Georgia Power coal ash plan comes under fire

Coal ash

ATLANTA – Georgia environmental activists urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Wednesday not to let coal ash ponds at several coal plants operated by Georgia Power continue contaminating nearby groundwater.

Opponents of the Atlanta-based utility’s plan to leave coal ash in place at four of the 10 ash ponds it plans to close in place by 2028 testified during a virtual public hearing the EPA held to gather feedback on the federal agency’s proposal to deny Alabama’s coal ash permit program, which also calls for leaving coal ash in groundwater.

Georgia Power’s coal ash plan calls for the company to phase out its fleet of coal-burning plants. With the coal plants being retired, the utility plans to spend $9 billion to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds.

At 19 of the ponds, ash is to be excavated and removed. The other 10 are to be closed in place.

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

The EPA issued a rule in 2015 prohibiting utilities from leaving coal ash in groundwater when they close ash ponds. Last year, the federal agency denied an Ohio utility’s request to leave coal ash at a closed pond in contact with groundwater.

On Wednesday, Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said a draft ash pond closure permit Georgia Power is seeking from the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for Plant Hammond near Rome violates the 2015 EPA rule.

“[The EPD] continues to refuse to pull permits that are clearly not in compliance,” he said.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of Brunswick-based Altamaha Riverkeeper, said an unlined coal ash pond at Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer in Monroe County extends 85 feet into an aquifer, contaminating the groundwater there.

Georgia Power is using the state’s groundwater as a “permanent coal ash dumping ground,” Sams said.

Residents of nearby Juliette have sued Georgia Power, claiming their wells have been contaminated by polluted groundwater linked to high rates of cancer in the area near Plant Scherer.

“Our area has proven to have a cancer cluster, with a lot of children included,” Juliette resident Andrea Goolsby said Wednesday. “Closing [ponds] in place with coal ash in groundwater is illegal. … We have to uphold the law.”

The Georgia Power plan also calls for leaving coal ash in place in ponds at plants Yates near Newnan and McDonough in Cobb County.

Representatives of Georgia Power say the EPA has authorized Georgia’s coal ash permit program to operate rather than the federal program, one of only three states authorized to do so.

“We continue to work with Georgia EPD to ensure our closure plan remains in compliance with federal rules,” Georgia Power spokeswoman Kelly Richardson said. “We are committed to closure plans that are protective of the environment and the communities we serve.”

The Georgia EPD is authorized to issue permits to “properly closed” coal ash ponds that comply with federal and state regulations, added Laura Williams, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources, an agency that includes the EPD.

The deadline for written public comment on the EPA’s plan to deny the Alabama coal ash permit program is Oct. 13.

John Fuchko named sole finalist for Dalton State College president

John Fuchko

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia Board of Regents Wednesday named John Fuchko III sole finalist to become the next president of Dalton State College.

Fuchko has served as Dalton’s interim president since June, when Margaret Venable retired after eight years as the school’s first female president. Immediately before that, he was interim president at Columbus State University.

Fuchko also has spent time in the university’s central office, first as the system’s chief audit officer, then as vice chancellor for organizational effectiveness. In that role, he oversaw administrative functions including accreditation, athletics, and ethics.

“Working directly with students, faculty and staff has only served to energize John’s passion for higher education and its importance to Georgia families and our state,” system Chancellor Sonny Perdue said.

“I understand the importance of faculty and staff excellence, its relationship to student success, and the connectedness of both to the stakeholders and communities Dalton State serves,” Fuchko added. “I am deeply honored to be named a finalist to lead one of the best colleges in Georgia.”

Fuchko, a Georgia native, holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Kennesaw State University. A decorated colonel in the Georgia Army National Guard, he holds masters’ degrees from the U.S. Army War College and the National Intelligence University, as well as an MBA from Georgia State University. He earned a doctorate in education at the University of Georgia.

Dalton State College is a four-year institution with a sizable Hispanic student population, reflecting the demographics of Northwest Georgia.

The Board of Regents will take final action on Fuchko’s appointment within the next five days.

Georgia woman guilty of telemarketing fraud

ATLANTA – A Georgia woman has pleaded guilty for her role in a $300 million nationwide telemarketing fraud scheme that targeted elderly victims.

Antoinette Albritton, 59, of Stockbridge worked as a telemarketer for World Wide Publication, a Georgia-based company involved in fraudulent magazine sales, according to the defendant’s guilty plea.

The company used fraudulent sales scripts to defraud consumers, many of whom were elderly or otherwise vulnerable, out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. The fraudulent scripts were designed to induce consumers through a series of lies and misrepresentations into making large or repeated payments.

Albritton falsely claimed that the victim-consumers owed a large outstanding balance for existing magazine subscriptions and fraudulently offered to pay off that balance in exchange for a one-time payment of $199.99. In reality, those targeted did not have any existing subscriptions with World Wide Publication, did not owe any outstanding balance, and the company did not have the ability to cancel ongoing magazine subscriptions.

Albritton pleaded guilty this week to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Sentencing has been set for January.

The case resulted from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI with assistance from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

Construction projects slow business at Port of Savannah

Savannah Harbor

ATLANTA – The Port of Savannah Tuesday reported a significant reduction in business last month compared to August of last year, when the Georgia Ports Authority enjoyed its busiest month on record.

Savannah handled 413,300 twenty-foot equivalent units of containerized cargo (TEUs) in August, down 28% from August of last year.

The drop-off resulted more from ongoing construction projects than economic factors, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

“We are in the midst of rebuilding some of our berths, which reduced our operating capacity in August,” he said.

Renovations at the Port of Savannah’s Container Berth 1 were completed last month, which will allow the Garden City Terminal to simultaneously serve seven ships. Altogether, berth capacity has increased by 1.5 million TEUs.

Meanwhile, the Savannah port is increasing its reliance on rail to move cargo. The Garden City Terminal handled 49,115 containers by rail in August, an increase of 6% over the same month a year ago.

Intermodal cargo represented 21.6% of total containers last month, up 7% compared to August 2022.

“With our Mason Mega Rail Terminal fully operational, we now have the capacity to shift more of our long-haul cargo off state highways and onto rail, which both improves fuel efficiency and reduces traffic congestion,” Lynch said.

The ports authority also saw an increase in Roll-on/Roll-off cargo in August, handling 61,300 units of autos and machinery during the month, an increase of 8% over August of last year. As usual, Colonel’s Island Terminal at the Port of Brunswick handled most of the Ro/Ro traffic, moving 59,720 units.

Georgia lawmakers looking to simplify dual enrollment

ATLANTA – Simplifying Georgia’s dual enrollment program is the key to making it financially sustainable, a former school counselor who now runs a private counseling business told state lawmakers Tuesday.

“Until we can get to the clarity piece, we’re never going to have improvement,” Jill Oldham, co-owner of South River Counseling and Consulting in Conyers, told members of a joint legislative study committee looking for ways to ensure the future stability of what is widely considered a successful program. Oldham was appointed to the panel by Gov. Brian Kemp.

The General Assembly created the study committee this year not only to develop recommendations for making the dual enrollment program financially sustainable but to accelerate the movement of high school students earning credit for taking college courses into high-demand careers.

An issue driving the formation of a study committee is the dual enrollment program’s cost, which peaked at $105 million in fiscal 2020 before declining to $76 million this year. The General Assembly sought to rein in those costs by passing legislation in 2020 capping the program at 30 hours.

On Tuesday, the study committee discussed a series of recommendations expected to emerge in its final report later this fall, including removing the current three-year sunset on the dual enrollment program, increasing funding to hire more high-school counselors and technical college instructors, and establishing a central point for data sharing.

But much of Tuesday’s meeting focused on the need to more clearly structure each of the program’s 18 high-demand career pathways so students know exactly what courses they need to take to qualify for the jobs they’re interested in and don’t waste time and money on irrelevant courses. Legislation then-Gov. Nathan Deal steered through the General Assembly in 2014 offers full technical college tuition coverage for students who pursue careers in any of those 18 high-demand fields.

Greg Dozier, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, said the state’s technical colleges have entered into 18 “articulated agreements” with the University System of Georgia – all in high-demand careers – that allow technical college students to transfer to a four-year state college or university after two years without losing credits. In addition to those 18 agreements, which apply statewide, local technical colleges have worked out 35 articulated agreements with nearby four-year schools that just apply locally, he said.

“If we want our kids to get into the workforce as quickly as possible … articulation is a key,” he said.

State Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, one of the committee’s co-chairmen, said the technical college system should not consider expanding the number of high-demand careers beyond 18 without defining what “high-demand” means.

“If we add something every time the political winds shift … at some point, it’s not going to be sustainable anymore,” he said.

But Dozier said holding the line on high-demand careers, or even reducing the number, to save money is easier said than done because Georgia has such a wide variety of workforce needs.

“It seems like everything we train on is in high demand,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to shrink it versus to grow it.”

Brass said simplifying the process school counselors, students and parents must navigate to sign up for dual enrollment is critical if local school systems are to buy in to the program.

“It’s hard to buy into something you don’t understand,” he said.

The study committee plans one final meeting to further discuss and adopt recommendations for the full General Assembly to consider during the 2024 legislative session starting in January.