Lake Country Residents Share Concerns About Coal Ash Pond Dewatering

After Georgia Power decommissioned Plant Harlee Branch in 2015, it couldn’t just pull up stakes and leave town. It still needs to finalize plans for keeping toxic coal ash out of the soil and waterways around the shuttered power plant on Lake Sinclair
Aerial View of Plant Branch in 2017.
Aerial View of Plant Branch in 2017.

After Georgia Power decommissioned Plant Harlee Branch in 2015, it couldn’t just pull up stakes and leave town.

The Georgia electric utility still needs to finalize plans for keeping toxic coal ash out of the soil and waterways around its former power plant on Lake Sinclair.

This Saturday, area residents met to hear presentations and ask questions ahead of a public input session in Putnam County.

The WRGC News Desk has this report.

Leaving the town hall meeting at Victory Baptist Church, Saturday afternoon, Williams Hatcher had one message for his neighbors in Middle Georgia

Everybody needs to understand that all of the water from this Lake, we drink. Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Putnam County, everybody’s drinking this water. 

“So whatever they put into Lake Sinclair from this E Pond, that they ultimately wind up with, in the end, effects everybody. And everybody should be concerned.”

Hatcher retired from Georgia Power in April 2015. He worked as a compliance officer. So he knows the risk of coal ash—the toxic by product of coal-fire power production. And he understands the tradeoffs his former employer is considering as it closes the five coal ash retention ponds at Plant Branch.

“ Closing them is a good thing. I agree. They Need to be closed. They need to be permanently dealt with.”

For an hour and a half Saturday, area residents listened to representatives from  Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, environmental watchdog group the Altamaha Riverkeeper and Georgia Power talk about the electricity company’s plans for the former Plant Branch.

Georgia Power is renewing a permit allowing it to treat and discharge wastewater from the coal ash ponds into Lake Sinclair. As Georgia Power ended power production at Plant Branch in 2015, this is the public’s last opportunity to weigh in on the company’s future plans for the water that’s held this toxic byproduct at bay for roughly 50 years.

Coal Combustion Residuals, or coal ash, is what’s left behind when the coal is burned at the power plant. It contains numerous heavy metals that pose a significant threat to the health of the environment and communities located nearby. At Plant Branch, and 10 other Coal-Fired Power Plants around the state, Georgia Power used retention ponds to store the coal ash.

President Obama-era administrative rule changes are forcing Georgia Power to drain those retention ponds and find ways of storing the coal ash in a dry state. Georgia Power plans to comply with those rules by draining four of five ponds at Plant Branch, excavating the ash and consolidating it in Pond E, the pond situated farthest away from Lake Sinclair. 

Georgia Power must initiate additional plans for the indefinite storage of the coal ash, but right now they’re determining the process for treating the water that will be left behind once the coal ash is gone.

“My main question was how dirty the water is and how clean’s it going to be when it comes out,” said John Granich, a Putnam County resident who attended Saturday’s meeting.

Granich has a background in hazardous waste management, and he actively engaged in a portion of the conversation about how Georgia Power and the state’s Environmental Protection Division will measure water quality during the dewatering process.

A warning, things are about to get a little technical.

One key component of Georgia Power’s plan is how it will monitor wastewater. It includes weekly and monthly checks of the water in the ponds and the water in Lake Sinclair. But it will continuously monitor the treatment process for turbidity and PH balance.

Turbidity measures the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles. And pH describes the balance between acidity and alkalinity. Both are key tests of water quality.

My eyebrows came up when they just said we’re just going to look at turbidity and we’re going to define turbidity as this answer. 

“Well that ain’t really a straight up answer. We should be looking for individual key heavy metals.”

Granich wants a system that monitors for the arsenic, boron, lead, mercury and other toxins found in coal ash. He says there’s technology available to take an in-dpeth look at the water going into Lake Sinclair. It’s just a matter of whether or not Georgia Power will pay the up front cost of putting a system like that in place. 

“ Continuous monitoring is something we can do very affordably and we can look at that. That’s within our technology grasp today.

“To sit back and just say ‘we’re looking at turbidity.’ Well I don’t necessarily buy that one. “

Current federal and state regulations require testing for turbidity and pH balance. So it would be up to Georgia Power whether or not to adhere to a higher level of testing.

Retired Special Education Teacher Dean Canon knows what she wants Georgia Power to do.

Canon left Saturday’s meeting deeply concerned about the threat of coal ash to the community’s drinking water. But she said she is guardedly optimistic about Georgia Power and the Environmental Protection Division’s willingness to work toward a solution.

 I think they tried their best to explain it to us so we would accept it. But I think some of them went away concerned that they have a little more work to do convince us that it’s the right thing to do. 

“The right thing to do is to give us clean drinking water and spend the money to remove the ash in another way other than just putting the water that’s left over into our drinking water source. “

When I asked Canon if she’d contribute toward a better outcome to this potential pollution problem on Lake Sinclair, she answered emphatically:

Would I be willing to pay more for clean water for my grandchildren, great grandchildren to drink? Yes.

“We cannot run around getting the cheapest product for ourselves so that  we can buy a bigger house, a bigger car,  and more expensive clothes and go on a vacation. And leave the generations behind us to drink water that is going to cause learning disabilities and health issues and that’s it in a nutshell.”

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division held its only public input meeting on Georgia Powers wastewater permit renewal on Tuesday, June 27 in the Putnam County Administrative Complex. If you can’t make this meeting, written comments can be submitted to email address EPDcomments@dnr.ga.gov, by close of business Thursday, June 29th.