If the Plant Scherer lawsuits filed Thursday in DeKalb County State Court are successful, they could have broad implications for power companies.
One suit, filed on behalf of Ronald and Traci Bedenbaugh of Juliette, claims that Plant Scherer owners committed fraud by proclaiming to health care providers, government agencies and the public that their coal ash waste is environmentally safe.
It also alleges that the Scherer owners were negligent because they “recklessly” failed to analyze their own coal ash waste or study reasonable standards for safely getting rid of it.
Georgia Power officials always point out that they follow state and federal rules. But there are no coal ash regulations.
The Georgia Department of Public Health compiled a “scoping report” last year that concluded there was no evidence to show Plant Scherer was harming anyone. But the report acknowledged the sparse information available about groundwater quality and air pollution around the plant.
If Georgia Power were found negligent for deliberately failing to gather that kind of information -- even though it’s not required by law -- that could set a powerful precedent, said Abigail Dillen, coal program director for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
A little less than half of U.S. coal ash ponds are unlined, according to data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“If they prevail on this, I think it would send a real chill up the spines of utility executives everywhere,” Dillen said. “It could be transformative.”
Dillen said she hopes lawsuits like these also highlight the need for federal rules. Without them, she said, the utility industry may be left guessing whether they’ve done enough to protect the public from pollution -- and by extension, to protect themselves from liability.
Earthjustice and other environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency last year for failing to regulate coal ash waste, even after a devastating Tennessee coal ash spill in 2008. The agency itself has predicted that unlined coal ash ponds will increase health risks such as cancer and damage to the kidneys, liver and the central nervous system.
Dillen said the EPA is resisting any time line for issuing coal ash rules, while Earthjustice wants the court to give the agency a six-month deadline.
In the meantime, she said, the number of civil lawsuits over coal ash have been climbing.
“People are becoming more aware that the ash pond in their backyard is responsible for the pollution that’s making them sick,” Dillen said. “Until we have effective safeguards in place, we’re only going to see more of these lawsuits.”