Above the Waterline: Georgia’s coal ash problem threatens groundwater, public health

Flying over Plant Yates along the Chattahoochee River.

As the queasiness in my stomach eased, I peered out of the window of our small plane at the ground thousands of feet below us. The Chattahoochee River snaked between buildings and under highways: a narrow, greenish ribbon of water, flowing uneasily through the middle of metro Atlanta’s never-ending growth. 

 It was the mid-2000s and I was in the air with Southwings, a conservation aviation organization, to investigate a violation reported to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper along the river downstream of Atlanta. We had taken off from Charlie Brown Airport and, before heading south, circled above Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson, a coal-fired facility built in the 1930s that was converted to natural gas units in 2013. 

I could see large ponds on the 350-plus acre industrial site located on the banks of the Chattahoochee. The man-made reservoirs, sparkling in the bright sun, were created to store stormwater and coal ash, a catchall term used for several kinds of waste left over at power plants that burn coal. The ash typically contains a variety of substances harmful to human health, including arsenic, chromium, cadmium, lead, and mercury; long-term exposure to these heavy metals can lead to liver and kidney damage and cancer.

Today, we know how dangerous coal ash can be. Fifteen years ago, when I looked down on Plant McDonough and then Wansley and Yates – the other two Georgia Power coal-fired plants on the banks of the Chattahoochee near Atlanta – the threat that coal ash posed to the health of people living near such facilities was not commonly known. Air pollution from these plants was the major concern at the time. 

The fact that groundwater and wells could be contaminated by storing coal ash in ponds without protective liners had been known by some as early as 1980 – power industry scientists and executives. In the late 1980s, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) collected groundwater samples at coal-fired plants around the state and found high levels of contamination, but no action was taken. The installation of liners beneath coal ponds, required in some neighboring states, had been deemed “not economically feasible,” by Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Company. The electric utility industry had fought successfully for years against scientifically based proposals to designate coal ash as a “hazardous” substance and, thereby, subject to protective federal regulatory controls.

In 2008, the magnitude of the coal ash problem became abundantly evident, after a billion gallons of coal ash slurry poured from a power plant in Tennessee into local rivers; homes were destroyed, hundreds of cleanup workers became chronically sick, and some have died from exposure to the toxic substance. At the time, Georgia Power claimed its unlined ash pits were “safe and functioning.” Seven years later, nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into a North Carolina river, when a drainage pipe burst at a Duke Energy coal ash pond. The disaster finally yielded the first-ever federal regulations of coal ash; however, it was still not classified as “hazardous.” Coal companies had successfully lobbied to continue its designation as “solid waste,” abdicating most enforcement responsibility to the states. In other words, coal ash disposal didn’t require any more careful handling than a banana peel. 

More recently – and closer to home – the coal ash news has centered on Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer in the town of Juliette between Atlanta and Macon, the largest coal-fired plant in America. Tests of private wells near Scherer revealed contaminants found commonly in coal ash, including hexavalent chromium, a metal associated with an increased risk of cancer. Georgia Power began to purchase properties near the plant and seal wells, as an unusual number of nearby residents were diagnosed with cancer and other serious illnesses (“The Coal Plant Next Door,” ProPublica, March 2021).

At McDonough, Yates and Wansley – Georgia Power’s plants on the Chattahoochee, located upstream of six municipal water intakes – nearly 30 million cubic yards of coal ash is stored in unlined ponds and elevated levels of groundwater pollution have been documented. At McDonough, recent data has indicated that ash contaminants have migrated off-site onto property owned by Cobb County.

The company has said it will remove, consolidate and/or cap its ash in place. The latter – a less expensive approach – is its preferred alternative. In other words, the company wants to leave the toxic material where it is and put a lid on it; coal ash would continue to mingle with groundwater in many places: a perpetual risk to wells and nearby surface waters. Safer standards have been established in other states that required coal ash to be moved into lined landfills, but not (yet) in Georgia. 

For a generation, Georgia Power’s coal ash has been stored cheaply in unlined holes in the ground, often below the water table. If the company’s ratepayers are going to spend billions to clean up its past mistakes, shouldn’t the most protective disposal solution be required now? In North Carolina, Duke Energy has agreed to put all its coal ash in lined landfills away from surface and ground waters. Despite their ardent and repeated efforts, Georgia legislators have been unable to pass bills forcing Georgia Power to do the same thing. 

The next move is up to state officials. Will the Georgia EPD issue pond-closure permits that require ash disposal in lined landfills – or will the agency again allow Georgia Power to take the least expensive and least protective way out?


Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.