The toxic spill was cleaned up, officials said. But that didn’t mean their back yards were safe.

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September 17, 2015 Cartersville - Portrait of Mitch Meade at his backyard, where was covered in toxic coal ash sludge in a 2008, in Cartersville on Thursday, September 17, 2015. Georgia has some 30 coal ash ponds, which contain a toxic slurry of contaminants from coal-fired power plants. When these ponds fail, they can unleash a torrent of liquid waste that can devastate communities, knocking homes off their foundations and forcing residents to flee permanently. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Mitch Meade’s backyard was covered in toxic coal ash sludge in a 2008. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The north Georgia hamlet of Euharlee is so close to Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen that residents of Covered Bridge Springs used to use its driveway as a short cut to get home. So when a hard rain in 2008 caused a man-made lagoon of toxic ash to overflow, the waste ended up in neighbors’ backyards.

Mitch Meade found out about the spill from company personnel.

“They had come up to the door,” Meade recalled. “I looked out back and it was all gray.”

Workers with heavy equipment spent the next few months carving out the top layer of soil at 14 properties and carting it away, according to Meade, other residents, and public records.  When they were done, the ground was covered in new soil and sod, a gully was lined with fat, white rock, and new trees were planted.

“It doesn’t look like it’s polluted,” Meade said. “They had people test it. They said they can’t find anything.”

But the real story is more complicated.

“I can’t tell you whether arsenic levels in the soil are safe,” a state environmental official told the AJC. “I can tell you that Georgia Power picked up everything that it spilled.”

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