Georgia Power ash and arsenic spill bad news

Company claims it’s no biggie, but long-term damage likely

When close to 2 million pounds of arsenic-laden coal ash from Plant Bowen spilled into a tributary of the Etowah River Sunday, July 28, Georgia Power officials said it wasn’t a big deal, that public health wouldn’t be endangered. State and federal environmental officials backed them up and the spill seemed successfully brushed under the rug.
Neither the state Environmental Protection Division, nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took any water samples. They instead entrusted that chore to Georgia Power.

A couple of days after the spill, the first test results from water samples were released.

A water sample test performed as the spill was taking place showed 1.25 milligrams of arsenic in every liter of water, according to Jim Sommerville, manager of the state Environmental Protection Division Mountain District office in Cartersville. That’s more than 1,000 times higher than federal safe drinking water levels.

By Georgia Power’s own calculations, about 260 pounds of arsenic made it into Euharlee Creek (pronounced ‘you-harley’), a tributary of the Etowah near the company’s coal-fired Plant Bowen.

Again, the company said the arsenic spill was insignificant.

But some clear-headed souls were independent enough to actually wonder what a massive release of arsenic — one of the most toxic pollutants out there — would do to the little fishes in the Euharlee.

“If some of that stuff got into the creek, which some of it obviously has, it can have nothing but a negative affect,” says Mitch Lawson, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative. “That’s just based on my knowledge of what’s in the ash and what those things can do to a living being. It’s definitely not going to make the creek better.”

Lawson took water samples Aug. 1, four days after the spill. He says he didn’t spot any dead fish, but there was a strong burnt smell and a graying film on the creek’s surface. He also says that after he took the water samples, his hands burned the rest of the day.

Lawson’s results weren’t available as of press time.

Dr. Howard Frumkin, chairman of Emory University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, says that the water sample tests taken as the spill occurred showed water that is decidedly unhealthy for humans.

Frumkin says the 1.25 milligrams of arsenic per liter figure supplied by the EPD’s Sommerville is equivalent to 1,250 parts per billion. The EPA considers drinking water with more than 10 parts per billion to be unsafe.

Municipalities downstream of the spill smartly shut off their intake pumps after they were notified of the accident. But Frumkin says that given the magnitude of the spill, the ash ordeal is far from over.

“This all calls for very careful monitoring of groundwater and surface water, which supplies most of our drinking water supplies,” he says.

The arsenic and ash is bound to impact aquatic wildlife as well. Several studies have found links between coal ash pollutants and damaged ecosystems close to the ash depositories.

One such study, led by William Hopkins of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, focused on the ash’s affects on fish, alligators, snakes, amphibians, raccoons, clams and even rats living in basins that receive runoff from the ash depository.

Hopkins’ research found that 85 percent of tadpoles raised in the area had mouth deformities that inhibited their ability to eat. Testosterone levels in toads were higher and their metabolisms were sped up because of disruptions to their endocrine system.

Currently, the state EPD is considering whether it should punish Georgia Power with an enforcement action, which could come in the form of a fine or an order to force the company to change the way it stores its ash.

“We’re going to take all this info and look at what might have caused [the spill], what was the reaction of Georgia Power, the impact on the environment, factor all that in and make a decision on whether or not an enforcement action is warranted,” Sommerville says.