Georgia has become a Southern dumping destination for solid wastes including coal ash, and more is on the way.
A report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, compiled with assistance from University of Georgia students, says Georgia now imports more solid waste than any of its neighbors other than Florida, which doesn’t keep comparable records.
A landfill in Banks County northeast of Atlanta that takes coal ash from the Carolinas and another in Charlton County in southeastern Georgia that takes coal ash from Florida account for 86 percent of the out-of-state waste. Records show each is planning to store 1 million tons of coal ash in the coming year.
Coal ash is a by-product of coal-fired electricity that contains heavy metals known to be toxic to plants, animals and people. Three other Georgia landfills have or are poised to take coal ash, and watchdogs believe more could.
In Banks County, located about 75 miles (120 km) from Atlanta, Anne Jones became so afraid to drink water from her well she installed a purification system. A blue plastic jug, filled to the brim with purified water, sits on her kitchen counter.
“I’m just very careful about my water,” said Jones, whose home sits on the edge of R&B Landfill. Since 2015, trucks from North and South Carolina have filled it with at least 6.7 million tons of coal ash.
Georgia’s relatively cheap land has made the state a dumping ground for solid waste from neighboring states. The surge concerns environmental advocates including April Lipscomb, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is helping assess the suitability of Georgia landfills for coal ash.
“Some of the landfills have received coal ash in the past, some want to receive it in the future and some we have no idea,” said Lipscomb.
So far, there is no evidence that the coal ash in Banks County is polluting the environment, and owner Waste Management said its storage procedures exceed those set by state and federal regulators. The ash is stored in separate, lined “cells,” the company said, and it noted that R&B has “an exceptional environmental and safety record.”
Aside from the landfills in Banks and Charlton counties, sites in Cherokee, Chatham and Meriwether counties notified the state that they plan to take 290,000 tons of coal ash over the next year. A state official told the newspaper that ash will come from Georgia Power plants.
Environmental critics say Georgia laws still don’t go far enough to ensure that landfills accepting coal ash are located far from rivers and other water sources, or that they are adequately monitored for seepage into the water table.
Legislation that would have provided more safeguards failed in the General Assembly this winter, though the bill’s sponsor said he plans to bring it back next year.
“There needs to be minimum state standards on how we deal with coal ash,” said state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, who is not related to Anne Jones. “Without those there is no 100 percent assurance to the public that we are doing the right thing.”
Jones’ bill would implement more stringent siting requirements for municipal landfills that intend to accept coal ash, to assure that no landfill is located near vulnerable water sources.
Lipscomb, who helped draft the bill, said the municipal landfill siting requirements would match those already in place for landfills operated by coal-burning utilities.
Jones’ bill would also strengthen the laws governing public notification about landfills that receive coal ash.