Coal Ash Carcinogens are Georgia Power’s Dirty Secret

The tiny town of Juliette, Georgia is almost a village, out in the woods north of Macon, a pre-Civil War railroad hub, and about an hour southeast of Atlanta on Highway 23 near the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge. The nearest landmark is Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site, but it’s not the sort of plantation you’re imagining; rather than the white-columned facade of Gone with the Wind’s Tara with peacocks strutting through the yard and handsome beaux entertaining ladies in the shade of the porch, Jarrell Plantation is more of a farmstead, with timber frame buildings greyed with age and covered by cedar shingle or corrugated tin roofs. The family homes (one built in 1847 and one in 1895) are both small and functional, and the rest of the plantation is comprised of an array of what amount to sheds, really: including a barn, privy, chicken house, smokehouse, root cellar, well house, blacksmith shop, etcetera.

The town itself is best known as the primary shooting location for the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson. Standing in for a fictional town in Alabama, the buildings and homes constructed to fill out Juliette’s little main street were left there after filming and converted into antiques stores and souvenir shops, and a real cafe runs out of the movie’s Whistle Stop Cafe, serving up the title dish day in and day out to fans of the film and people passing through. The community of Juliette has always been a rural one, and its people are salt-of-the-earth and simple: devoted to their community, their families and their faith.

Juliette is also home to Georgia Power’s Robert W. Scherer Power Plant, the most powerful coal-fired plant in North America. It sits a little more than five miles outside of town on Lake Juliette and is a 3,520,000-kilowatt facility. It is also the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the U.S.

The coal-burning process is simple and hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years: each day between two and five Norfolk Southern trains of up to 135 cars each bring coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to the plant, where it is burned to produce heat to turn water into steam, which spins a turbine and produces electricity. Plant Scherer has four units, each producing 930 megawatts, and burns a total of around 11 million tons of coal per year. The ash from this process is then mixed with water and dumped in what are generously called “ponds” or even “lagoons” as holding facilities for the ash sludge. This residual material is essentially concentrated toxic elements including heavy metals like arsenic, selenium, cadmium, cobalt, lead, boron, chromium and mercury, which leech out of the sludge and into the earth, contaminating the water table. The coal ash pits at Plant Scherer hold an amount roughly equivalent to 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Up to the present day, there has been no requirement in Georgia for Georgia Power or other coal-burning producers to line these pits with even as much as the clay or geocomposite membrane liners required for use in household landfills, which means the toxic, heavy metal sludge has been soaking below the rural water table since the ponds were constructed. At Plant Scherer, ash has been dumped into these ponds since the plant’s opening in 1982, so these carcinogens have been poisoning Juliette and Monroe County for almost forty years.

Lately, Georgia Power has been quietly buying up properties surrounding the plant, demolishing the homes in the blink of an eye and pouring concrete down the homes’ wells, either to prevent their future use or to prevent future testing. At a town hall meeting with the county commissioners at the beginning of 2020, it was said that 52 homes had been purchased and destroyed, entire rows of houses practically disappearing overnight. In fact, Georgia Power has spent around $11 million on land appraised at closer to $2 million, but says that it has found that the coal ash presents no danger to the environment or residents, despite the fact that some residents say their tap water runs grey when it rains. According to a 2018 report by EarthJustice, water testing provided by the Altamaha Riverkeeper shows unsafe boron and cobalt concentrations in residential wells, with cobalt levels as much as twenty times above the EPA’s standard for health. Cobalt pollution can cause permanent damage to the heart, blood, thyroid and other organ systems; boron can cause developmental birth defects and low birth weight.

Other testing of residential wells by the Altamaha Riverkeeper has discovered “some presence” of the heavy metals mercury, boron, calcium, sulfate and barium, which are potential indications of coal ash contamination in the water table; Georgia Health News reports that exposure to some of those contaminants can lead to “long-term health risks including kidney damage (from mercury), reproductive system disruption (from boron), and heart issues (from barium).”

Life-long Juliette reside Karl Cass has lived on property less than a mile away from Plant Scherer since before the plant was constructed, and Cass says the number of his neighbors who have suffered from serious ailments since the coal ash pits were dug has long made him uncomfortable, and made him question whether he is safe drinking the water from his well. Jen Hilburn with the Altamaha Riverkeeper has reportedly been conducting tests of the groundwater around Plant Scherer for years and says her testing has uncovered hexavalent chromium, which you may remember as the isotope linked to rare cancers in the based-on-true-events Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich.

“You do have wells with hexavalent chromium much, much higher than your normal cancer risk,” Hilburn said during a 2018 teleconference. “Then you have a community that has a high incidence of cancer. So, I would consider that suspicious.”

Juliette is a rural community without a centralized water system for its residents, so almost everyone who lives in the vicinity is dependent on wells for drinking, cooking and bathing. Since testing began, many residents uncomfortable with the results or simply uncomfortable with what they consider to be a high rate of cancers and other ailments have resorted to using bottled water. In early 2020, Monroe County commissioners brought in two 600-gallon tanks and one 1,000-gallon tanker truck provided by the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency to provide stop-gap access to water to residents that they can be confident isn’t contaminated with heavy metals. The Board of Commissioners has also embarked on a $16+ million project to provide a municipal water supply to Monroe County residents living around Lake Juliette. The project is slated to take between two and two-and-a-half years to construct. Capital projects in Monroe County tend toward the construction and maintenance of roadways and communications towers to provide connectivity to the residents of the rural community, so a public works project of this scale seems to be a first.

When asked by VICE News whether Georgia Power should have to pay back the funds for the municipal water project, Greg Tapley, chair of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, responded that he had both “heard of” and “seen” reports of contaminated well water around the plant, but that Georgia Power “has wells all around the coal ash pond and they don’t have the levels of hexavalent chromium, for example, in those that people have in their wells,” and that the difference between Georgia Power’s testing reports and those of the independent testing, like that done by the Altamaha Riverkeeper, could mean proving liability may not be possible. “Anybody that’s liable ought to make restitution,” Tapley said. But that seems to be much easier said than done, considering Georgia Power has closed the plant with intention to cover the ponds and move on to other opportunities, what some might call “the cut-and-run.”

Executive Director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper Fletcher Sams, who has personally conducted much of the testing of Juliette’s well water, says in the same VICE reporting that the county water lines are a “major victory,” but that it simply isn’t enough.

“It doesn’t resolve the underlying issue of there being 15 million tons of toxic waste in a leaky, unlined pit. It harms the environment, it harms property values, and we still have a couple of years before all these residents are going to get clean water from the municipal water supply.”

After years of lobbying, the Georgia General Assembly has taken up two pieces of legislation to protect communities from environmental contamination due to coal ash pits, one currently being batted around the House and one the Senate, stalled for a time while the legislature recessed as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic, but picked back up in the summer of 2020. Will Georgia’s legislators summon the gumption to stand up to Georgia Power and its parent company, the behemoth that is Southern Company? Only time will tell, but Georgia Power and Southern Company have undoubtedly invested billions into the state and regional economies and it will be difficult for those legislators to avoid stepping on toes. State politics is a delicate and dangerous business.

Indications that Georgia Power will take responsibility for the damage it has caused aren’t promising. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that a 2018 report provided to the company by an engineering consultant showed a cross-section of the plant with coal ash in contact with groundwater, so feigning ignorance isn’t an option. But that same year local news station 13 WMAZ reached out to Georgia Power for a comment on a story which described Juliette residents taking containers with them “to town” to collect water and bring it back each time they traveled to Macon or Forsyth for business or a Wal-Mart trip. WMAZ asked for a response to the question of whether residents’ concerns about the water near the plant were founded, Georgia Power replied in an official statement,

“Georgia Power took early action to quickly and safely begin closing all of our ash ponds. We have and will continue to comply with all federal and state laws related to our ash pond closures. We stand by the data delivered from our 57 groundwater monitoring wells at Plant Scherer, which are sited by third-party professional geologists to detect impacts to water. Based on the extensive data collected and reported to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), nothing above a state or federal drinking water standard has been shown on or leaving our property. This groundwater monitoring will continue long after the pond at Plant Scherer is closed. As we have been throughout this process, Georgia Power will continue to be open and transparent with its data and closure plans.”

So it doesn’t sound like taking responsibility and resolving the problem is part of the game plan. What does seem to be in the game plan is closing Plant Scherer, capping the ponds, filling in any wells found to have heavy metal contamination above a “normal” level, and moving on to the next town, complying, we assume, with any forthcoming legislation about appropriately lining any coal ash ponds in the future.

Fletcher Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeeper says that’s not enough.

“The remedy should not be, ‘oh, well, we can just provide people water lines, and [then] we can just contaminate ground water all over the state.”

Georgia Power owes Juliette more than the cut-and-run, more than the purchase of people’s homes, more than the capping of toxic waste pits that have been contaminating people’s water and making them sick for 40 years. These people deserve restitution, and not just for the new county water lines that are going in. They have invested their life savings, their parents’ savings, their livelihoods into property that is killing them, and they can’t be made whole. Anything growing in the ground is now contaminated. Residents have been told that so much heavy metal contamination has been going on for so long, that particulates could now be in the air, blowing around in the dust, settled in their ventilation systems, on kids’ playhouses, on car door handles. Capping the ponds, building a municipal water system and leaving town won’t resolve the problems that have been building in Juliette for almost half a century. And more than that, Plant Scherer is only one of eleven coal-powered plants in Georgia cited in a report compiled by Environmental Integrity Project and EarthJustice to have polluted groundwater, including Plant McIntosh in the small town of Rincon, outside of Savannah, with triple the safe levels of arsenic and lithium. The report says that Plant McIntosh and four other sites, including Plant Scherer, are out of compliance with regulations requiring a minimum of five feet of separation between coal ash pits and underlying groundwater. Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft explained to the Savannah Morning News that the company “doesn’t consider McIntosh (or the other cited plants) to be out of compliance with this rule because the rule describes a condition that must be met for continued operation and the company has already closed the pond at McIntosh and plans to excavate it.” The pond at Plant Scherer is also closed, but as of yet, there are no plans for excavation. Southern Environmental Law Center’s senior attorney Chris Bowers describes the coal ash contamination as “nasty pollutants right next to the groundwater.” The position of the SELC is that all the ponds across the state and the region need to be excavated and the contents removed to a lined landfill.

But that won’t do much for the residents of Juliette who can’t sell their land and move somewhere safe, can’t bring back their dead friends and relatives. Can’t forget the suffering of their last days and hours. There’s a $16 million public works project that Monroe County residents now have to scrape together the funds for, and Georgia Power owes them restitution for that. But Chris Bowers doesn’t seem to think that new water lines will be enough.

“Once pollutants violate the groundwater,” he says, “it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”

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