Moves are underway to allow the state to run its own coal ash regulatory program, separate from the federal government. The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently announced Georgia is the second state to take advantage of the new regulatory framework put into place by the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.

According to the EPA, this process allows states to use their own permit program, as long as it’s as protective as current federal regulations. Oklahoma was the first state to begin this process.

“EPA encourages other states to follow Georgia’s lead and assume oversight of coal ash management within their boarders,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “EPA is committed to working with the states as they establish coal ash programs tailored to their unique circumstances that are protective of human health and the environment.”

What this means in the near future for Georgia’s coal ash ponds is uncertain, but repeated attempts to make slight changes to the state’s coal ash laws have been defeated in the General Assembly. The Sierra Club, noting Georgia is a top coal ash-generating state, describes the state’s regulations as some of the weakest in the nation.

“It’s profoundly dangerous for this EPA to allow a patchwork of state rules to protect our drinking water from the repositories of ash that are being left in place around Georgia,” Stephen Stetson, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement. “All of these ash sites should be excavated and moved to dry, lined landfills, and we’ve got to have strong federal rules that prevent vulnerable communities from being dumped on. And we also obviously need to quit burning coal in the first place, and cut off this problem at the source.”

In December — the last time Georgia’s coal ash ponds generated headlines — John Kraft, with Georgia Power’s media relations team, said Georgia’s coal ash regulations are stricter than federal guidelines and that the company complies with both.

“We started several years ago on our plans to close all of our ash ponds, including completely excavating 19 of 29 ponds that are closest to rivers or other water bodies and closing the other 10 using advanced engineering methods,” Kraft said. “Also, since 2016, Georgia Power has installed approximately 500 groundwater monitoring wells around ash ponds and on-site landfills to actively monitor groundwater quality.

“The first round of testing was completed with results published in August 2016, more than 18 months ahead of federal requirements, and we continue to post testing results on our website and report them to Georgia (Environmental Protection Division). Based on the extensive data collected, the company has identified no risk to public health or drinking water.”

A public hearing on the state coal ash permit program is scheduled for Aug. 6 at 8 a.m. at the Georgia EPD Tradeport Training Room, which is located at 4244 International Parkway, Suite 116, in Atlanta. According to the EPA, there will be a morning session that will end at noon, an early afternoon session going 1-3 p.m. and a late afternoon session going 3:30-5:30 p.m. or later.

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