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The Georgia Water coalition has accused state leaders and Georgia Power of weakening environmental protections and polluting water with toxic coal ash dumping.

A state environmental advocacy coalition has published its annual water pollution report, accusing state leaders, politicians and large companies like Georgia Power of weakening environmental protections, polluting water with toxic coal ash dumping and “threatening the health of Georgia’s water and the well-being of 10 million Georgians.”

The report named Cherokee County as a location where toxic coal ash dumping threatens the environment.

The Georgia Water Coalition, made up of more than 250 “conservation and environmental organizations, hunting and fishing groups, businesses and faith-based organizations,” published Tuesday the 29-page Dirty Dozen report, highlighting “12 of the worst offenses to Georgia’s waters,” taking aim at politics and policies statewide that it says have led to less money budgeted for environmental protection, and in some areas, severe damage to ecosystems.

“From state leaders deceiving citizens and shortchanging environmental programs in the state budget to powerful corporations using their influence to change state policy at the expense of ordinary citizens, this report is as much about dirty politics as it is dirty water,” Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director and riverkeeper with the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome, said in a written statement on Tuesday.

A statement from the coalition published with the report specifically addresses actions taken by state representatives, senators and the 19-member Department of Natural Resources Board in its various accusations of endangering the welfare of Georgia waters and weakening clean water regulations.

Representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division defended the DNR Board’s actions Wednesday. Kevin Chambers, a spokesperson for the state agency, said the board’s March decision to amend rule language for clarity’s sake is misconstrued in the coalition’s report, which references a state court decision finding Rayonier Advanced Materials in violation of wastewater discharge regulations.

“The rule amendments adopted by the Board of Natural Resources in March 2018 were proposed to clarify the original rule language and not weaken it,” Chambers said in an emailed statement. “Misinterpretation of the rule language became apparent when a third party challenged a wastewater discharge permit issued by EPD. The news release claims this was an agency effort to ‘change the law’ in order to avoid an adverse decision from an administrative law judge. What the report’s authors failed to mention is that the judge’s decision was later overturned by both the superior court and a unanimous court of appeals. These decisions affirmed EPD’s actions in administering the law and supported the need to clarify the rule’s language to ensure future applications remain consistent and predictable.”

The Georgia Water Coalition report also references a bill passed by the Georgia General Assembly at the close of the 2017-2018 legislative session in March – HB 792 – saying that the bill, with help from Georgia Power Company lobbying, made it cheaper to dump toxic coal ash in Georgia counties, including Cherokee.

“With the passage of HB 792, beginning in July 2019, local governments will charge landfill operators $2.50 for every ton of household garbage collected, but only $1 per ton for coal ash. With some 8 million tons to dispose of at local landfills, this translates into a potential $12 million windfall for Georgia Power. What’s worse, the coal-ash loophole means that Georgia will continue to be a dumping ground for out-of-state coal ash,” a supplemental report from the Georgia Water Coalition reads. “Currently, landfills located in Cherokee, Meriwether, Banks, Taylor, Chatham and Charlton counties can accept coal ash waste. These landfills are situated along streams and rivers and above vital groundwater sources that supply hundreds of thousands of Georgians with drinking water. While these facilities have been approved by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to accept coal ash waste, concerns that coal ash toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium could leak out.”

The report continues that these dumping grounds could leave the groundwater surrounding the landfills and tributaries of the Etowah, Chattahoochee, Savannah, Flint, Ogeechee and St. Mary’s rivers at risk to toxic pollution.

According to the Georgia General Assembly website, HB 792 passed on March 29 by a 48-4 vote in the senate and a 155-14 vote in the house. Gov. Deal signed the bill into law on May 3.

The assembly website shows Cherokee elected officials were split on the bill. All three state senators representing Cherokee County – Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell; and Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White – voted in support of the bill.

Rep. Michael Caldwell, R-Woodstock; Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs; and Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock accounted for three of the 14 opposition votes, while Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton and Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta voted “Yea.”

Craig Bell, a spokesman for Georgia Power, highlighted Wednesday the assembly’s “overwhelming support” for the bill before saying the company is adhering to environmental protection regulations regarding ash ponds at its plants around the state.

“We will comply with the law, as we remain focused on our ash pond closure plans. The company is meeting all regulations regarding ash ponds and landfills in the state, and adhering to a permitting program, through which the Georgia Environmental Protection Division approves actions related to ash pond closures,” Bell said in a written statement.

Georgia Power published a news release on its website (here) on March 2 that highlighted its efforts to “safely and permanently close 29 ash ponds at 11 current and former coal-fired power plants across the state. The company initiated ash pond closure preparation and construction activities in early 2016 with a commitment to being protective of the state’s waterways.”

That report indicated that, as of that same month, the company had completed ash removal and closure of five ash ponds at plants Branch, at Lake Sinclair in Putnam County; Kraft, on the Savannah River; McDonough, in Cobb County; and Yates, near Newnan. Closures and ash removal at six more ponds are expected to be complete this year.

Representatives of the Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority declined to comment for this story on Wednesday. County engineering officials did not respond to request for comment on the possible stormwater runoff and environmental effects of coal ash dumping in the county.

The Georgia Water Coalition’s annual Dirty Dozen report is a coalition-labeled “call to action, highlighting the worst offenses to Georgia's water.” The full report can be found by clicking here. The report on coal ash dumping can be found here.

For more information, visit www.gawater.org

Thomas is a government, business, crime and features reporter for the Cherokee Tribune and Ledger News. He is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and currently lives in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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