Environmental Issues Impacting the State of Georgia (Part One)

Alan Bailey
11 min readMay 25, 2024

Climate change and other environmental woes are always major headlines in international media outlets. We’re well versed in the 2030 deadline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in half to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and circumvent worse effects of the climate crisis. While it’s critical that we understand how our world as a whole is affected, we should also be aware of these impacts to the states we live in as well as our local communities.

In my previous articles, I have spent a lot of time discussing the global implications of climate change that have hopefully resonated with many who are just as concerned as me. All of us are bombarded by relentless 24-hour news cycles that repeat the same ominous warnings as if it were a child’s daily arithmetic, providing a view of the big picture (whether we want it or not). However, throughout my studies, observations, and volunteer efforts, I learned that not enough of us are cognizant of how the communities we live in will change over time. Every state, region, and municipality have their own set of challenges that don’t all tie into climate change alone. Invasive species, chemical pollution of water bodies, cultural eutrophication, and mass erosion events are just a few to consider.

Earlier this year, I met United States House of Representatives candidate Maura Keller who is running for Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District to replace outgoing Representative Drew Ferguson in November. She spoke with the Troup County Democratic Party in my hometown of LaGrange, Georgia of which I am a member, covering a wide range of topics/issues she wished to address. However, climate change and other environmental concerns were topics of which she didn’t know a lot about and needed help with during her campaign. The chairman of our group introduced me to her and, after explaining what issues we face in our city, she sought my assistance to research the state’s problems and use that information to engage with voters.

I worked for several hours in the span of two weeks to learn as much as I could, and I was shocked by all that Georgia alone is dealing with. The documents I procured for her campaign totaled more than 50 pages and contained over 40 references. Despite all I had been striving to comprehend about our environment, I couldn’t fully register the weight of it, and I knew it was even more profound for her as someone who was beginning to learn its depths for the first time. I hope that I will be able to convey all of this information in the next few articles because everyone who lives in Georgia should know what’s happening. From here, I will list each type of problem and elaborate on it in detail. The future parts of this series will continue that list.

Maura Keller is a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District. Source: https://www.maura4ga3.com
  1. Coal Ash Deposits in West Central Georgia

Georgia has had a history of burning coal which leaves behind combustion residuals (CCRs) that contain toxic coal ash. These easily pollute soil, groundwater, air, and waterways while jeopardizing public health. Some of the contaminants found include mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), and arsenic (As). Research has found that Georgia Power is storing 92 million tons of coal ash in unlined pits at 12 of 13 coal plant sites in an unsafe manner, preferring cap in place methods over full excavation. It will cost the company more than $9 billion to fully clean up and manage the deposits over time, and it wants to foot the massive bill to customers.

Cap in place involves pumping water out of an ash pond and leaving the ash in place where it will be covered with a tarp, but this method could fail if vegetation doesn’t successfully grow on top or if the pit isn’t constructed properly. Excavation consists of both draining the water and removing all ash to be transported to a safe, lined, dried, and capped landfill so that it won’t be exposed to groundwater and rivers. Some of the most dangerous sites are identified below. The general information above was cited from http://www.georgiacoalash.org/why-it-matters.

A map of all 13 coal ash sites in Georgia, a majority of the problematic ones located in the west central region. Source: Georgia Power Says Its Coal Ash Cleanup Tab Has Risen to $9 Billion | 2021–11–01 | Engineering News-Record (enr.com)

Plant Wansley is located in Heard County which sits right next to my own, having had a capacity of 1073 Megawatts of electricity before being approved for retirement at the end of 2022. It was owned by Southern Power and accommodated two of Georgia Power’s coal-fired units. A site with a cap in place plan, it poses risks to the Chattahoochee River that’s relied on by residents for drinking water, tourism, recreation, development, and habitat sustainability. Troup County (my own) and others in the region also depend on the Chattahoochee, so this could lead to negative externalities for the rest of us. Visit https://www.southernpowercompany.com/content/dam/southernpower/pdfs/fact-sheets/PlantWansley_factsheet.pdf for more information.

Plant Yates is located in Coweta County (another county near mine) on approximately 2,400 acres on the east bank of the Chattahoochee River, posed to operate as a natural gas electric generation plant in order to power homes and provide local jobs. This is a site with a partial cap in place plan which, although somewhat better than a full cap in place method, still presents risks for groundwater, soil, and other bodies of water nearby. Three phases were outlined by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The first was to construct a temporary soil mix wall that would carry wastewater through a pipe to an onsite treatment system. The second phase involved securing a permanent service water pond dam to divide the east and west ponds with the former being dewatered and excavated. Finally, the third phase would remove the soil mix wall, drain the west pond, and have the east pond serve as the site’s water pond for operations. More information can be found at https://epd.georgia.gov/yates-ash-pond-2-permit. The “Closure Plan” PDF can be accessed there.

Plant McDonough-Atkinson is operated by the Georgia Power Company and is located in Smyrna, composing of 34 groundwater monitoring wells with 27 having been polluted above federal advisory levels. Unsafe levels of cobalt, boron, beryllium, sulfate, arsenic, lithium, selenium, molybdenum, cadmium, and radium have all been detected there. The plant opened in 1941 and had its two coal-fired units retired in 2011 and 2012, replacing them with three natural gas-fired units. Three active disposal areas are identified as Ash Pond Units 1 and 2 and Combined Ash Pond Unit 3 and 4. This site is being addressed as a full cap in place approach. Information was cited from https://ashtracker.org/facility/544/plant-mcdonough-atkinson.

Plant Bowen is located in Bartow County with a full cap in place approach, but the problem is that the site is susceptible to sinkholes which could lead to any type of liner and surface failing. The Sierra Club ranked Plant Bowen as the 17th most dangerous in the country, and it’s the state’s last coal-fired power generator in operation until regulators decide in 2025 the timeline to shut down its units. According to research, Plant Bowen is responsible for about 59 deaths each year from toxic soot pollution, so to make matters worse by only capping in place toxic coal ash could lead to those numbers climbing. Information was taken from https://georgiarecorder.com/briefs/sierra-club-study-finds-georgia-powers-bartow-county-coal-fired-plant-among-countrys-dirties/.

Investigations into Georgia Power’s decision to avoid disposing of toxic coal ash has revealed unpublished documents that show how the company plans to save billions in cleanup operations, even going so far as to challenge the definition of the word “infiltration” in closed-door meetings with state environmental officials. This pertains to how groundwater can seep into disposal sites holding coal ash. One resident of Juliette, Georgia that’s impacted by toxic coal ash, Gloria Hammond, now has to drive 10 minutes to a Baptist church to access clean water because her private well revealed to be contaminated through tests conducted there. It’s now up to the federal EPA to strip the state EPD’s power to allow Georgia Power to oversee the cleanup operations and take over the efforts (if they decide to, of course). More can be found at https://propublica.org/article/how-a-powerful-company-convinced-georgia-to-let-it-bury-toxic-waste-in-groundwater.

2. Pollution in the Chattahoochee River

The Chattahoochee River is an essential component of Georgia’s economy and environmental health as it brings power to people’s homes, puts food on the table, serves as transportation channels, provides habitat to many species, and brings in millions of dollars from recreation/tourism. Sadly, pollution has been impacting this river for decades, particularly from the regional seasonality of rain shifting that can increase flash flooding events. This leads to sewage overflows and parking lot runoff, contributing to processes like cultural eutrophication which creates dead zones from a lack of oxygen. In certain areas like Proctor Creek in Atlanta, there have been more fish kills, E. coli surges, floods in residential areas, contaminants in drinking water, and changes in the overall ecosystem that negatively affect tourism. Information was cited from https://www.nps.gov/rlc/ogbfrec/chatclimateimpacts.htm.

Proctor Creek is a major tributary of the river with problems that spurned the formation of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in 1994 when the city of Atlanta was sued for its tangled sewage lines four years prior. About 80 times a year, the overburdened sewer systems would overflow downtown, forcing officials to complete a $112 million project to untangle and redirect sewage lines to mitigate pollution problems. However, some spots were missed, and more money had to be spent to correct the remaining ones. Visit https://www.ajc.com/news/proctor-creek-still-plagued-problems-despite-millions-fixes/VuK77AMc8XqXAM9k9KefWP/ for further details.

The socioeconomic impacts have shed light on the environmental injustices that plague the downtrodden areas of Atlanta, these communities being a microcosm of the disproportionate harm that minority communities experience throughout the United States. A study was conducted with some of those residents in the city to identify not only the physical damages associated with flooding but the city’s lack of commitment to assisting them. Jelks et al. (2020), along with residents of the Atlanta area who participated in their study, identified the divestment of resources as another economic issue that affected natural resource management accompanied by insufficient services provided by the city and horrible neighborhood conditions.

In light of the pollution in Proctor Creek, there have been significant societal reactions by those who live near it. Outrage by those who believe that the city government does not care about their predicament, including perceived neglect of infrastructure improvements and other efforts to improve the health of Proctor Creek, have shaped the attitudes surrounding the problem. Flooding has increased the risk of displacement and homeowners whose properties were damaged by these circumstances, some of whom even lost several inches of their homes. Other concerned people highlighted less availability in opportunities for community residents to meaningfully engage in efforts to solve pollution issues and take part in planning decisions. The paper can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2020.102444.

The Chattahoochee River has sadly gained notoriety for its pollution problems, this image coming from Georgia Water Coalition’s 2014 Dirty Dozen list of the most polluted water bodies in the state. Source: Georgia Water Coalition names Chattahoochee River to ‘Dirty Dozen’ list (wtvm.com)

Scientific studies posit that having more greenspace is able to reduce runoff pollution, improve water/soil quality as more contaminants are filtered out, decrease temperatures in urban areas that stem from the heat island effect, improve people’s mood and wellbeing, and restore ecosystem services that had been lost due to development. In 2017, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took advantage of the opportunities that could exist around Proctor Creek so that residents would reap the benefits of additional greenspace. He allocated $3 million to build the first segment of the Proctor Creek Greenway.

Per the press release, “The Proctor Creek Greenway will result in 50 acres of linear park and 400 acres of greenspace to Atlanta’s Westside. In addition, the greenway will offer connectivity to the Bankhead MARTA Station and the BeltLine Westside Trail. The PATH Foundation is scheduled to complete the Master Plan for the trail in April 2017, and the first segment of the trail, running from Bankhead MARTA Station to the existing West Highlands Trail, is scheduled to be completed in the next year. In addition, Mayor Reed committed to fast tracking the City’s $300,000 annual funding pledge to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental feasibility study of the Proctor Creek Watershed to ensure the study will be completed in a timely matter.”

Not only that, but “In November of 2015, Mayor Kasim Reed signed an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorizing a three-year environmental feasibility study to address the water quality, flood risks, ecological habitat restoration and stream bank remediation of the Proctor Creek Watershed. Other federal partners who have agreed to share resources to restore the environmental and economic quality of the creek include the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Commerce.” Read the full press release here: https://www.atlantaga.gov/Home/Components/News/News/4996/.

Longitudinal studies are required in cities like Atlanta to examine the physical properties and moisture of soil so that the efficiency of greenspaces in absorbing stormwater may be assessed. Unhealthy soils that contain less SOM (soil organic matter), are more compacted, and lack sufficient microbiota won’t have the ability to properly absorb runoff.

Utilizing greenspace could serve as a sustainable solution because Atlanta would not need to spend an excessive amount of money trying to improve all aspects of its treatment infrastructure while the presence of these spaces ultimately behooves the environment. One study posited that unsaturated surface soil had the capability of infiltrating water in low-intensity events at 0.25cm per hour and moderate-intensity events at 0.25–0.61cm per hour. This study can be found at https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.05.127.

Utilizing greenspaces, like these pictured here in downtown Atlanta, could make a major impact on flash flooding and pollution in the city. Source: Green space could sit over Downtown Connector in Midtown | 11alive.com

Unfortunately, compacting soils in urban areas like Atlanta could lead to alterations in the hydrologic cycle, and there has been reported evidence of brown spaces in communities surrounding Proctor Creek. Analyzing soil content and adding more greenspaces could ultimately save millions in recovery efforts from flooding events while giving wastewater treatment systems a much-needed break. Pollution in the Chattahoochee isn’t limited up north, though. Downstream areas throughout the state have experienced issues of their own, including water of the Chattahoochee Valley in Columbus, Georgia. Urban development and changing weather conditions are responsible for the deterioration of this vital resource.

The publication from the University of Georgia that focused on this site reads, “Five creeks in Muscogee County are on the EPD 303(d) list for not supporting their intended use. Changing weather conditions have exacerbated water health issues. Columbus recorded its driest July in 115 years in 2016, putting additional stress on waterways. Flooding and flash floods, which struck three times in 2016, also caused a surge in the amount of non-point source pollution in the water.”

UGA extension then partnered with non-profits and local governments to help provide workshops and educational materials. These empowered homeowners and green industry professionals that covered appropriate pesticide and fertilizer use, irrigation, and landscaping choices. Communities can now have greater say of what goes on in some of our waterways due to initiatives like this one. The full article can be accessed at https://extension.uga.edu/about/our-impact/impact-stories/impact-statement/7343/improving-water-quality-in-the-chattahoochee-river-watershed.html.

This concludes the first part of this series. The next will explore invasive species, increased sedimentation and eutrophication in the Chattahoochee, and air pollution.

--

--

Alan Bailey

I'm a graduate of LaGrange College with a B.S. in Biology and a student of environmental science at SNHU. I strive to help our planet in every way I can.