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Not In My Landfill: Georgia Residents Fight Plan To Store Toxic Coal Ash


There's another problem with coal beyond greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The problem is coal ash. It's a byproduct from burning coal for electricity, and it can contain things like mercury and arsenic. Nationwide utilities generate more than 100 million tons of coal ash a year, and it all has to go somewhere. Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports on how a preferred solution to coal ash is running into its own problems.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Here's what the problem was. There wasn't any national standard for storing coal ash. Power companies could keep it in big, open holes called coal ash ponds - no lining required to stop leakage and no monitoring to even know if it was leaking. After a couple disastrous spills, the EPA rolled out new rules in 2014. Now power companies must recycle the ash, store it more securely on site or send the ash to landfills like the one just outside of Jesup, a town in southeast Georgia.

KEN VALIHORA: If you want to store it somewhere, put it in the safest spot possible - which is what we do.

SAMUEL: Ken Valihora is the general manager of the Broadhurst Landfill. He took me on a tour. It has two layers of liners and monitoring wells. In the new 2014 rules, EPA decided not to designate coal ash as a hazardous waste, so the landfill meets all EPA standards for handling coal ash. And the owners would like to bring in a lot of it.

DAVID REMICK: About 90 to a hundred cars.

SAMUEL: David Remick is the operations manager at the landfill. We're standing in the spot where coal ash would be unloaded.

REMICK: That maximum amount would be about 10,000 tons of waste.

SAMUEL: That's 10,000 tons of coal ash a day. Frank Holleman is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He says his preferred option is to seek coal ash safely stored at the power plants. Georgia Power, which is the biggest utility in the state, is doing that at about half of its plants. But if a landfill can show that it will store ash securely, Holleman says, that's better than where it is now.

FRANK HOLLEMAN: Get it out of these dangerous, unlined pits. Put it in safe dry-lined storage away from the waterways.

SAMUEL: But the plan for this near Jesup is not going over well with locals.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, how are you?

PEGGY RIGGINS: How are you? How are you all?

SAMUEL: Like Peggy Riggins.

RIGGINS: I'm fighting coal ash.

SAMUEL: The retired school teacher is making her way around downtown Jesup asking people to join and donate to her cause. Just about everyone knows her thanks to her 30-year teaching career in this small city. She says she's never thought of herself as an activist before this.

RIGGINS: What we're doing is we have an organization called No Ash At All, And we're just charging $5 to become a member.

SAMUEL: Riggins is not alone in her opposition. Wayne County Commissioner Ralph Hickox doesn't like the idea of trains bringing in waste from out of state.

RALPH HICKOX: I don't want to become the nation's dump. We didn't create the coal ash here. I don't want the coal ash here.

SAMUEL: This is not just a not-in-my-backyard issue says local activist Riggins. She's also concerned about the effect the coal ash could have in streams in a nearby river. Sure, she agrees that how coal ash has been stored is an issue.

RIGGINS: But you don't fix a problem by creating another problem.

SAMUEL: The waste management industry sees itself as part of the solution to this nationwide problem. Anne Germain is with the National Waste and Recycling Association.

ANNE GERMAIN: We do have to reassure the public that we as waste management people know how to run landfills.

SAMUEL: The opponents are hiring lawyers and reviewing the county's contract with the landfill, but there's not actually much they can do. This landfill, like about 2,000 other landfills across the country, it's already allowed to take in coal ash - no permit, no public process required. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Jesup, Ga.

SIEGEL: Later this week on MORNING EDITION, we'll hear about a small town in Oklahoma dealing with clouds of coal dust. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Samuel joined WABE as a reporter in November 2014. Before coming on board, she was a science producer and reporter at KQED in San Francisco, where she won awards for her reporting on hydropower and on crude oil.