Toxic Coal Ash in Georgia: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy

For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash — the hazardous substance left after burning coal for energy — by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills. Georgia has 43 coal ash dumpsites.

After years of litigation and grassroots activism, on Apr. 25, 2024, the EPA issued a new rule that will force power plants to finally clean up their toxic coal ash. The EPA extended federal monitoring and cleanup requirements to hundreds of previously excluded older coal ash landfills and ponds that have been leaking toxic pollution into groundwater.

Note: Coal ash dumpsites referenced as “unregulated” throughout this page now are likely subject to federal regulation under the final rulemaking.

Coal ash contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and other heavy metals, which have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. In 2023, the EPA acknowledged that coal ash is even more dangerous than previously thought, with levels of arsenic and radiation that pose cancer risks.

Industry’s own data indicate that across the country 91% of coal plants are currently polluting groundwater above federal health standards with toxic pollutants.

Despite EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which created the first-ever safeguards for coal ash disposal, many coal ash dumps remained unregulated due to sweeping exemptions for legacy coal ash ponds and inactive landfills. The exempted coal ash dumps are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. The EPA extended clean up requirements to hundreds of old coal ash dumps across the country when it issued new regulations in the spring of 2024.

Aerial view of a flooded coal ash pond at Plant McManus days after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Unknown amounts of coal ash spilled into Georgia’s Golden Isles during the storm.
Aerial view of a flooded coal ash pond at Plant McManus days after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Unknown amounts of coal ash spilled into Georgia’s Golden Isles during the storm. (Jen Hilburn)

Coal ash remains one of our nation’s largest toxic industrial waste streams. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 75 million tons every year.

In 2023, the EPA acknowledged widespread noncompliance with existing coal ash regulations and ramped up enforcement after designating coal ash a national enforcement priority.

Action Needed

The magnitude of harm from recklessly dumped toxic coal ash requires decisive action from federal and state regulators.

  • Utilities must be required to comply with the law and immediately clean up their pollution.
  • EPA and states must act quickly to ensure that utilities leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.
  • EPA must take action to prohibit the use of coal ash as construction fill and make polluters clean up areas where ash was used as fill.
Coal ash dump sites across the United States. Use this map to understand where coal ash might be stored near you and how a given site may be impacted by EPA's expansion of the federal Coal Ash Rule. (Caroline Weinberg / Earthjustice)

24 Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in Georgia

Georgia utilities operate 24 federally regulated coal ash ponds and landfills containing nearly 87 million cubic yards of toxic waste at nine coal plants.

At all but one Georgia plants, industry monitoring data indicate that groundwater is contaminated above federal and state safe standards.

Despite the serious water contamination, no Georgia plant, to date, has selected a final plan to clean up groundwater, as required by state and federal law.

Plant Bowen Cartersville GA Power 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Antimony (x1), Arsenic (x2), Boron (x16), Cobalt (x3), Molybdenum (x3), Radium 226+228 (x1), Sulfate (x2)
Plant Crisp Warwick GA Power 1 unlined pond No monitored contaminants currently exceeding federal standards
Plant Hammond Rome GA Power 3 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Arsenic (x38), Beryllium (x1), Boron (x10), Cobalt (x30), Fluoride (x2), Lithium (x5), Molybdenum (x12), Sulfate (x3)
Plant McDonough Smyrna GA Power 4 unlined ponds Arsenic (x49), Beryllium (x6), Boron (x4), Cadmium (x1), Cobalt (x127), Lithium (x3), Molybdenum (x5), Radium 226+228 (x1), Selenium (x2), Sulfate (x2)
Plant McIntosh Ricncon GA Power 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Boron (x2), Cobalt (x2), Lithium (x3), Selenium (x4)
Plant McManus Brunswick GA Power 1 unlined pond Arsenic (x31), Boron (x1), Lithium (x2), Sulfate (x1)
Plant Scherer Juliette GA Power 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Boron (x2), Cobalt (x45), Sulfate (x1)
Plant Wansley Roopville GA Power 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Boron (x3), Cobalt (x24), Lithium (x1), Radium 226+228 (x1), Sulfate (x1)
Plant Yates Newman GA Power 6 unlined ponds Boron (x3), Cobalt (x24), Lithium (x1), Radium 226+228 (x1), Sulfate (x1)

All data on groundwater contamination from coal ash derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.

For more information on regulated coal ash sites in Georgia, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

19 Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Georgia

March 2024 Update: The table below underestimates the legacy units that may be regulated by EPA’s upcoming CCR Legacy Pond Rule. Additional legacy units at specific plants may be found in the national map, above.

In addition, there are at least 19 inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds at seven coal plant sites in Georgia that are subject to Georgia’s state law analogous to the federal rule, including the closure performance standards that prohibit disposal in contact with groundwater.

At several of these sites, EPA and/or the utility itself has already determined that coal ash has contaminated groundwater, but despite Georgia’s purported regulation of these dumps, none of them have been required to be excavated, except for planned excavation of at least some coal ash ponds at Georgia Power Company’s now shuttered Plant Arkwright near Macon. Groundwater remediation remains lacking at all of these sites.

As we anticipate EPA’s proposed rule on legacy ponds and unregulated landfills in May 2023, a concern remains that the agency will not address coal ash that was dumped off site or used as fill.

Plant Arkwright Macon GA Power 3 1 Yes
Plant Bowen Cartersville GA Power 0 1 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Plant Harlee Branch Milledgeville GA Power 5 1 Yes
Plant McDonough Smyrna GA Power 0 1 Yes – Industry data
Plant Kraft Port Wentworth GA Power 1 1 Unknown
Plant Mitchell Moundsville GA Power 3 0 Unknown
Plant Yates Newman GA Power 0 2 Yes – Industry data

Plants Arkwright’s and Harlee Branch’s evidence of site contamination: Jennifer Harkness, Barry Sulkin and Avner Vengosh, Evidence for Coal Ash Ponds Leaking in Southeastern United States, Envtl. Science and Tech., (June 10, 2016).

Plants Bowen’s and Yates’ evidence of site contamination from industry data: Industry monitoring data posted on the plants’ CCR Compliance Data and Information website.

Plants McDonough’s and Yates’ evidence of site contamination from industry data: Industry monitoring is the basis of a finding of contamination as described on Ashtracker.

These data were developed by using EPA datasets relied upon in their 2007 and 2014 CCR risk assessments (Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Residuals) and comparing those datasets to the universe of regulated units.

“EPA damage case” denotes a site where US EPA has found documented groundwater contamination from coal ash.

Earthjustice fights in the courts for a long-term solution to the toxic menace of coal ash. And we act on behalf of dozens of clients and over 100 coalition partners to defeat legislative attempts to subvert federally enforceable safeguards of coal ash.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.