A big crowd listens to Riverkeeper Fletcher Sams in Forsyth on Thursday.

Neighbors around Plant Scherer will have a chance to tell Georgia lawmakers about their well woes, Fletcher Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeepers announced at the second of two Town Hall meetings about the issue on Thursday, Feb. 6. 

The Riverkeepers hosted an overflow crowd at Town Hall meetings on both Thursday at Forsyth Presbyterian Church and on Tuesday at Sanctuary Baptist Church in Juliette about local effects of coal ash. 

Sams said the meetings were prompted by Georgia Power’s plans to close its coal ash pond and leave the ash in a 776-acre unlined pit where heavy metals and other toxins in the ash can potentially leak into the groundwater. A bill in the Georgia legislature (HB 756 in the House and SB 297 in the Senate) that would require a liner for the closed coal ash pit, like the liners mandated for landfills where household garbage is dumped, is pending.

Sams told the overflow crowd that he got news on Feb. 5 that the Senate will hold a hearing on the bill. That means he needs volunteers to help continue compiling data on whether the 1,007 water wells in a two-mile radius of the ash pond are contaminated and on health problems of people in the area that may be related to the contamination. He also asked for volunteers to testify at the Senate hearing and tell their stories about their wells and health problems. 

Sams said there will be 24-hours notice before the hearing. He encouraged those who have been affected by contaminated water to share their stories with the media to help get the information to legislators and other decision makers. Sams read an email from Monroe County commission chair Greg Tapley written after he attended the first town hall meeting to those who live in the Plant Scherer area. Tapley said his house and well are in the affected area. 

“I heard the concerns. I felt the fear,” said Tapley’s email.

Tapley estimated it would cost $2.4 million to build a water line main from the county’s existing water lines to Juliette Road, and it would take at least six months to build. There would be additional costs, particularly that of connecting each home to the water line. He said he had talked with representatives of Utility Partners, Inc., the company that manages the water and sewer systems of both Monroe County and the city of Forsyth, and UPI could set up a temporary filtration facility at a location near the river. Tapley said he had sent messages to Gov. Kemp and to the individuals who represent the area in the Georgia House and Senate, John Kennedy, Robert Dickey and Dale Washburn. 

Local elected officials who attended the second town hall meeting included commissioners John Ambrose, Eddie Rowland and George Emami, Forsyth mayor Eric Wilson and school board member Greg Head.

Sams said at this point, the Riverkeepers are particularly concerned about the elevated levels of hexavalent chromium found in wells near the coal ash pond. He said this is the contaminant that is at the center of the movie, “Erin Brockovich”. He said some of the people who live in the affected area are considering lawsuits, and some of the attorneys representing them were present at the town hall and available to talk with people afterward. One of them was Stacey Evans, candidate for Georgia governor in the last election.

“We represent some of your neighbors, and we’re here,” said Evans.

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, who was elected to the PSC in 2010, attended the town hall meeting. He said he was there to listen to concerns rather than to speak, but he answered questions addressed to him. One attendee referenced a case of Duke Power in North Carolina allegedly knowing for many years that the way it handled coal ash was risky and asked Echols if the job of the PSC was to protect consumer interests, including requiring “prudency” of utility companies.

Echols said prudency is part of the PSC’s responsibility, such as when a utility company is building something like nuclear power plant Vogtle, but that if there are questions, plans go to the courts for review.

“We decided to accept their plan to cap the coal ash pond,” said Echols. “The Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is making the decision.”

Sams said what concerned citizens can do is be witnesses at EPD hearings. They can also volunteer to help canvas the area to complete the health survey. 

A citizen asked Sams how long Georgia Power has known that coal ash is bad for people. He said in about 1900, the company saw that workers who breathed dry coal ash were dying. That is when the company began storing coal ash, the by-product of burning coal, in ponds rather than leaving it dry where it could blow in the air. 

He said the bottom of a coal ash pond is supposed to be at least 5 feet above the aquifer, but at Plant Scherer, the bottom of the coal ash pond is 25 feet below the aquifer. Echols said there are 57 ponds at Plant Scherer; they are monitored by a third party, and PSC’s job is to make sure the ponds are in compliance. 

Sams said more than 15 tests show leaks from the ponds at Plant Scherer. He said that with the power of the utility company lobbyists there are actually few regulations on coal ash ponds; even if the actions of the companies are shown to be detrimental to the environment and to health, they are not breaking any laws or violating regulations so that it is hard to hold them accountable. Echols said EPD can compel Georgia Power to follow its directives, whereas the PSC is tasked with looking at the financial plans of utilities. 

Asked how long it will take to clean up affected wells if the coal ash pond is closed to prevent more environmental impact, Sams said it has taken eight years to complete work on wells near Plant Harllee Branch in Milledgeville, and the work is on-going. Echols said he remembered when residents begged the PSC to leave Harllee Branch in operation.

One person asked if the immediate answer for those with affected wells was to buy individual filtration systems. Sams said filtration systems to filter the heavy metals in the wells they have tested would be “incredibly expensive.” A possible cost of $22,000 was mentioned.

“Neither me nor the county should have to pay one dime to get water,” said one town hall attendee. “And what has it done to the value of our property?”

One man said that he has both his home and a rental house in the area. He expects his tenant to move out, and he wonders what he can sell his houses for. 

“The county is one of the biggest promoters of Juliette, inviting others to come to be poisoned,” said another person at the town hall. “We don’t know how far the ash is going. Take Juliette off the map [of promotions]”

Asked if the county has spoken to Georgia Power about funding extension of county water lines, commissioner Emami said Tapley told him Georgia Power representatives say Georgia Power pays enough taxes to Monroe County to take care of its contribution to water lines. Sams said all Georgia Power customers are paying for the cap on submerged ash (without a liner) that Georgia Power has proposed. The PSC authorized a Georgia Power rate increase to pay for closing the coal ash pond the way it planned. 

When Sams asked how many people living near the coal ash pond had experienced cancer in their families, there was a large show of hands. One man said that some of the worst stories were from people who have sold their property to Georgia Power and signed agreements not to talk about their health problems publicly any more.

In response to a question of whether there are any dangers from the coal ash if public water lines replace well water, Sams asked how many people had pets that had sickened or died. Even more hands were raised. 

“The first priority is clean water, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem,” said Sams. “There is a problem all over the south, but smart utilities know there is funding.”

Sams said the first thing to do if your well is in the area is to buy bottled water to drink. He said it is okay to bathe in the water but not to drink, cook or brush teeth. Using the water on a vegetable garden causes the produce to absorb the contaminants. 

One person said there must be lasting effects in pipes and homes because the toilet tanks in his house are black and have debris in them. A number of hands went up when Sams asked if anyone had a pump burn out in the last year. He said heavy metals are highly corrosive. 

Asked if he had any concerns about where the water authorities are getting the water that is sold to public water customers, Sams said he met with the director of the Macon Water Authority, which sells water to Monroe County, that afternoon. Macon Water Authority has put in $20 million in filtration equipment over the last year. Although Plant Arkwright in Macon has surface water leaks into the river, the Macon Water Authority is showing all of its testing as safe with its filtration system. 

“This is overwhelming. It hit me out of nowhere,” said Emami. “We’re still trying to gather ourselves and understand the enormity of the issue. The reality is probably another $10 million to get water to the houses. $2.4 million is for the major trunk line. It’s probably more than half the whole budget for the county. I hate to talk about money [with lives and health at issue], but I don’t want the wrong idea [that $2.4 million can fix it].”

Sams said his immediate priority is to get back in the field and continue testing wells. He asked everyone to thank Gini Seitz and others for creating a video to thank Patagonia for paying for the well tests. Riverkeepers has enough money to test 130 more wells; Sams said he has about 40 tests for which he hasn’t gotten results back. He said he doesn’t expect tests from Jones County wells to show contamination. Sams said he got about 80 requests to test wells after the Feb. 4 town hall meeting. 

The meeting ended with someone asking if there was anyone present from Georgia Power who would like to speak. There was no response.