Plant Scherer in Juliette is one of the plants where Georgia Power plans to leave coal ash waste in unlined pits, where it sits in groundwater. (Courtesy Altamaha Riverkeeper)
Plant Scherer in Juliette is one of the plants where Georgia Power plans to leave coal ash waste in unlined pits, where it sits in groundwater. (Courtesy Altamaha Riverkeeper)

Three days before Christmas, 2008, the largest industrial spill in the nation’s history occurred in Roane County, Tennessee at a coal-burning power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

When a half-century-old earthen dam collapsed, an avalanche of toxic coal fly ash slurry poured into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and inundated 300 acres of land; a dozen homes were flooded, several ripped from their foundations. 

The environmental disaster was nearly ten times larger than the Deepwater Horizon spill which occurred two years later when an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It was about 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.  

Several days after the catastrophe at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, Donna Lisenby eased her kayak into the murky, gray water of a lake on the Emory River that had filled with ash slurry after the dam ruptured. She’d traveled to the site to evaluate the situation for the international Waterkeeper Alliance.

Fifteen years after the incident, Donna still recalls the disorienting visual shock and the nauseating, acrid smell of the coal ash. She told me recently that she was appalled and bewildered as to how such a disaster could happen. There were hundreds of dead fish, toppled trees, and mountains of industrial sludge. What had once been a peaceful landscape with clear water, tree-lined shores, and homes had become “a hellscape that smelled like hell.” 

Deceit and Death

When TVA constructed the Kingston power plant in 1955, it was the largest such facility in the world, generating huge amounts of electricity and pollution.
To contain the millions of tons of byproduct coal ash produced annually, TVA built ponds without protective liners—a process called “wet storage”—adjacent to the Emory River. As time passed, the sludge held by retaining walls rose higher and higher. Even though engineers repeatedly found leaks, decades before the dam collapsed, only small repairs were made, instead of installing safer but more expensive dry storage.

Coal ash contains dangerous toxins, including mercury, lead, and radioactive material, that can seep into surface and groundwater if the ash isn’t stored properly. The heavy metals in the ash have the potential to injure all major organ systems and are linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. In the years following the disaster, the environmental damage from the human-caused catastrophe at Kingston has been eclipsed by the heartbreaking human tragedy that has unfolded.

Nine hundred cleanup workers hired to remove the contaminated waste were not provided, or allowed to wear, protective gear by TVA’s contractor Jacobs Engineering (now Jacobs Solutions). Presumably concerned about the negative optics of hazmat suits and respirators (and the very real possibility that acknowledging the risk factors could trigger a more expensive cleanup), Jacobs’ managers lied about health impacts. They told workers that the ash slurry was safe—that they could eat and drink it—that their breathing difficulties were due to pollen—and that they would get fired for asking for masks.

More than fifty of the workers at the site from 2009 until 2015 have already died from respiratory diseases and cancer; hundreds more are suffering debilitating illnesses. For a decade, they sought justice through the courts for restitution and to cover medical expenses. A monetary settlement was finally reached in May—years after a federal jury agreed that Jacobs had failed to protect the workers.

Continuing Risk

While the Kingston workers’ coal-ash exposure was excessive, the risk to drinking water supplies remains at 1,000 active coal ash landfills and ponds and hundreds of “retired” ash dumps in the U.S. According to the industry’s own data, more than 90 percent of these ponds are unlined; many are contaminating groundwater with toxins above U.S. EPA’s safe drinking water standards. 

The Kingston catastrophe and a coal ash pond failure in North Carolina finally prompted EPA, in 2015, to set the first-ever minimum federal standards for coal ash disposal. They address structural integrity for ash ponds, groundwater monitoring, corrective action, and public disclosure. The new rule also allows coal ash to be recycled into concrete and other applications: a profitable revenue stream. 

Georgia’s Coal Ash Problem

Several months after the federal rule was approved, Georgia Power announced it would close all twenty-nine of its coal ash ponds. Despite this good news, the company does not plan to properly dispose of the dangerous material from eight ash ponds—affecting water near Rome (Plant Hammond), Smyrna (Plant McDonough), Newnan (Plant Yates), and Juliette (Plant Scherer). 

Ever anxious to help our state’s dominant electric utility, Georgia’s environmental regulators have taken steps to support Georgia Power’s less-expensive approach: the riskier cap-in-place method. 

At Scherer, the company plans to cap its ash pond, leaving waste submerged in the aquifer that supplies water to residents of Juliette, who have sued over their high cancer rates and other illnesses connected to the plant’s ash disposal.

McDonough’s ash pond in Cobb County has already been capped without any permit from the state; the hazardous material continues to mingle with groundwater along the banks of the Chattahoochee River, as does the ash in a pond downstream at Yates.   Recent and welcome action by EPA rejects state attempts to allow utilities to leave coal ash in groundwater. Alabama regulators were told their proposal to allow Alabama Power to cap its unlined ash ponds with the ash still in contact with groundwater would not comply with the law. At hearings and in comment letters, Georgians have urged EPA to take the same position in our state. It’s past time for Georgia Power to take responsibility for removing its toxins from public waters.

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.