The Biden administration unveiled federal coal ash plans Tuesday that could complicate Georgia Power’s plans to leave massive piles of coal ash in unlined pits, where the toxic waste left behind after decades of burning coal for energy sits in groundwater.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced several proposed steps on coal ash, including plans to enforce an Obama-era rule designed to limit the chances of coal ash toxins leaking into groundwater or waterways.

Georgia Power is in the process of seeking permits to install a cover over coal ash ponds at five plants to keep out rainwater, starting with Plant Hammond in northwest Georgia. But at all five locations, the coal ash is submerged at varying depths in the groundwater.

The proposed plans “re-state EPA’s consistently held position that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater,” according to a press release issued Tuesday.

“I’ve seen firsthand how coal ash contamination can hurt people and communities. Coal ash surface impoundments and landfills must operate and close in a manner that protects public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement Tuesday.

Regan was previously the lead environmental regulator of North Carolina, where a 2014 spill released 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water.

“For too long, communities already disproportionately impacted by high levels of pollution have been burdened by improper coal ash disposal,” Regan added. “Today’s actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable. We look forward to working with our state partners to reverse damage that has already occurred.”

The impact on Georgia Power’s pending permit applications, though, was not immediately clear.

Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Division, said the state agency was informed by the regional EPA office Monday of “the potential change to the performance standards for the closure of coal ash impoundments” under the federal rule.

“As a state with primacy to implement the federal CCR rule, we are awaiting further clarifications and discussion with our federal partners. Any impact on pending applications for closure of CCR units is unknown at this time,” Chambers said in a statement.

John Kraft, spokesman for Georgia Power, defended the utility’s ash pond closure plans as relying on “proven engineering methods” and being designed to protect lakes, rivers and drinking water.

“We remain committed to compliance with all environmental regulations and ensuring that our closure plans are protective of the environment and the surrounding communities,” Kraft said. “We are evaluating EPA’s position as announced today and we will continue to work with them, as well as Georgia EPD, to safely close our ash ponds.”

But advocates, who have long pushed for coal ash to be moved to lined landfills, say the federal government’s announcement spells trouble for Georgia Power’s close-in-place plans as proposed.

“Today, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made the most important coal ash announcement in years, clarifying what we’ve all known: Coal ash left in groundwater puts communities at risk and is totally unacceptable under EPA’s waste regulations,” Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said in a statement. “Georgia EPD must enforce these laws as written under the solid waste permits.”

Sams’ organization worked with residents in Juliette who live near Plant Scherer to conduct testing on their well water for contaminants. Dozens of the residents showed up at the state Capitol in 2020, several of them toting jugs of their polluted water from back home. Monroe County is working to extend a water line to residents who want to be connected to county water.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up to offer communities hope and to protect clean water, rivers, and drinking water supplies from the threats posed by coal ash,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

“With EPA’s leadership, we now have the opportunity to put coal ash pollution and catastrophes behind us and to restore commonsense protections for communities across the South who have lived with coal ash contamination for far too long,” he said.

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Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...