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What will new coal ash self-regulation permits mean for Georgia?

On June 18, 2018, Oklahoma was granted the country’s first permit to self-regulate coal ash by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Coal ash is produced by burning coal, and it contains the carcinogenic toxins lead, arsenic and mercury.

Coal ash was previously regulated by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which used federal regulatory laws to govern its disposal. With the change in oversight, the state is now in charge of coal ash regulation and can create its own rules regarding it. Environmental activists believe the federal regulations are not strong enough regarding coal ash, and Oklahoma has not done a proper job of providing oversight on these regulations.

A report released by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice recently analyzed groundwater monitoring data from Oklahoma coal ash dump sites. The report found groundwater contamination at all of the sites. Chemicals like arsenic, boron, radium and cobalt were present at the sites.

People living near an unlined coal ash pond have 2,000 times the risk of cancer, as what is deemed acceptable by the EPA.

According to ThinkProgress, Oklahoma is the first state to be given such oversight, but Georgia has applied for a similar petition from the EPA. Georgia has also struggled with issues of coal ash disposal.

In January 2016, residents of the small town Jesup, Georgia discovered Republic Services was planning to expand a railway to the town’s dump. The railway expansion was to allow the company to transport 10,000 tons of coal ash through the county and place in it in the city’s landfill on a daily basis.

Jesup is in Wayne, County. The area is in the southeastern coastal region of Georgia, and it is characterized by pine forests, swampland, as well as rivers and creeks that connect to the Atlantic Ocean. This type of environment is particularly susceptible to groundwater pollution, and with the waterways being connected, that means the pollution could potentially have spread toxic chemicals much farther.

The local paper, the Press Sentinel, broke the story of the planned railway expansion and dumping of the coal ash. Residents expressed outrage, and some banded together to form the group, No Ash At All.

Dink NeSmith, the owner of the Press Sentinel, published more than 75 stories about the landfill. He also reached out to former President Jimmy Carter. Carter in turn penned a letter to Bill Gates, an owner of a large amount of Republic Service’s stock.

After a long campaign, Republic eventually relented and agreed to withdraw permit requests that would have allowed the dumping of the toxic chemicals. The town of Jesup, Georgia was spared the fate of becoming the home of the coal ash dump.

However, if Georgia is permitted to self-regulate its coal ash disposal, residents like NeSmith fear the hard-fought battle in Jesup may all have been for nothing. If the railway expansion had gone through, there would have been a potential 18 million tons of coal ash dumped in the small town in just five years.

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