- Associated Press - Thursday, June 5, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - Gulf Power Company is allowing pollutants from aging coal ash pits to leak into the Apalachicola River, according to a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups.

The nonprofit law firm Earthjustice filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Tallahassee federal court on behalf of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Waterkeeper Alliance and Apalachicola Riverkeeper. They say Gulf Power is illegally discharging arsenic, lead and other pollutants from its coal-fired plant near Sneads into the river.

The Jackson County plant, which opened in 1953, is scheduled to close next year. It’s always been in compliance since Gulf Power began groundwater monitoring in the mid-1980s, said utility spokeswoman Natalie Smith.

Gulf Power and the state Department of Environmental Protection conducted follow-up inspections and testing after the groups announced their intent to sue, and an additional study comparing ecosystems upstream from the plant with downstream ecosystems found no differences, Smith said.

“All test results were determined to be within compliance and did not support the allegations made,” she said.

Gulf Power has a federal Clean Water Act permit that allows it to discharge treated coal ash water and chlorinated condensing water directly into the river through an outfall, but the Pensacola-based company is violating that permit because pollutants are leaking from other points without being treated, according to the lawsuit.

Nearly 40 acres of coal ash pits atop a bluff along the river lack linings to keep pollutants from leaking into the water, and Gulf Power knows about the problem but has not worked to fix it, the groups said.

Citing a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency draft report on wastes produced by coal-fired electricity plants nationwide, the lawsuit said the toxic metals leaking from the Panhandle plant include arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead and selenium.

The pits have been inspected by EPA contractors but those reports and “hazard potential” ratings have not been made public because Gulf Power has said such information contains “confidential business information,” the lawsuit said.

“All groundwater and surface testing as required by our permits is submitted to regulatory agencies on a regular, ongoing basis and we are in full compliance,” Smith said.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire said the river system supports a multi-billion dollar seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico and an important oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay.

“The Apalachicola is not just a local asset, it’s a national treasure that needs to be protected,” Tonsmeire said in a statement Thursday.

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Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jnkay.

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