Shortly after 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, months of work and negotiations paid off as House Bill 879 cleared the state House and made its way to the Senate on a 169-3 vote. The bill, authored by Rep. Jeff Jones, provides for public notification before dewatering of coal ash ponds.
Jones, R-St. Simons Island, said passage was “like a two-year pregnancy, and finally got that baby birthed.” He noted that last year when he started working on the forerunners to HB 879 and a similar bill, HB 880, part of what became 879 this year provided for stricter water quality provisions and signs at the outfall sites warning people who might be fishing or in the water near the sites.
Jones said in terms of the water quality standards, he ran into opposition from the state Environmental Protection Division, which he wasn’t able to overcome. As for the signs, that language was taken out by the committee, and was a prerequisite to the committee approving the bill. Jones said he met with Georgia Power three times between the 2017 and 2018 sessions “to negotiate an acceptable version of the bill that they wouldn’t oppose,” or on which the company and legislative power broker would be neutral.
Those negotiations, and changes to the bill sought by the EPD, allowed the legislation to move forward.
“It was an incredible fight to get that full public disclosure,” Jones said.
The legislation did have the support, however, of state environmentalists.
“HB 879 will help ensure people have the information they need to responsibly choose where to fish and swim when coal ash ponds are being drained,” said Megan Desrosiers, executive director of One Hundred Miles.
HB 880, which required public notification before a municipal landfill accepted coal ash, did not make it out of committee and is essentially dead, though language from the bill could be added to a bill that is still viable for this year’s session.
“Unfortunately, HB 880 had opposition from Waste Management and Georgia Power,” Desrosiers said. “They testified that the quarterly water quality monitoring requirement in the bill would cost landfill owners too much money and would be bad for business and ratepayers in Georgia.
“I’m disappointed legislators chose landfill operators and power companies over the health and safety of Georgia landowners.”
Jones said the quarterly testing would be a change from current semi-annual testing, and added that the purpose of the bill was to put in a legal floor in state law that, as a matter of procedure, would be harder to change than a regulation put forward by EPD.
“In hindsight, I did not negotiate 880 with the landfill companies in the off-session like I did the dewatering with Georgia Power and EPD,” Jones said. “So, and I guess in my mind, it just didn’t seem to be necessary because all that bill was going to be was, again, really, a public notice — letting the public know, in the community, 30 days before the local waste authority signs a contract to start accepting coal ash.”
A poll released by the Georgia Water Coalition two days before the crossover deadline — and conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research — showed 90 percent of respondents favored public notification of coal ash pit dewatering and landfills accepting coal ash, 83 percent favored frequent well testing for landfills that contain coal ash, and 75 percent favored Georgia Power footing the bill for private drinking water testing near coal ash pits.
The notification on dewatering bill now moves to the Senate. There are 10 days remaining in this year’s legislative session.