AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia Power pumping wastewater into Lake Sinclair

Georgia Power is pumping water from a coal ash waste lagoon into a Milledgeville-area lake to relieve pressure on dams.

That is raising concerns that the pumping is fouling the popular recreation area with toxins.

The state's Environmental Protection Division is investigating for possible violations, spokesman Kevin Chambers said, but a preliminary look suggests that the pumping is legal and Georgia Power is not required to tell the public about it.

Pumping began at Lake Sinclair during recent heavy rains. Aerial photographs provided by Altamaha Riverkeeper, which reported the pumping to EPD, show that one of the four man-made ponds at the shuttered Plant Harllee Branch was filled to the brim.

Plant Branch’s ponds store millions of cubic yards of coal ash, which is produced by coal-fired power plants and contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic that are invisible to the naked eye and remain in the environment for millennia. A November Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that Georgia Power’s coal ash ponds have a decades-long history of leaks and are prone to spills.

Environmental activists have long complained that regulators provide lax oversight over coal ash. Special state permits allow Georgia Power to send water from its ponds into Lake Sinclair as long as it doesn’t contain high levels of sediment, oil or grease. But it does not require the utility to test for toxic metals, which scientists have found can cause cancer and other health problems.

“They simply cannot be confident that what they’re putting into the water is not dangerous,” said Peter Harrison, an attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, which advocates for clean water.

Georgia Power said in a written statement that it is complying with state laws, but would not tell the AJC what date the pumping began or how much wastewater it has sent into Lake Sinclair. It gave no specifics on when it would stop, except to say that it “will continue to do so until the water returns to normal levels,” the statement said.

The company reported to the state in 2004 that it does not believe arsenic to be present in water released by the plant, according to an application by Georgia Power for the state wastewater permit provided by Waterkeeper Alliance.

Chambers said there are no signs Plant Branch's coal ash dams are weakening, or that the ponds are at significant risk of over-topping them. However, records suggest that recent rains are testing the limits of the ponds’ design. Nearly 11 inches of rain fell on Milledgeville during the last half of the month, according to the National Weather Service. The ponds are built to withstand a 24-hour rainfall of 5.7 inches, according to the 2004 wastewater permit application.

Chambers said, “This water would not pose any sort of threat to health.”

But at least one state has been hostile to pumping coal ash water into streams and lakes. North Carolina regulators found Duke Energy broke state law in 2014 when it sent as much as 61 million gallons into a North Carolina canal that fed into the Cape Fear River.

“They were simulating a coal ash spill on purpose,” Harrison said. Members of Waterkeeper Alliance and other groups discovered the violation.

At Plant Branch, the coal ash water is being pumped from its southern-most ash pond into a gully that appears to have been recently dug or deepened, according to the aerial photographs. Altamaha Riverkeeper video shows the water emptying into a Lake Sinclair cove.

Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn found the pumping after a tip.

“I saw people fishing where water was rushing into,” Hilburn said.

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