The Price Tag for 92 Million Tons of Toxic Waste in Georgia

As folks head outdoors this summer to enjoy the cooling comfort of Georgia’s rivers, streams, and lakes, it’s important to remember that the natural environment we all enjoy needs protection. What would happen if those same bodies of water were no longer safe for swimming and boating? What if you showed up at your favorite fishing hole one day and found signs saying,“Caution: Fish in this water may contain arsenic”? 

Unfortunately, this scenario could become reality because of Georgia Power’s failure to safely store the toxic coal ash generated by its power plants. There are over 92 million tons of coal ash in Georgia, and Georgia Power wants to “cap in place” over half of that coal ash. “Cap in place” is a method that leaves coal ash in giant pits without a liner to protect groundwater. A cover is only placed on top of the pit. Without a protective liner, the coal ash will continue to contaminate groundwater with toxins like arsenic, mercury, chromium, and radium. Because groundwater is fluid, all streams, rivers, and bodies of water downstream from these coal ash pits are under threat. 

In addition to determining how best to handle toxic coal ash, decisions are being made right now about who should foot the bill. Georgia Power wants customers to pay 100 percent of the costs of cleaning up its mess. The Sierra Club continues to advocate for Georgia Power customers by working to ensure that Georgia Power pays its fair share. 

Last month, we filed the final brief in our appeal of Georgia Power’s 2019 rate case, where the Public Service Commission (PSC) granted Georgia Power full recovery of over $525 million in coal ash cleanup costs plus a guaranteed profit. This amount barely scratches the surface. The utility estimates that its total coal ash cleanup costs are nearly $9 billion, a number that’s ballooned by $1 billion in just under two years. The PSC granted Georgia Power’s request without asking for legally-approved closure plans. It didn’t even acknowledge the question of whether Georgia Power should pay some or all of the coal ash cleanup costs, especially given the utility’s history of improper coal ash disposal. 

In a blockbuster report in March of this year, ProPublica uncovered company documents going back to the early 1980s showing that Georgia Power knew the risks and costs of improperly handling coal ash, and made a business decision to cut corners. In 1978, the utility described the costs of properly storing coal ash at Plant Scherer as “not economically feasible.” Georgia Power has known for decades that its unlined coal ash pits are leaking toxins into groundwater. Now, the bill has come due and Georgia Power wants you, the customer, to pay for it. 

How is the problem of coal ash dealt with in other states? Last year, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the North Carolina Utilities Commission was “required to consider all material facts … including … alleged environmental violations … and groundwater contamination from the coal ash basins,” in its determination of who should pay to clean up coal ash. The PSC should have done the same with Georgia Power and undertaken a serious analysis to determine if, based on the history of unlawful coal ash handling, it is just and reasonable to impose Georgia Power’s coal ash costs on customers. Georgia Power shouldn’t be let off the hook for its role in causing the coal ash mess to begin with. 

Georgia Power also shouldn’t be allowed to start collecting this money from customers without legally approved coal ash closure permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), since without those, how Georgia Power closes its coal ash could change. Georgia Power selected “cap-in-place” for the majority of its coal ash, which is the bare minimum required by  the Environmental Protection Agency. It is possible that Georgia EPD could require Georgia Power to fully excavate all coal ash pits, which is exactly what is now required in North Carolina. 

Georgia’s drinking water, groundwater, streams, rivers, lakes, and wildlife will all remain at risk if Georgia Power gets its way. “Cap-in-place” is a non-solution that prioritizes Georgia Power’s profits over the health of people and communities. Members of the public need to make their voices heard during the coal ash pond closure permitting process, which is a critical step prior to the PSC asking customers to fork over billions of dollars. How the PSC allows Georgia Power to recoup those costs now will continue to have an impact on ratepayers for the next 40 years -- the amount of time Georgia Power says it will need to fully close these unlined pits. 

The Sierra Club’s fight for safe coal ash cleanup is far from over. To find out more about how you can get involved, go to, click “Take Action” and sign up for updates.