Near America’s largest coal-fired power plant, toxins are showing up in drinking water and people have fallen ill. Thousands of pages of internal documents show how one giant energy company plans to avoid the cleanup costs.
Mark Berry raised his right hand, pledging to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The bespectacled mechanical engineer took his seat inside the cherry-wood witness stand. He pulled his microphone close to his yellow bow tie and glanced left toward five of Georgia’s most influential elected officials. As one of Georgia Power’s top environmental lobbyists, Berry had a clear mission on that rainy day in April 2019: Convince those five energy regulators that the company’s customers should foot the bill for one of the most expensive toxic waste cleanup efforts in state history.
When Berry became Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs in 2015, he inherited responsibility for a dark corporate legacy dating back to before he was born. For many decades, power companies had burnt billions of tons of coal, dumping the leftover ash — loaded with toxic contaminants — into human-made “ponds” larger than many lakes. But after a pair of coal-ash pond disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina exposed the environmental and health risks of those largely unregulated dumps, the Obama administration required power companies to stop using the aging disposal sites.
Berry had spent nearly two decades climbing the ranks of Southern Company, America’s second-largest energy provider and the owner of Georgia Power. By the time he was under oath that day, company execs had vowed to store newly burnt coal ash in landfills designed for safely disposing of such waste. But an unprecedented challenge remained: Figuring out what to do with 90 million tons of coal ash — enough to fill more than 50 Major League Baseball stadiums to the brim — that had accumulated over the better part of a century in ash ponds that were now leaking.
Georgia Power would have to shut down roughly 30 ponds from the Appalachian foothills to the wetlands near the Georgia coast. After draining all the ponds, the company would have two options for disposing of the highly contaminated dry ash left behind: It could either move the ash into a landfill fitted with a protective liner, or pack the dry ash into a smaller footprint and place a cover on top — leaving a gaping hole in the ground that, in some places, would be larger than Disneyland. The former would cost more but vastly reduce the possibility of toxic leakage; the latter lowered expenses but would perpetually risk contaminating drinking water in neighboring communities.
As scientists had grown more aware of the threat posed by coal ash, Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina had forced utilities to move ash into lined landfills. But Georgia was something of an outlier. The state historically was known as a coal ash capital, a place where lawmakers touted their pro-business bona fides by denouncing regulations, and Georgia Power had a track record of delaying or blocking efforts to regulate pollution. The company was lobbying hard for the cheaper option.
Of course, the $7.3 billion price tag wasn’t all that cheap. Sitting on the Georgia Public Service Commission’s witness stand, Berry and his top deputy spent hours arguing that the whopping costs of cleaning up Georgia Power’s coal-ash ponds should be passed along to its customers. If Berry could persuade the regulators that the costs were both “reasonable” and “prudent,” the company could tack a monthly fee onto the bills of 2.2 million residential customers for decades to come, which would work out to each customer footing $3,300 of the bill to clean up the company’s mess. If he failed, the commissioners could effectively force Georgia Power to eat those costs — a major blow to investors in a publicly traded company that has annual operating revenues of over $8 billion.
During Berry’s testimony, PSC commissioner Tim Echols said he has concerns about putting ratepayers on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the ash ponds — and whether Georgia Power is spending more than it has to. “This is enormously expensive,” he said.
Berry didn’t mention that the cleanup costs could increase by billions of dollars if Georgia’s environmental officials adopted the safer standards used by neighboring states. Anticipating Echols’ next question, Berry said that Georgia Power’s $7.3 billion plan was the “most cost-effective way” to comply with coal-ash regulations.
“If we were to do something less,” Berry added, state environmental officials “would force us to go back and redo what we did not do right the first time.”
Had those five energy regulators swiveling in their chairs asked more pointed questions about Georgia Power’s waste-disposal practices, Berry would have been pressured to tell a long-hidden story about ash and avarice. In the second half of the 20th century, Georgia Power had saved money by building some of America’s largest coal-ash ponds without a protective liner underneath, despite knowing some of the risks of contaminating residents’ drinking water. It had also sought to do as little as possible to protect drinking water that’s now believed to be tainted by coal-ash toxins.
Testing Around Plant Scherer Has Detected High Levels of Hexavalent Chromium in Wells
Starting in 2016, the Altamaha Riverkeeper began testing private wells for contaminants commonly found in coal ash, including hexavalent chromium, a trace metal associated with an increased risk of cancer. That same year, Georgia Power went on a buying spree, acquiring properties near the plant and sealing those wells. The company denies that coal ash has sickened its neighbors, adding that hexavalent chromium is “naturally occurring.”
A yearlong investigation by Georgia Health News and ProPublica has revealed that Georgia Power and its parent company have spent millions of dollars on lobbying tactics to dodge billions in environmental costs. Thousands of pages of previously unpublished documents obtained by the news organizations shed new light on how Georgia Power leveraged political tensions to reduce a massive financial liability that could decimate its bottom line — and how it pushed disinformation to distance itself from patterns of sickness among people who lived near its coal-ash ponds.
Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft declined to answer most of the news organizations’ questions and to make Berry available for an interview. Kraft said in a statement that Georgia Power has worked to “quickly and safely begin closing all of our ash ponds” in a manner that complies with federal and state coal-ash regulations.
But at the hearing in April 2019, none of the energy regulators pressed Berry on the topic of coal-ash contamination. Because they didn’t ask, Berry remained mum. His silence would make it easier for the regulators to stomach the idea of passing the cost of the cleanup on to customers — and easier for Georgia Power to avoid responsibility for the much more expensive fix. And it allowed Georgia Power to continue its longstanding efforts to cover up the hazards of coal ash across the state, most notably in a tiny town where the company operates the largest coal-fired plant in the Western Hemisphere.
In the spring of 1974, as Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron shattered Babe Ruth’s home run record and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson first forged a friendship with Gov. Jimmy Carter ahead of his presidential campaign, a towering attorney named Tommy Malone set his sights on a white two-story house in the sleepy central Georgia town of Juliette.
Malone would, years later, become one of the state’s most successful medical malpractice attorneys. At the time, though, he ran a firm that had hit a financial rough patch. To cover payroll, he’d landed a gig representing Georgia Power, which sought to buy thousands of acres for a new coal-fired power plant. Georgia law allowed the utility to condemn nearly any property it wanted. But the actual use of eminent domain spurred negative headlines and local resentment — both of which could undermine Georgia Power’s carefully cultivated corporate reputation. So Georgia Power dispatched Malone to convince residents of Juliette to sell their land. He’d been scouting properties along Luther Smith Road, a winding two-lane street hugged by Georgia pines. The white house belonged to a retired cowboy named Brack Goolsby. Malone hoped Goolsby might willingly sell more than 300 acres.
The Goolsby family home had stood long before Brack rode his first horse, before his hometown was established in the 1880s, and even before General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops passed through it on the infamous March to the Sea. Brack’s family had such deep roots in Juliette that the road he lived on was named for his Uncle Luther.
When Luther Smith died in the early 1950s, he left the family home to his nephew. Brack and his wife, Betty, raised two sons, Mark and Bob, who grew up exploring the family’s untamed forests. Two decades later, when Georgia Power announced its plans to build a 12,000-acre plant site abutting Luther Smith Road, some neighbors balked. They fought the company’s use of eminent domain. One farmer’s wife mailed a desperate letter to Carter, writing that their land, tended by them through good times and bad, is “not for sale at any price. … We hold precious its beauty, the quiet and peace.”
A small-town peanut farmer who frequently rafted down Georgia rivers, Carter raised concerns to his aides about the plant’s environmental impact. The aides peppered Georgia Power Executive Vice President Harold McKenzie with questions about how much energy — and pollution — the plant would generate. When the conversation turned to a waste-disposal site nearly the size of Central Park, one Carter aide asked McKenzie: What do you do when the ash pond fills up?
Clean it up, McKenzie promised, according to the Carter administration’s notes from that meeting.
Carter’s hands were ultimately tied: Georgia lawmakers had previously granted the utility immense power for an investor-owned company. (A spokesperson for President Carter did not respond to an interview request.) Not only could Georgia Power use eminent domain to condemn property without public hearings, it had the authority to build new plants nearly wherever it wanted. Georgia Power quickly acquired the land for its new coal-fired plant site. The company would eventually name the plant after McKenzie’s boss, CEO Bob Scherer, who guided Georgia Power through a tumultuous period marked by the oil embargo of the 1970s.
In the midst of Georgia Power’s land-buying spree, Brack Goolsby took Malone’s offer and sold 312 acres of land for $207,524. Goolsby kept roughly 30 acres and his house, which was on the other side of Luther Smith Road from the Plant Scherer site. Goolsby was relieved that the home would remain there for his kids and grandkids. For several years, whenever he turned right out of his driveway, Brack watched as the company felled trees and dug deep into the red Georgia clay to build a pit for all the ash left over from burning mountains of coal.
In late 1976, two years after Georgia Power bought the Goolsbys’ land, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, granting the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the disposal of waste, including everything from household garbage to some radioactive materials. The EPA considered whether coal ash should be classified as a hazardous waste. The designation would have required electric utilities to install a protective liner under every existing or proposed ash pond to prevent contaminants from seeping into underground aquifers.
Roughly four out of five Americans get their household water from their city or county. That water is typically sourced from lakes and rivers, tested for toxins, treated, and piped directly to homes. But 43 million people, largely in rural areas, rely on a private drinking well that pumps up groundwater from an underground aquifer.
By the time the act was passed, scientists knew coal ash contained trace metals such as arsenic, chromium, lead and other chemicals recognizable from the periodic table, all of which could slowly infiltrate groundwater. In 1979, Tennessee ecologist Robert Van Hook wrote in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives that the trace metals in coal ash “may constitute human health problems,” including increased risk of cancer. With utilities burning record levels of coal each year, and thus producing more ash, Van Hook called for an evaluation of the “potential for contamination of drinking water supplies by trace elements in leachates from settling ponds.”
Most ash ponds at that time had not been built with protective liners, and America’s power company execs feared that retrofitting them would collectively cost more than $20 billion — $72 billion in today’s dollars. Coal ash’s designation as “hazardous” would not only impact Georgia Power, but also Alabama Power, Gulf Power and other utilities in the Southern Company system. Southern Company soon found an ally in Congressman Tom Bevill, then a seven-term Alabama Democrat whose father had mined coal on the northwest outskirts of Birmingham, where coal had burned at one of the system’s oldest plants since World War I.
During a speech in 1980, as lawmakers debated a bill to strengthen the EPA’s ability to enforce waste regulations, Bevill told his colleagues he knew of no evidence that coal ash “has ever presented a substantial hazard to human health or the environment.” He proposed to exempt coal ash from hazardous waste regulations until the EPA conducted more studies. His amendment passed with minimal attention.
The Bevill Amendment ushered in an era during which Georgia Power and other utilities could keep dumping coal ash into unlined ponds — despite emerging evidence of contamination. That same year, an EPA study described how trace metals in coal-ash ponds could seep deep enough into the ground to come into contact with groundwater. Recognizing the threat, some utilities changed their coal-ash practices absent any federal mandates, including the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, which installed a $2.3 million liner under an ash pond that was leaking wastewater. And while some states like Maryland and Louisiana created tougher regulations for coal-ash disposal, other states, such as Georgia and Ohio, did not.
By the early 1980s, Southern Company execs knew that storing coal ash in ponds without a protective liner could contaminate groundwater. Internal corporate filings obtained by Georgia Health News and ProPublica from multiple state archives show that an in-house research and development company called Southern Company Services Inc. was established to design plant sites for utilities in the Southern Company system. In the 1970s, Florida environmental regulators denied an SCSI-designed ash pond proposal for Plant Crist in Pensacola, which was owned by Southern Company’s Gulf Power, because the plans lacked a “suitable liner … constructed to prevent leaching,” according to the records. In response, from 1977 to 1982, SCSI developed a $20 million waste-disposal system to hold dry coal ash with a liner underneath.
Simultaneously, SCSI designed Plant Scherer in Juliette, where it could have included a liner like it did at Plant Crist. However, Georgia Power claimed in filings that a protective liner at Plant Scherer was “not economically feasible.” Indeed, the installation of a liner at Plant Scherer’s ash pond could have cost as much as $95 million, according to industry estimates from the time.
When Georgia Power fired up Plant Scherer’s first unit in late 1982, water and ash flowed into a giant hole buttressed by an earthen berm that stood 100 feet tall. Engineers had designed the pond to be large enough to accept waste into the next century. With each week that passed, tiny contaminants in the ash pond seeped through soil under the pond and into an underground aquifer, according to company filings. And as weeks turned to years, water in the aquifer slowly carried those contaminants closer to Luther Smith Road.
Water is part of Andrea Goolsby’s earliest memories of her grandparents’ home. She watered her father’s tomatoes, sipped from her grandfather’s garden hose and ate fresh strawberries washed by her grandmother. The idea that Brack and Betty Goolsby’s water might be contaminated by the nearby power plant never figured into family conversations back then. It hadn’t crossed the minds of Andrea’s grandparents, parents or sisters, nor those of her aunts, uncles or cousins, who also lived near Plant Scherer.
“I’d see the ash pond,” Andrea later recalled. “It just looked like a big lake.”
Bevill had indicated back in 1980 that two years of EPA research would definitively rule out the possibility that coal ash could be harmful to human health. But the agency didn’t issue a report for another eight years, informing Congress in 1988 that while coal ash had caused some cases of groundwater contamination, the agency had insufficient evidence to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous waste. That same year, investigators with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division collected groundwater samples from several older Georgia Power plant sites that revealed evidence of contamination. Groundwater at Plant McManus in Brunswick contained chromium at levels 16 times higher than Georgia deemed safe for drinking. And at Plant Mitchell in Albany, groundwater contained levels of lead that exceeded federal drinking water standards. The investigators, who estimated that thousands of residents near the plants relied on private wells for drinking water, recommended further examination of groundwater contamination. (Current EPD spokesperson Kevin Chambers said the division has no records indicating that officials followed up with subsequent investigations; Georgia Power declined to elaborate on the findings of the reports.)
Georgians who lived near coal-ash ponds, including ones at newer plant sites like Scherer, told GHN and ProPublica they were never informed by the EPD or Georgia Power that their drinking water might be contaminated. As a child, Andrea had played at Plant Scherer cookouts held for hundreds of employees, including her father and uncle. As a teenager, she benefited from Georgia Power’s tax dollars that helped fund one of the state’s best public school systems. Many of Andrea’s neighbors believed that Georgia Power had revived Juliette, a place that, after serving as the backdrop for the 1991 Kathy Bates film “Fried Green Tomatoes,” became a quaint symbol of small-town America.
Andrea loved her small town. Juliette felt safe, a place untouched by tragedy. She had experienced little in the way of loss until one windy Thursday in November 2002. Andrea, then a 15-year-old high school student, watched her grandfather writhe in pain on the living room couch. Earlier that week, Brack had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer in his bile duct, a tube that connects the liver to the small intestine. She hugged him tight, worried it might be the last time. Indeed, it was. Brack died the next day.
Three days later, Andrea stayed home from school to say goodbye to her grandfather, who was buried at the Juliette United Methodist Church cemetery, two miles north of Plant Scherer’s front gates. His death would be first in a string of nine cancers among her extended family members who lived near the plant. At first, no one suspected that the sicknesses that came next — a great aunt diagnosed with breast cancer, two distant relatives who died from leukemia — were anything but coincidental.
But then Andrea’s family noticed changes around the family’s land: Their plants and animals were dying more often than usual. The Goolsby family began to wonder why, after years of good health, a wave of sickness and death had descended on Luther Smith Road.
In December 2008, four months after Andrea’s second relative died of leukemia, more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry broke through a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant. A wave of dark, gray sludge spread over 300 acres, as deep as 6 feet, downing power lines, pushing a home off its foundation and filling a nearby river with toxins. As the hidden dangers of coal ash flooded into plain sight and workers began cleaning up the waste, environmentalists swiftly called for stricter regulations, including a liner mandate to prevent toxins from seeping out of unlined ash ponds.
Until the Kingston spill devastated the 6,300-person town of Harriman, located 250 miles north of Juliette, air pollution from coal-fired power plants had long overshadowed the peril of groundwater contamination caused by coal ash. Around the turn of the millennium, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno had filed an epic lawsuit against Southern Company and other utility giants for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act. Plant Scherer was one of more than two dozen coal-fired plants that, according to the EPA, had “illegally released massive amounts of air pollutants.” (Southern Company wrote in an annual report that “the action against Georgia Power has been administratively closed.”) As Reno’s lawsuit grabbed headlines, Southern Company quietly partnered with its allies to quash a stricter coal-ash regulation.
In the late 1990s, nearly two decades after the Bevill amendment exempted coal ash from being classified as a hazardous waste (and after Bevill promised that a definitive analysis of coal ash’s danger would be available in two years), the EPA finally wrapped up its coal-ash studies, which determined that coal ash posed “significant risks to human health and the environment when not properly managed.” The agency cited 11 cases where coal ash contaminants were found in ground or surface water at levels that exceeded health standards, as well as dozens of other newly reported cases of water contamination. Communities from Faulkner, Maryland, to Velva, North Dakota, were grappling with the consequences of coal ash. Regulators forced utilities in Wisconsin and Virginia to pay to hook homes up to a public water supply after contaminating their private drinking wells. Beyond these cases, the EPA determined that utilities had installed well networks to monitor groundwater quality at only 38% of the nation’s ash ponds and installed protective liners at just 26% of them. Given those low percentages and the limited oversight by states, EPA officials recommended tougher coal ash regulations — ones that stopped short of reclassifying coal ash as a hazardous waste.
Medical experts say that over a dozen trace metals in coal ash can lead to health ailments ranging from mild (nausea) to serious (organ damage). The type and extent of health problems can vary greatly depending on the amount of contaminants entering the body, the duration of the consumption and even where the coal was originally mined. Of those dozen toxins, several — including arsenic and hexavalent chromium — are considered to be carcinogenic if consumed even in small amounts over a long period of time. The list of cancers linked to coal ash contaminants include ones in the liver and lungs, prostate and bladder, and stomach and skin.
In 2000, as the EPA proposed tougher coal-ash regulations, Southern Company fought those efforts. Georgia Power, Alabama Power and Gulf Power were all dues-paying members of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry association of over 100 utilities. Led by a lobbyist named Jim Roewer, USWAG had previously recruited power company employees to testify against the hazardous waste designation and attack environmental studies that were being considered by the EPA. (Roewer did not respond to multiple interview requests.) On behalf of Southern Company and other utilities, USWAG lobbyists aggressively pressured the Clinton administration to stop the EPA proposal, citing the billions of dollars it would take to clean up toxins from the ash ponds. They argued against the regulation in letters and in-person meetings. Ultimately, the Clinton administration backed off from the tougher coal ash regulations.