Committees on Natural Resources and Environment for both the state House and Senate met early Thursday morning to get everyone on the same page ahead of consideration of new coal ash regulatory bills this session, inviting staff from the state Environmental Protection Division and representatives from state utilities to provide as thorough of a briefing as possible in around an hour.
Senate committee Chairman Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, let it be known this joint meeting was just on the basics, and anything further — including likely testimony from a number of interested parties — would occur as the committees handle bills in their regular course of business.
“I think it’s important to note this is an oversight hearing this morning — that’s the purpose of the meeting,” Harper said. “We’ve asked the Environmental Protection Division and the director to come, and others, to get us up to date on what’s going on, and that’s what this hearing is about. Obviously, today we will not be taking any testimony.
“That’s not the purpose of this meeting. Testimony will be take in committee hearings whenever we have legislation that may be taken up before the committees. That’s normally when we have public comment and public testimony.”
EPD Director Rick Dunn gave a bit of a historical overview. Coal ash — or coal combustion residuals, CCR — weren’t specifically regulated as waste management until two catastrophic coal ash pond failures in 2008 in Tennessee and 2014 in North Carolina.
That led to a federal Environmental Protection Agency rule classifying it as solid waste and instituting minimum standards.
Dunn said that a year later, the EPD incorporated and expanded on those regulations — the EPA rule expected companies to be compliant, and the agency had to wait for a complaint to act. The EPD regulations allow the state agency to run a permitting process, along with monitoring and enforcing the regulations.
“Under both the state and federal rules, all 30 ash ponds in Georgia must cease accepting waste and close,” Dunn said. “Most impoundments in Georgia must cease accepting waste in April of this year. … And, they must complete closure of these surface impoundments or ash ponds within five years, although extensions of that requirement are available.”
The coal ash pond at the Plant McManus site in Glynn County is still undergoing ash removal. During the meeting, state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, asked Georgia Power General Manager of Environmental Affairs Aaron Mitchell whether coal ash escaped the site during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“No, is the short answer to that,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been closing Plant McManus for about three years. We should have been completed with that construction. Due to the two hurricanes that came through and fill the pond back up, we’ve had to pause excavation of that pond and treat that water. This year, we should near completion of removing the final ash from that pond. The pond integrity remain intact, and the additional preventive measures ahead of both hurricanes allowed that pond to stay intact.”
Mitchell said Georgia Power is looking at taking their coal ash reuse project from its active sites and use it with ash from closed sites — the utility filed a notice with the state Public Service Commission to begin an ash beneficial reuse research center at a Georgia Power facility, partnering with the Electric Power Research Institute. Staff at the center would study the beneficial reuse of coal ash and experiment with technology to condition the coal ash for best reuse.
“We have approximately 500 groundwater monitoring wells around our ash ponds and landfills,” Mitchell said. “In addition, we’ve installed more wells than what is required by either federal or state regulations, for one purpose — to ensure that water quality is being protected, and that we are not impacting our neighbors.
“Because of that additional monitoring data, and based on what we’ve reviewed, I can stand and say we are not impacting our neighbors’ water quality, or endangering drinking water off of our sites.”
Both coal ash bills filed by state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, await action in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.