CHEROKEE COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — At a public hearing Tuesday, Georgia environmental leaders heard from neighbors who are concerned that coal ash from a power plant could pollute an important waterway.

States across the country are shutting down coal ash ponds after a ruling from the EPA several years ago when failures in other areas lead to health and environmental concerns.

Georgia Power is in the process of closing coal ash ponds at several of its plants, including the Hammond Plant near Rome. The facility lies along the Coosa River, which enters Alabama and forms Weiss Lake.

Leaders from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division held a virtual public meeting Tuesday to get input from neighbors on Georgia Power’s plans to close coal ash pond #3 on the property.

Upper Coosa River Keeper Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman said the material can be toxic if it enters the groundwater or river.

“Coal ash is filled with all kinds of heavy metals, neurotoxins, carcinogens. Things that we don’t want in our drinking water,” said Demonbreun-Chapman with the Coosa River Basin Initiative.

Demonbreun-Chapman also said the material could impact fish and widlife in the waterway.

As a part of its plan, Georgia Power wants approval from the state to remove the pond by capping it in place. Advocates want to see the pond removed by extracting the material and moving it to a dry and safe area for storage.

“Ash pond 3 contains 1 million tons of coal ash. It is partially located in the 100 year flood plain and is sitting in groundwater,” said Demonbreun-Chapman.

Due to the facilities location, there is fear that any harmful substances could seep into the river during a flood event.

“Every single time the Coosa River floods, which happens ever year, or every other year, that water table comes up and interacts with more and more of the coal ash and when that water drains back out it can carry those toxic constituents with it,” said Demonbreun-Chapman.

Further downstream at Weiss Lake, neighbors who rely on the water are also worried about the potential impacts in the future.

“I’m also a homeowner on the lake and also own a charter boat,” said Mark Collins, who is president of the Weiss Lake Improvement Association.

Collins relies on Weiss Lake for his charter boat business that he’s had since the 90s. It’s a valuable resource for all of Cherokee County.

“People get their drinking water out of here, as far as a recreational standpoint, it brings a lot of tourism dollars,” said Collins.

According to a statement from Georgia Power, the plan is considered safe by the EPA and follows federal and state rules. The utility provider also promised independent groundwater monitoring near the site for 30 years.

The Upper Coosa Riverkeeper worries about the impacts of Georgia Power receiving approval from the state.

“They are approving a slow and steady drip of pollutants down into Weiss Lake for decades to come,” said Demonbreun-Chapman.

After Tuesday’s hearing, neighbors can still submit comments to GEDP until September 8th. Alabama residents like Collins believe it’s important to hear from people who are impacted across state lines.

“There’s only 12 miles of the Coosa River in Georgia below Plant Hammond so it is going to affect very very few people who are residents of Georgia, which is basically turning it into Alabama’s problem,” Collins continued. “The best move would be to pick it up and move it away the river and away from the flood plain.”

CBS 42 reached out to GEDP for additional information on the coal ash. A spokesperson released the following details:

“For ash ponds being closed in place at Plant Hammond, Plant McDonough, Plant Scherer, Plant Wansley, and Plant Yates, the bottom of the coal ash ranges from as little as a foot in groundwater to more than 50 feet.  Data shows it ranges from 0 to 9 ft for Hammond Ash Pond 3.

The steps specifically being taken at Hammond’s AP-3 include a robust groundwater monitoring system to detect if groundwater is affected by the ash remaining in place, requiring the groundwater to be monitored for a minimum of 30 years, and installation of a cover system to prevent the infiltration of rain water into the CCR. 

Closure included dewatering and grading the CCR within AP-3 and installing a final cover system.  The final cover consists of (from bottom to top) a 60 mil High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) liner, geo-composite drainage media, 18-inch protective soil cover, and 6-inch vegetative layer to establish vegetation.”

-Georgia Environmental Protection Division

Georgia Power released this statement on the situation:

“Georgia Power’s ash pond closure plans fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, as well as the more stringent requirements of Georgia’s state CCR rule. Testing results from the extensive groundwater monitoring network around Hammond Ash Pond 3 meet federal primary drinking water standards.

“Independent engineers and geologists will continue to monitor the groundwater results and routinely report the results to the EPD for at least the next 30 years. At Plant Hammond Ash Pond 3, the company is employing proven engineering methods that include a cover system and installation of TreeWells®, which result in a closure that is compliant, with both the federal and state CCR rules, and environmentally protective.

“Both the Federal and State rules specify two approved methods for closing our ponds – closure in place and closure by removal – with the EPA determining both options are safe and protective of the environment. Georgia’s rule extends beyond the federal rule in requiring a comprehensive permitting and oversight program for our plans on a site-by-site basis.

“Each closure design is certified by a team of independent, professional engineers and geologists and demonstrates how the specific closure design meets the performance standards established in the Federal and State CCR Rules Regardless of the method used, closure by removal or closure in place, we’re going to be sure that our closure plans are protective of the environment and the communities we serve.

“Of additional interest, under approval by the Georgia Public Service Commission and EPD, Georgia Power is working to install a permitted 2.8 MW (AC) solar power facility on top of the closed ash pond, such that the site will continue to serve Georgia Power customers with clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy for years to come.”

-Georgia Power