SCREVEN, GA. | Wayne County residents agree the best place for coal ash from power plants is in a lined landfill; just not the one in their county.
It’s more than a matter of NIMBY, the acronym for “not in my back yard.” In the case of Republic Services’ Broadhurst landfill, it’s more about not in our wetlands, say opponents of a plan under which Republic would ship by train 10,000 tons of ash daily for disposal.
Republic has all the authority it needs under state and federal laws to bury the coal ash. The only holdup is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to use wetlands to build a rail yard to accommodate 100 cars each day.
Dave Remick, operations manager of the enormous landfill, and Chris Bloxham, Republic’s division manager, acknowledge there are things to worry about — probably more so in municipal and commercial solid waste than in coal ash disposal — but the company has them covered.
Coal ash from power plants has been stored in impoundments at the plants. There have been a number of spills, some of them massive, and the Environmental Protection Agency wants the wet coal ash removed from those on-site ponds, dried, and buried in lined and monitored landfills.
“Now it’s going to be managed correctly. Why the landfills are going to be the evil empire for managing correctly is beyond me,” Bloxham said in the office of Republic’s office at Broadhurst. “We do perceive ourselves as part of the solution.”
Remick said that’s not how the company is viewed in Wayne County. “Locally, we’re perceived as creating problems,” he said.
Opponents worry the heavy metals in coal ash — arsenic, mercury, lead and about a dozen more — will leach out and get into the well where they get their drinking water and into streams where they fish and swim.
Remick, a geologist, says the natural groundwater is high, but landfills are built to ensure nothing gets into that groundwater.
It starts with a foundation layer of structural soil that tops out at nine to 14 feet above the native soil, he said.
Above that is a two-foot liner of engineered clay and above that is a synthetic liner resistant to chemicals. Then there’s a layer of sand to protect the plastic liner from any impacts from compactors or objects in the refuse that could puncture it, Remick said.
And the risk of damaging the synthetic liner is further diminished because the first 10 to 15 feet of refuse is not compacted and is a “fluff layer” containing nothing that could penetrate the plastic, Remick said.
Critics say the 60-mil, or 0.06-inch, thick liner is thin and would ultimately fail. Remick and Bloxham brought out a piece of the black plastic that appears very tough and rigid. They also said the liner is in linear strips welded into the bowl shape for the landfill, and that it contains channels into which compressed air is injected to check for leaks.
“It is also slippery,” Remick said, “which means the water rolls off.”
That liquid is continuously pumped out and transported to a waste-water treatment plant, he said.
Although plan foes always raise the liner, Remicks said, “It’s not just a piece of liner. It’s a whole system.”
The geologist and engineer in Remick wants to talk about the clay, which he said is engineered to prevent anything getting through, ever. “Clay has a life expenditure of millions of years,” he said.
Once the landfill is filled, it will be sealed so no more liquids can get in, which is a requirement of all Subtitle D landfills.
The company builds the 12-acre cells in halves and will build separate cells solely for coal ash.
Bloxham said he understands people’s concerns, but they may be concerned about the wrong thing. “We know what’s in coal ash. We don’t know what’s in the municipal waste,” he said.
Individual homeowners don’t have to report what’s in their garbage, and batteries, paint, pesticides, caustic cleaning chemicals and other dangerous substances go into the same garbage cans as the egg shells, soup cans and potato peels.
Although the landfill looks like a giant boil rising from the woodlands, Republic improved the surrounding land.
In excavating clay for the liners, the company created some big borrow pits that have a lot of fish and that attract birds, including bald eagles. There is also a wood stork rookery on land covered in pines planted on former wetlands drained by deep ditches, Remick said.
Remick now knows a lot about the botany of the area. “We dammed up all the ditches,” that were four to five feet deep and let the water collect as it always had, he said.
The company then planted 115,000 hardwoods and natives shrubs and freshwater spartina.
During public hearings on Repubic’s permits, old timers said they trapped in ponds on the site before the timber companies drained it, Remick said.
“There are more wetlands now than before we got here,” and there will be more, he said.
At the top of the mountain of buried refuse, crows, gulls and buzzards flocked and picked at the exposed garbage as 120,000-pound contractors rolled over it. Those birds are pretty routine compared to some of the things Remick sees on the property.
“I saw a mama eagle teaching an eaglet to fish [at a borrow pit]. She had drug a fish up on the shore. It was still flopping,” as she stood waiting for the young bird to go after it, he said.
For all of that, many residents oppose the landfill even though the county collected $1 million in host county royalties in 2016.
Derby Waters works for the Jesup Press Sentinel and keeps close tabs on the landfill’s potential for harm. Dink NeSmith, the owner of the paper, editorializes on coal ash often and warns it could poison the local environment.
“I don’t question that a lined landfill is the best place to put coal ash. What it boils down to,” Waters said of his concerns, “is volume and time.”
Of Republic’s plans to bring in 10,000 tons daily, Waters says, “That’s a massive amount to be collected in one spot. It would be the largest amount of coal ash in any one spot in the U.S.”
Regardless of how careful Republic handles coal ash, they will lose some, he said.
After all, the company had leaks from the 800,000 tons it took from the JEA a few years ago that showed up in wells, Waters said.
“They managed to poison the water in that part of the county,” with berilium, among other things, and are still doing corrective action, he said.
“That shows they can’t handle coal ash safely” he said.
Waters also asserts that even with careful handling, some coal ash will blow or wash away, and get into the environment.
“They’re saying up to 100,000 tons. You lose half of 1 percent, that’s 6,250 tons a year,” he said. “I’m saying a minuscule amount over time builds up to a significant quantity. What if I’m wrong, and it’s only 3,000 tons a year. Jeepers.”
Bloxham said the company does not intend to lose any coal ash at Broadhurst and that other operations around the country are disposing of the substance with no issues. Of the losses from the JEA coal ash, Bloxham said it was being held in a solidification pit and was added to other solid waste to add stability.
“We’ll be responsible for every bit of it,” he said.
Peggy Riggins, president of the grassroots organization No Coal Ash At All, agreed the landfill has the best technology available for coal ash. Her issue is the location in Southeast Georgia “carved out of the middle of wetlands.”
Indeed, a Georgia Environmental Protection Division assessment in March 1993 said the land, in its natural state, was not suitable for a landfill because of “low relief,” poor drainage and a high water table. The assessment said, however, the site could be modified to make it suitable without endangering the environment.
Instead of taking that assessment to heart, Wayne County officials welcomed the landfill.
Riggins also goes back to the synthetic liner.
“That lining is man-made. I don’t know of anything man-made that will last forever,” she said.
Once the hazardous elements escape, they’ll end up in nearby Penhollaway Creek and the Altamaha River, and will flow through the aquifers to the coast, Riggins said.
“We consider it a threat to recreation, property values, wildlife, tourism, seafood,” among other things, she said.
Riggins said her real concern is the nation will decide that landfills like Broadhurst are a good enough solution for coal ash disposal and stop looking for other methods.
“They’re not going to put the best scientists to work finding a solution for this problem,” she said.
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405