Current pollution argument could prove vital to the health of the Flint

Published 5:15 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2017

In September 2015, Georgia Power put out a press release that it was aiming to finalize the closure of their ash ponds within six months. In October 2016, they put out another press release that said they are continuing to make progress on the closure of ash ponds.

As arbitrary as this may seem, the closure of ash ponds is something that has an impact on Bainbridge, even if the nearest one is 60 miles up river.

Gordon Rodgers and the Flint Riverkeepers have taken a particular interest in the closures of the ash ponds that sit along the Flint for obvious reasons.

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What happens upstream from Bainbridge, will eventually float down.

The removal of the ponds is a good thing, according to Rodgers.

“We’re really glad they want to remove this ash from next to the river,” said Rodgers. “We’ve been pushing them to do this for many years and we’re really pleased that that is the plan.”

What these ponds do is hold the coal ash that was generated from burning coal for power plants. The way it worked was water is used to cool the ash, and then the ash settled into a holding pond with the cooling water and natural rainfall.

The ash sinks to the bottom, as do all the pollutants that go along with it. That makes the water at the top the cleanest, in theory. That water near the top of the pond can then flow back into the river once it hits a threshold.

That settlement of the ash to the bottom is what Georgia Power uses as the treatment for the pollutant.

“The water that is discharged to the river is when the pond is full enough to actually lift up over the discharge pipe,” said Rodgers. “So, at least theoretically, that water is the cleanest.”

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division issued a series of permits to allow that treatment, according to Rodgers.

Per Rodgers, the EPD is treating the de-watering and removal of ash from ponds as a minor permit modification rather than a different issue. The move by the EPD to consider the de-watering and closure of the pond allowed under the same permit minimizes review and restricts public intervention.

According to Chris Bowers, attorney for the Flint Riverkeepers, the ability to use the same permit for these closures hinges on the wording of a condition in the permit.

“This current permit opens the door for EPD to consider additional treatment or alternative treatment methods for this highly polluted water without public notice or comment the additional treatment,” said Bowers. “Those need to be put out to the public. The EPA needs to be able to weigh in on it, the affected communities, and any concerned member of the public.”

The permit has a condition where, for example, Georgia Power would come up with a plan for the de-watering, the EPD would then review the plan and “may reopen the permit.” 

“We don’t feel that the ‘may’ language is adequate,” said Bowers. “What is clear is that the waste generating operations intended to completely de-water these ponds is not something that is an ordinary operation. This permit is for ordinary plant operations, this is different.”

If the water remains untreated, it will carry heavy metal pollutants into the river with it. In the worst case scenario, it is not something that will see fish dying or any type visible damage on the river, the issue comes from the water residents’ use, according to Rodgers.

“The worst case scenario is that they pump that pond dry in 30-60 days and the untreated water go in the river and the heavy metals that are in that water get into the sediments and are in there for decades and decades,” said Rodgers. “What you’re going to see is contaminated sediments that are then slowly leeching this poison into the water that we use to grow crops, fish in and swim in over time.”

What then matters is the current of the river. While the three ponds of Plant Mitchell sit 60 miles north, the pollutants will flow down to Bainbridge, and possibly into Lake Seminole, per Rodgers.

Downstream in Florida, the Apalachiacola Riverkeepers recently fought a similar fight involving coal ash. The Apalachiacola Riverkeepers sued Gulf Power, and eventually won.

Despite the closing of the coal ash ponds being a good sign, the variables of the actual closure itself are unsettling to those who monitor the pollution of the Flint. While the solution is not clear, the people involved with the Flint Riverkeepers will continue to fight for a clean river.

This past year, legislative friends of the Flint Riverkeepers sponsored three separate bills in the Georgia Legislature, but all three were shot down by different committee heads, per Rodgers

The mission to keep the Flint clean is bipartisan, Rodgers said. He believes that wanting to protect the river is not something out of left field, but that both sides of the political isle can agree on.

Whatever the solution, the Flint Riverkeepers will continue to seek it out.