- Associated Press - Thursday, May 8, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Federal environmental officials are requiring that Georgia regulators better explain how a major utility will prevent dust from escaping coal-fired power plants.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy ruled that Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division did not include enough information in the permits for five power plants to explain how they would prevent coal dust particles from escaping the site.

Her ruling published Thursday affects the air permits for the Hammond, Kraft, McIntosh, Wansley and Scherer plants operated by Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power. An environmental group, GreenLaw, had challenged several aspects of those permits, including that state regulators failed to include concrete steps meant to control dust buildups. Instead, the permits required that the plants take “reasonable precautions.”

Dust can be generated when coal is brought to a power plant or while it sits in large piles before it is burned. If not contained, the dust can spread locally, creating quality-of-life issues and degrading air quality. EPA officials set limits on the particle pollution that comes from coal dust because it can lodge in the lungs, causing health problems ranging from coughing to premature death in those with heart or lung disease.

“It’s blowing onto people’s houses,” said Ashten Bailey, a staff attorney at GreenLaw.

Georgia relies on coal to produce just under a third of the state’s electricity, according to federal surveys.

Georgia Power spokesman Brian Green said the utility was still analyzing the ruling and would follow all government requirements.

Meanwhile, state officials expect to issue new air permits for the coal-fired plants that include more specific instructions for preventing dust, said Keith Bentley, the EPD’s air branch chief. State rules require that a dust plume cannot block more than 20 percent of light. However, firms can use different techniques to meet that standard.

Some prevent dust buildups by spraying water when moving coal off railcars and into the power plant, Bentley said. Companies can also sweep and spray water on roads to keep dust particles from migrating. Once state regulators issue a new permit with more specific dust rules, the public will get a chance to comment on them.

“I don’t expect Georgia Power will have to a lot different than what they do now,” Bentley said.

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Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP .