‘I’ve quit drinking the water’: What it’s like to live next to America’s largest coal plant

Without Tony Bowdoin’s grandfather, Georgia Power might never
have come to the quiet town of Juliette. The central Georgia
hamlet, just off the Ocmulgee River and a little over an hour’s
drive south of Atlanta, is mostly known as home to some of the
state’s best shoal bass fishing. Juliette’s only other claim to
fame is its turn as the setting for the 1991 Oscar-nominated film
Fried Green Tomatoes.

Bowdoin’s grandfather, Marvin, not only helped sell the
utility on Juliette, he sold Juliette on the utility’s promises
of jobs, benefits, and pensions. By the late 1960s, Georgia Power
had started planning to build the Robert W. Scherer Power Plant.
Over a decade later, in 1982, its first unit opened in Juliette.
The plant breathed life into the old mill town, employing some 400
locals and pumping nearly $7 million annually into Monroe
County’s coffers.

But there were downsides: Georgia Power had seized hundreds of
acres — including homes — via eminent domain during its early
years in town. Tony Bowdoin had also heard whispers about pollution
over the years. The 57-year-old had seen the “Save Juliette”
graffiti scrawled across a nearby salon and stop sign, but his
life’s work — running the family grocery — had left little
time to investigate further. So when a neighbor recently called
with the news that her tap water contained enough contaminants that
she had switched to drinking bottled water, he called an
environmental nonprofit to get his drinking water tested.

In 2018, graffiti
appeared on a stop sign near Plant Scherer with the phrase “Save
Juliette.” A local salon was also tagged with a message accusing
Georgia Power of “telling a lie” to residents about the
plant’s health risks. Max Blau

On a sweltering late-August day, a pair of red vehicles pulled
down Bowdoin’s driveway, carrying Jen Hilburn and Fletcher Sams
of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. The organization is primarily
responsible for protecting a river that empties into the Atlantic
Ocean some 200 miles southeast of Juliette, but the Ocmulgee River
is one of the Altamaha’s northern tributaries, so any risk to it
and its surroundings could wind up in the Riverkeeper’s purview.
Because Juliette is far enough from the two closest cities with
municipal water systems, Macon and Forsyth, most of its residents
rely on wells that draw up groundwater. So Hilburn and Sams had
begun a covert water-testing campaign in Juliette, where they
suspected there was widespread groundwater contamination linked to
Plant Scherer’s operations.

Bowdoin, Hilburn, and Sams headed to the side of the vinyl-sided
house, where Bowdoin’s well is located. A 49-year-old who bears a
passing resemblance to the Parks and Recreation character Leslie
Knope, Hilburn squeezed her hands into a pair of blue latex gloves.
Then she broke the seal on a sterile plastic bottle, unscrewed the
cap, and delicately filled the bottle one cap full at a time. She
repeated this process two more times, as the samples were cataloged
by Sams, a stocky 38-year-old ex-political operative dressed in a
button-down and khakis. The three samples would be sent to Pace
Analytical, a North Carolina environmental lab, to test for boron
and strontium — the DNA fingerprints of coal ash, a byproduct of
burning coal — as well as cobalt, arsenic, and hexavalent
chromium, the toxic chemical that Erin Brockovich found in Southern
California drinking wells, which turns up in coal ash disposal
sites from Massachusetts to Nevada.

Fletcher Sams (center)
explains the risks of potential groundwater contamination to
Juliette residents Tony Bowdoin (left) and Mitzi Williams. Max
Blau

“Nobody’s ever cared about Juliette,” Bowdoin said. He
liked Hilburn and Sams — trusted them, even — because they took
residents’ concerns seriously. So much so that, after Hilburn and
Sams finished testing his well, Bowdoin started his Ford pickup and
volunteered to lead them to his family and friends’ homes for
more sampling. They eventually reached a stretch of Luther Smith
Road, a largely unpaved street that runs along Scherer’s northern
edge. On one side, a thick black slurry of coal ash glistened
through the cracks among Georgia pines. On the other, Georgia
Power’s “no trespassing” signs lined the fences of properties
it had purchased from families, mostly within the past five
years.

The acquired land could tell a story about the environmental and
public health costs of inviting a coal plant to town. The
Riverkeeper hopes its testing will provide answers to questions
that have roiled growing numbers of residents grappling with
stories of sickness and premature death. Its findings could not
only tell of contamination that’s already taken hold, but help
prevent the burial of tons of black slurry that’s likely to bring
more. The environmental advocates are racing the clock — as the
very business of coal ash disposal in states like Georgia is in
flux, potentially endangering towns like Juliette.

The Riverkeeper’s results could give the people of Juliette
the power to fight back.

Hilburn and Sams boarded a white single-engine plane on a clear
day last summer and circled around 12,000 acres of land owned by
Georgia Power. Flying north from Macon, it doesn’t take long to
see Plant Scherer’s smokestacks on the horizon. The plant is so
powerful that it can light up more than half of Georgia’s 3.7
million households. Every hour, workers pulverize roughly 1,300
tons of coal into a fine powder that’s placed into boilers and
scorched to produce steam. From there, steam pushes turbine blades
that spin a generator. Smoke rises from the dual 1,000-foot
chimneys, which are part of a site that’s considered one of the
highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the western hemisphere.

The view from above is dramatic, but the two Altamaha
Riverkeeper employees are more interested in the thick black sludge
darkening the ground below. Once coal becomes ash, Georgia Power
mixes it with water and stores it in ponds collectively large
enough to hold roughly 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools of
contents. But whereas in a pool, the cement barrier keeps water
from spilling out, no protective lining exists between the waste
and the land underneath.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
‘I’ve quit drinking the water’: What it’s like to live next to America’s largest coal plant