It is an inescapable truism that “watch-dogs” are essential for the well being of us all. Too often those who are motivated by financial gain, expedience or power, seek to circumvent the laws and structures that serve to protect citizens and the environment.

And so we have the many organizations (and individuals) that devote their time and effort to remaining steadfastly vigilant. They don’t look for “issues” – they simply function as entities that can be contacted and called to action when questions and concerns arise.

That being said, as co-founder and long-time Chair of the St. Marys EarthKeepers, a matter was recently brought to my attention. A sharp-eyed observer noticed a huge number of heavily-laden trucks trundling along the roads leading to a section of roadway in close proximity to the tributaries of the St. Marys River: a lovely and delicate waterway that rises from the Okefenokee Swamp and makes its tannin-rich, blackwater journey to the sea.

Countless emails, hours of research and several phone calls later, this is what has come to light so far:

On June 29, 2011, Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) submitted a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Department (EPD) requesting a one-time variance from the state’s Solid Waste Management Act requirements in order to conduct a test project that would “demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of the use of EZBase (a coal ash product) as a roadway construction material in Georgia.” (Translation: They have mountains of toxic coal ash and hope to find a way to get rid of it).

On September 12, 2011, JEA submitted a revised Sampling and Analysis Plan. Sampling under this plan includes a baseline analysis of the soil and water at the project location and quarterly sampling for at least one year after EZBase is applied – including tests for the following “target analytes”: aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, vanadium, sodium, sulfate, chloride, fluoride, and pH.

The GaEPD granted the variance on May 31, 2012 and JEA proceeded to apply EZBase to approximately five miles of road on Rayonier Forest Resources, L.P.’s property in Charlton County, Georgia during the months of Sept.-Oct. 2012. The first of the four quarterly samplings under JEA’s Sampling and Analysis Plan should occur sometime in Jan. or Feb. 2013.  (It should be noted that the test wells and sample tests are being funded by the JEA itself).

Meanwhile, in the course of digging through the many mind-numbing layers of regulation and documentation, I discovered that EZBase has been applied at a least four locations in St. Marys, Georgia: Osprey Cove Golf Course, Cumberland Harbour residential development, the Cumberland Harbour fire department parking lot and The Reserve at Park Place. (It was subsequently removed from the golf course cart paths as a condition of the sale of the property.  A resident informs me that the paths were crumbling and people were complaining of headaches and respiratory issues). EZBase has also been used on the roads of the Bridge Pointe development (Camden County).

Apparently the JEA provided SGC Inc. (involved in the development of most of the properties listed) with EZBase at no cost. The product was also delivered, free of charge, to Osprey Cove. Kingsland, our neighboring city, has also used EZBase (without satisfactory results) and it is expected that further inquiries will reveal that many more communities are likewise affected.

The unsuspecting residents of these areas have now been alerted as to the presence of EZBase and they face the potential ramifications: plummeting property values, re-sale impacts and health concerns. No variances were granted in the above cases.

EZBase contains a legion of toxins, including arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, vanadium, cobalt, boron and at least 12 other heavy metals. In high concentrations, these metals may cause birth defects, lung disease, nervous system disorders and a battalion of other serious health problems. Indeed, the material is so hazardous that it has to be contained in specially-lined holding areas of landfills and disposal is expensive. (JEA now charges $50 per truckload delivery (about 20-25 tons). The utility had previously paid about $625 to dispose of that amount).

EZBase (industrial solid waste) is not allowed in residential areas, near schools, in proximity to wetlands, water sources or wells. The federal Environmental Protection Agency supports “beneficial reuse of otherwise hazardous waste” but admitted late last year that there hasn’t been enough testing done to determine the safety of coal ash byproducts. For the past two years the agency has been considering whether or not to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.

So to sum this up: the JEA applied for a one-time variance to test (on the Rayonier property near the St. Marys River in southern Georgia) the safety of a highly questionable and unproven coal ash product and yet the utility has apparently been marketing to and supplying developers and property managers with the material for several years. Without the knowledge of, or permission from, the GaEPD.

This issue impacts our economy, our property values, our health and our environment. As is usually the case, there are more questions than answers at this time. Certainly there is one man who fervently wishes that he’d never heard of EZBase: Steve Johnson.

Over two years ago, he consented to the no-charge delivery of 16 tons of coal ash material (marketed as EZBase) and applied it to the roads on his 30-acre property in Middleburg, Florida. Now his land is virtually worthless and he fears for the health of his family. 2010 soil samples indicated that the arsenic levels on Steve’s property were 4 times the acceptable state level while the vanadium content exceeded 75 times the state standards for safety.

How many more people and areas will be impacted by the application of a material that has yet to be proven safe? How many are, unknowingly, affected now? From a report issued by the Florida Department of Environmental protection (dated April 30, 2008):

“JEA began marketing this material in 2006 and over the past two years has sold approximately 700,000 tons of EZBase, or 30,000 tons per month. Approximately 300,000 tons of the material has been sold for use in Florida. The balance was sold for use out of the state. Some of the uses in Florida and southern Georgia have been for uncovered roads in rural applications. The plan was that these rural roads would be covered with asphalt at some future date. Some of these uncovered, rural road applications have resulted in dust complaints to the Department (due to the cementing properties of EZBase, it was not expected to cause a dust problem).”

Between 2006 and 2008, 400,000 tons of EZBase found its way to Georgia – even though the Georgia Department of Transportation de-listed “fly ash” products as acceptable road base materials in 2006.

Questions: How many thousands of tons since then? Why did they even bother with the variance for the Rayonier test site? “The plan was that these rural roads would be covered with asphalt at some future date.”: was there any follow-up to ensure that the roads were properly covered? Given all of the documentation regarding high levels of vanadium, arsenic etc., how can the JEA possibly justify or defend the shipping EZBase to residential developers – in some cases at no charge?

This appears to be a case of acting first and seeking permission later. I would strongly suggest that any Florida or Georgia citizen living near roads that have been paved since 2006 contact their city’s planning department – as well as their local leaders and state legislators.

Meanwhile, I think of the children playing in parks near these roads; the expectant mothers working in their gardens; the elderly couples enjoying their evening stroll; homeowners who assume that their property value will increase…none of them knowing that they may be paying a very high price for putting their trust in systems and businesses that sometimes place profit above public health and safety.

From The Sierra Club: “Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the toxic by-product that is left over after the coal is burned. All that ash has to go somewhere, so it’s dumped in the backyards of power plants across the nation, into open-air pits and precarious waste ponds.”

Apparently, it’s also being used to pave our roadways.


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Featured Image: The photo of the mountain of "EZBase" coal ash was borrowed from EyeOnMiami.blogspot.com
Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.