 PPB of hexavalent chromium in drinking water in 2011 following the Erin Brockovich case. In 2015, North Carolina set a new baseline level for examining residents exposed to the metal at 0.07 PPB following a Duke Energy coal ash spill.

The levels in Bowdoin’s well were more than 60 times higher than the North Carolina standard, according to the Riverkeeper’s third-party testing results, which were reviewed by Georgia Health News.

Bowdoin had initially hoped the results would ease his mind. Instead, they set his mind racing.

After finding out about the water in his well, he received another set of test results. Medical tests had found Stage IV cancer in his colon. He knows it is extremely difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the cause of the cancer. But he now wonders, after all these years, if the nearby coal plant poisoned his well — and his body.

“I hadn’t told anybody, but something wasn’t right with me,” Bowdoin said. “I’ve quit drinking the water.”

Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories, which have recently appeared in Atlanta magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

This story was funded and produced in collaboration with Grist, a nonprofit media organization covering climate, justice, and sustainability for a national audience.