Here in Monroe County there’s a recent debate about groundwater in vicinity of Plant Scherer. Is the groundwater contaminated? If so, how did it get contaminated, who’s responsible, and what should be done? The debate started with a January “doom and gloom” article, Ashes to Ashes, on website – Grist. So, what’s the truth? Let’s take a look.


WHAT IS Grist? Grist is a liberal, activist, on-line magazine - a group of militant journalists with an agenda. They want to stop all forms of fossil fuel, especially coal. Grist believes that mankind is bad for the environment; and they fight for “environmental justice” – whatever that means. Grist is against almost all types of human activity because human activity affects the environment in some capacity. Grist teamed with Altamaha Riverkeepers to write the Ashes to Ashes article. The article discusses contaminated groundwater found around the perimeter of Plant Scherer (PS), blames the contamination on coal ash from PS, and claims cancer and illnesses in households that drink the groundwater are caused by the contamination. Riverkeepers might not want to close Plant Scherer but Grist does; and the article is Grist’s first attempt to do so.   


LAST WEEK I went to the Riverkeepers groundwater briefing, Q&A, and discussion held in Juliette. Fletcher Sams, with Riverkeepers, gave the briefing. Then, along with lawyers, Sams answered questions. The briefing’s theme was - local groundwater is contaminated, it’s making people sick, and coal ash is to blame for the contamination. “Contaminated” is like saying you’re sick. How sick are you - deathbed sick or 3-day cold sick? Sams never defined “contaminated” other than to say Riverkeepers (RK) tested wells around PS and found 75% of them are contaminated with heavy metals. Sams said the contaminated groundwater exceeds guidelines for arsenic, boron, cobalt, selenium, and sulfate. A number of other contaminants and heavy metals were found but below guideline standards to include – antimony, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and thallium. According to Sams, hexavalent chromium is one of the contaminants found in many of the samples tested but didn’t say if it was or wasn’t above federal guidelines. Sams said that most of the contaminants were known carcinogens but never discussed parts per million/billion levels found in the samples nor the federal guidelines for any of the toxins.


NOW, LET’S talk about Plant Scherer. PS is the largest coal-fired power plant in the United States. It’s owned by Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, Florida Power & Light, MEAG, and several other energy concerns. Daily, at least two, 100-car, train loads of coal are delivered to the plant – over 25,000 tons per day. All that coal produces 3,520 megawatts of electricity that’s distributed throughout Georgia, Florida, and the Southeast. Since PS came on line, it has produced an estimated 16-18 million tons of coal ash – all of it stored on site in large ponds. Those 16-18 million tons is 10X more than the debris from the Twin Towers that collapsed on 9/11. It’s a lot of coal ash.


WHAT IS coal ash and why the concern? Coal ash is the residue from burning coal in coal-fired power plants. It contains a number of chemicals and heavy metals, many of which are toxic. Those chemicals and heavy metals include most of those discussed by Sams. When Scherer came on line in 1982, other than not dumping coal ash directly into a stream, there were almost no storage standards. The ash was just dumped on the grounds of the power plant. Now, coal ash is stored in large ponds, usually contained by earthen dams – i.e. large pits dug to store the ash. The ash is covered with water to prevent toxic “ash dust” from getting blown around. However, unlike landfills that must have liners to prevent contaminants from seeping into groundwater, coal ash pits had no such requirement – and still don’t. According to Riverkeepers, Plant Scherer’s coal ash is stored in large pits, dug down to the water table, that have no liner which allows toxins from coal ash to mix with ground water. You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking, “If there’s no liner at the bottom of these pits, and the storage pits are dug down to the water table, what prevents the toxins found in coal ash from seeping into the ground water?” The answer – NOTHING.


PLANT SCHERER monitors groundwater on its property via wells dug around the perimeter of the ash ponds. According to PS and Georgia Power (GP), seepage from the ash ponds is within guidelines and presents no problems to groundwater on surrounding properties. Sams and Riverkeepers claim that PS and GP do not test or monitor groundwater off its property, and it’s the wells in the surrounding areas that are contaminated. Additionally, Sams said that every groundwater sample tested from wells on property along Dames Ferry Road came back positive for contaminants. Again, Sams gave no definition of “contaminated.” To help you understand why we should be concerned about properly defining “contaminated,” consider oxygen. Everyone knows that we need oxygen to survive, and oxygen is 21% of the air we breathe. However, oxygen can be deadly. In very high concentrations, it will kill you. (Anyone who SCUBA dives knows this.) So, saying something is contaminated with hexavalent chromium or arsenic means very little if contaminated and “acceptable” levels are not defined and if “it exceeds federal guidelines” is not defined.


NEXT WEEK I’ll discuss where we stand and recommendations about the groundwater.

Sloan Oliver is a retired Army officer who writes a weekly column for the Reporter. Email him at