From the Publisher: An Environmental Paradox

The EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, was established by President Richard Nixon in 1970 to protect human health and the environment. In a reversal of its mission, the EPA could soon sanction a threat to Georgia’s coastal water drainage system by allowing huge amounts of toxic coal ash to be deposited in a 2,200-acre landfill in Broadhurst, near Jesup in Wayne County. The owner of the existing landfill, Republic Services, wants to build a rail spur through 30 acres of nearby wetlands so it can bring in up to 10,000 tons of coal ash per day from all over the country.

Coal ash is the waste that is left after coal is burned and comes mainly from coal-fired electric power plants. The ash contains arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxic materials.

Normally, power plants store coal ash after the coal burning process by mixing it with water and placing it in nearby ponds or storing it in local landfills that are monitored for potential spills. These age-old treatment methods have been revised by the EPA due to recent massive leaks of coal ash from defective landfills in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The EPA now proposes the cheapest way to handle coal ash is to remove it from localized landfill sites and ship it to several massive landfills in remote areas of the country. Our state is one of the areas in which to dump the residue. This waste would be transported here from power plants all over the U.S., even as far away as Washington State. It’s no wonder citizens rate the EPA as one of the least trusted government agencies.

Our own electric utility, Georgia Power, is taking the opposite approach. In June, the company announced it will cease operations at all 29 of its coal ash ponds within the next three years. Sixteen of those ponds are located next to lakes and rivers and cannot be feasibly contained, so the company will remove the existing ash, relocate it to a permitted landfill, consolidate it with other closing ash ponds or recycle it. (More than 50 percent of Georgia Power’s coal ash is recycled for things like Portland cement, concrete and cinder blocks.)

The Broadhurst landfill, however, is located very close to the Altamaha River that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Any potential leak in the landfill could damage the wetlands and Georgia’s coastal islands that are just 50 miles south of the site. This landfill will impact one of the state’s largest river drainage water systems, which begins in the center of Georgia with two rivers, the Ocmulgee and the Oconee, that run south from the fall line about 50 miles apart. They merge near Hazlehurst to form the Altamaha River. This river continues south through the state’s largest wetlands area, winding past Jesup and into Darien, on the coast of Georgia. The river then flows through the barrier islands between McIntosh and Glynn counties and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The 137-mile Altamaha River is the largest free-flowing river in Georgia – and the East Coast; its drainage basin encompasses about 14,000 square miles. Some call it Georgia’s Amazon, and there are several groups devoted to maintaining its natural state, including the local river keepers and business, state, city and county government leaders. Federal officials at the EPA should be proud of these efforts, but such endeavors will be threatened by what will be thousands of tons of coal ash hauled in from all over the U.S. to be dumped into the Broadhurst landfill. Landfill leaks from the plastic linings do happen, and this is the major threat.

It’s an environmental paradox. The EPA has strict rules designed to limit carbon pollution from future coal-fired power plants because burning coal is considered the largest single source of greenhouse emissions and is bad for the environment. Yet as of October 2015, the EPA no longer classifies coal ash as hazardous to the environment. This toxic material’s storage is not being restricted and regulated as a hazardous material.

Georgia will soon have what the EPA should call a super-hazardous landfill that could endanger wetlands, river systems, coastal islands, wildlife, shrimp and fish populations, and the fishing and tourism industries so important here.

It is time for local, state and county officials to step in and stop the expansion project. The safer and more efficient solution would be for states such as Washington, Tennessee, North Carolina and others to keep their present systems but better regulate their operation and safety. We don’t need an EPA paradox in Georgia.

Categories: Neely Young