Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond

ATLANTA – The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court decision allowing Georgia Power to collect from customers $525 million in coal ash pond closure costs.

Monday’s ruling came in an appeal filed by the state chapter of the Sierra Club.

Georgia Power has committed to spending nearly $9 billion in the coming decades on a plan to close all 29 of its ash ponds located at 11 coal-burning power plants across the state, a cost estimate that has been revised upward at least twice from the $7.6 billion the Atlanta-based utility proposed during its 2019 rate case.

The state Public Service Commission voted to allow Georgia Power to recover a portion of those costs from ratepayers after lawyers for the utility argued the closure plan complies with federal regulations for ash ponds as well as the more stringent requirements of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

“We continue to strongly disagree with any claims to the contrary,” Georgia Power wrote Tuesday in a prepared response to Monday’s ruling.

“Additionally, the issue of cost recovery was thoroughly discussed and evaluated through Georgia’s open and transparent regulatory process with the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), with the PSC’s decision affirmed by the Superior Court of Fulton County and, with Monday’s decision, by the Court of Appeals of Georgia.”

Coal ash contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water as well as air.

Georgia Power plans to excavate and remove the ash from 19 ponds and close the other 10 ponds in place.

Thus far, the EPD has held public hearings on closure plans for ash ponds at Plant Hammond near Rome and Plant Bowen near Cartersville. The state agency has yet to act on proposed permits requested by Georgia Power.

Nearly all of those who spoke during the public hearings urged the EPD to reject the permits and require Georgia Power to excavate all of the ponds and remove the ash rather than close them in place. They argued that storing toxic coal ash in unlined pits could lead to contamination of nearby streams and groundwater supplies.

David Rogers, Southeast deputy regional director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, expressed disappointment with the court ruling.

“This decision will raise power bills for communities whose utility costs are already too high,” Rogers said Tuesday. “Georgia Power knowingly stored coal ash unsafely, and should be responsible for paying for that bad decision.”

The EPD’s permitting program for ash ponds due to be closed in place requires post-closure care for 30 years, including ongoing maintenance of the cover and groundwater monitoring. Results from monitoring must be reported at least twice a year and posted on Georgia Power’s website. 

The Republican-controlled General Assembly declined to consider legislation introduced by minority Democrats during this year’s legislative session requiring coal ash to be stored in lined landfills.

A bill tightening monitoring requirements for coal ash made it through the state House of Representatives but died in the Georgia Senate.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.