Georgia’s utilities have slowly shifted away from the burning of coal and are now dealing with the legacy of toxic ash the process leaves behind. As regulators weigh power companies’ ash disposal plans, people who live near coal ash ponds are worried that the waste is tainting their groundwater, lowering their property values and damaging their communities’ economic development. This investigative series by journalist Max Blau chronicles the big business of waste, the politics of energy, and the health effects that may touch generations to come.

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The coal plant next door

Near America’s largest coal-fired power plant, toxins are showing up in drinking water and people have fallen ill. Thousands of pages of internal documents show how one giant energy company plans to avoid the cleanup costs for coal ash. By Max Blau Mark Berry raised his right hand, pledging to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The bespectacled mechanical engineer took his seat inside the cherry-wood witness stand. He pulled his microphone close to his yellow bow tie and glanced to his left toward five of Georgia’s most influential elected officials. As one of Georgia Power’s top environmental lobbyists, Berry had a clear mission on that rainy day in April 2019: Convince those five energy regulators that the company’s customers should foot the bill for one of the most expensive toxic waste cleanup efforts in state history. When Berry became Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs in 2015, he inherited responsibility for a dark corporate legacy dating back to before he was born. For many decades, power companies had burned billions of tons of coal, dumping the leftover ash — loaded with toxic contaminants — into human-made “ponds” larger than many lakes. But after a pair of coal ash pond disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina exposed the environmental and health risks of those largely unregulated dumps, the Obama administration required power companies to stop using the aging disposal sites. Berry had spent nearly two decades climbing the ranks of Southern Company, America’s second-largest energy provider…

Lawmakers renew push to remove coal ash from unlined ponds

The fight over the future of Georgia Power’s coal ash ponds has returned to the Gold Dome. And its outcome could influence whether thousands of Georgians will need to worry about groundwater contamination potentially caused by the toxic waste sites. Democratic lawmakers have announced legislation intended to protect Georgians from possible harmful health impacts of coal ash. House Bill 176, filed Thursday, would require coal ash to be stored in a disposal site with a protective liner to prevent contaminants from tainting groundwater. The bill would effectively close a loophole that allowed Georgia Power to store millions of tons of coal ash in ponds without protective liners — a practice that experts say could allow contaminants to leak into aquifers that supply private wells used for cooking, drinking, and bathing in some rural communities. “There are very dangerous cancer-causing agents that are found in ash from when coal is burned,” state Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Democrat from Junction City, told Georgia Health News. “If they’re in an unlined pond, it can seep into the groundwater.” The legislative push comes at a pivotal moment in the battle over Georgia’s coal ash. After decades of waste being generated by the burning of coal, federal and state regulations now require utilities to close their unlined ash ponds. Georgia Power has proposed excavating roughly half of its coal ash from ponds and transferring it to landfills with protective liners. The other half of the coal ash — some 48 million tons — would be buried…

Georgia Power’s land buys: A cover for pollution?

Sunken Costs: The utility giant’s quiet purchasing spree could shield it from coal ash cleanup expenses This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.  Georgia Health News is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. By Max Blau Over the past several years, utility giant Georgia Power has embarked on an unusual buying spree, paying top dollar for people’s property in places where cheap land was easy to find. In 2016, it bought a veterinarian’s 5-acre lot in the rolling hills of northwest Georgia for roughly double the appraised value. The following year, it acquired 28 acres of flood-prone land in southwest Georgia’s Pecan Belt for nearly four times what the local tax assessor said it was worth. By the year after that, it had paid millions of dollars above the appraised value for hundreds of acres near a winding gravel road in a central Georgia town with no water lines and spotty cellphone service. Two things united the properties: They were all near coal-fired power plants that generated toxic waste stored in unlined ponds at those sites. And they were all purchased after the Environmental Protection Agency finalized new regulations in 2014 governing the disposal of such waste, known as coal ash. All told, the utility paid over $15 million for nearly 1,900 acres close to five of its 12 power plant sites, according to an investigation by Georgia Health News and ProPublica. The costly land purchases offer an enormous…

How a small town became ground zero for landfill collapses

By Max Blau Carolyn Dorondo couldn’t escape the smell of garbage. There were days last year when she couldn’t go outside due to the smell. Some nights, the stench wafted into her Ball Ground home, awakening her from a restful sleep. The odor grew so foul that Dorondo, along with other residents of Cherokee County, filed complaints with environmental regulators. “The stench in our air was ruining our daily lives,” Dorondo said.   Less than a mile from Dorondo’s home, the operators of the Pine Bluff Landfill were facing a crisis in the middle of the 914-acre dump that was largely hidden from neighbors’ view. What was once a small crack in the middle of the landfill had widened into a 1,000-foot-long ravine last September. Odors from exposed waste spread for miles, into posh subdivisions and over family farms. Uncontrolled leachate — liquid formed when water mixes with decomposing waste — flowed out of the landfill site into a nearby creek. The damage from the crack broke the company’s equipment that was designed to monitor how much toxic gas was in the air. Hundreds of pages of records obtained by Georgia Health News reveal the extent of the violations at the Pine Bluff landfill for the first time. An expert on the industry, who requested anonymity, reviewed the documents obtained by GHN about the violations, and called the series of collapses at the site “the worst thing I’ve ever read short of an entire landfill being shut down.” One state official, Kenneth Phillips…

Lawsuit says Plant Scherer coal ash is ‘poisoning’ locals

Marvin Bowdoin, who had sold his neighbors on the utility’s promises of more jobs and greater tax revenues for the community, owned a store in the small town of Juliette that sold groceries and gas to the company’s employees. But over 35 years later, his grandson Tony Bowdoin, who worked at the family’s store for decades, discovered his home’s drinking water was full of contaminants. Last fall, he was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, and is still battling it today.

Officials, riverkeeper team up to arrange Juliette water tests

The search for answers over whether waste from America’s largest coal-fired plant has tainted drinking water in a small central Georgia town has united local officials and a riverkeeper group.

County launches project to bring clean water to Juliette residents

People living near Plant Scherer, America’s largest coal-fired plant, are one step closer to not having to rely on tainted water from private drinking wells. But the decision hasn’t quelled local residents’ demands that Georgia Power remove coal ash from the plant site in Central Georgia.

How publicity killed Juliette water testing plan

On the same February morning when Juliette residents marched into Gov. Brian Kemp’s office demanding he support legislation to remove coal ash from their town, Monroe County Manager Jim Hedges sent an email to nationally known scientist Avner Vengosh, asking for help.

Sierra Club contests PSC decision on Georgia Power coal ash request

State regulators last month approved a Georgia Power request to charge customers for the costs of cleaning up toxic waste produced by its coal-fired plants. But an environmental organization is contesting that decision, claiming the utility failed to disclose how it would spend more than $500 million it had requested for environmental compliance.

County offers clean drinking water to residents near Scherer

Over the past month, people in the Georgia town of Juliette have expressed fears that nearby Plant Scherer, America’s largest coal-fired plant, has caused their water to be contaminated with coal ash. Their outcry, along with a flood of statewide media coverage, has led local officials to offer free water to any local residents who need it.

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