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Alabama Power's statewide coal ash plan concerns environmentalists

APR's Pat Duggins

The argument drags on over what to do with coal ash in the Mobile area. A public hearing was held last week on a plan by Alabama Power. The utility company wants to busy coal ash in an existing pit at its plant Barry facility. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is now deciding whether or not to issue a permit to allow Alabama Power to do that. We spoke with all sides on the issue for this report.

Alabama Power’s plan to trade coal ash ponds and use coal ash pits would apply all over the state. The utility company wants to cap and seal coal ash ponds at six plants across Alabama. Environmental groups are crying foul since that would leave the ash next to rivers and waterways. The ball is now in the court of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The agency appears to be already siding with Alabama Power on the matter.

“The closure and cleanup will be developed in accordance with plans that have been developed after many months of review and revision by the department and power companies,” said ADEM director Lance Lefleur. His comments come from a video on the agency’s website. “The public is encouraged to make their comments. All comments will be considered before the permits are made final,” said LeFleur.

Credit ADEM
ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Last week’s hearing in Mobile was the public’s chance to speak out about Alabama Power’s plan for Barry Plant. It’s located 25 miles north of Mobile. The six hundred acre coal ash pond stores more than twenty million cubic yards of wet coal ash on the bank of the Mobile River.

“In our case, we've been putting coal Ash into a pit alongside the Mobile River for about 75 years,” said Casi Callaway executive director of Mobile Baykeeper.

She says it’s dangerous to keep ash close to the river.

“So it's now 22 million tons in a just shy of 600-acre coal ash pit area. So it's a lot of ash, a lot of heavy metals, a lot of toxic pollutants. All right there surrounded by the Mobile River, which is a really fast-moving river,” Callaway said. “Alabama Power is going to leave their coal ash on the side of our river. They're going to put a cap on top of it, and they're calling that acceptable. They're going to shrink the footprint a little bit, but they are not putting a liner underneath the ash. They are not doing anything more substantial around the dam. They are going to essentially leave coal ash on the side of our rivers in harm's way of a hurricane.

Credit APR
Mobile River bridge

Beth Thomas is the community affairs manager for Alabama Power. She says approximately 60 percent of the total volume of coal ash in southern states is being closed in place.

“Our closure plan includes removing all of the liquids from the pod, placing the material behind engineered dikes and covering it with an impermeable cap,” said Thomas. “The cap will securely seal the site in place. It doesn’t matter if we close the pond by removal or cap in place, we are still required to meet the same groundwater standards.”

Here’s why environmental groups are on edge over coal ash. Back in 2008, a dike broke at a coal ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. The accident released billions of gallons of coal ash slurry spill and created an environmental disaster. The government responded by ordering utility companies to close coal ash ponds. The ash has to go somewhere. And that’s why Alabama Power wants to bury its coal ash in a pit. But, here’s the rub, The Barry plant pond is five times bigger than the Kingston, Tennessee pond which created the issue.

“So we know a catastrophic event would have massive dollar impacts on our economy, our quality of life, our health and our reputation,” said Casi Callaway.

Mobile Baykeeper is a financial supporter of Alabama Public Radio. While the debate drags on over Alabama Power and its coal ash, there are more than just environmental groups who sound concerned.

“My experience was that plant operators and utility executives are overconfident about their ability to keep the public safe with coal ash,” said Richard Moore, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. He was the Inspector General for the Tennessee Valley Authority at the time of the Kingston spill. He says it’s a bad idea to leave coal ash by a river forever.

The TVA Kingston Power Plant, 2015

“They're not objective because there's money involved,” said Moore. “It was clear in TVA's case that they had minimized the risk. They were looking to cut corners and save money on maintenance. It was a combination of things that ultimately led to the infrastructure failure at Kingston. The rule of infrastructure is that infrastructure fails. If you have infrastructure failure at a coal ash pond, it can be catastrophic. I think Alabama Power is being overly confident about not being likely that a hurricane would push water that far up the Mobile River and breach the facility and the coal Ash pond."

Moore saw a pattern of overconfidence while working with TVA executives and engineers off and on for 14 years.

“I saw those kinds of patterns where they're overconfident about their ability to make it safe. They tend to say this not about the money. But they're cutting costs and cutting corners. When they say it's not about the money, um, it's about the money,” said Moore.

Beth Thomas with Alabama Power says the utility company’s plan is designed to meet and exceed the legal requirements. “We have spent years evaluating the best possible choice for the coal ash site,” said Thomas.

“We have gotten expert input from independent third party engineers and geologists. We decided that close in place is the best alternative that is offered by the EPA. Our closure plan is designed to meet and exceed the legal requirements. The plan has been closely studied by widely recognized independent experts who have determined it is both safe and effective," said Thomas.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management gave the public seven minutes to speak out for or against the permit for capping during the public hearing. Alabama Power is proposing to treat and remove water from the 600-acre pond at the Barry Plant. The plan is to reduce the size by close to three hundred acres and remove material farther from the waterway. If that works, the utility says there will be a larger buffer from the river’s edge. The company is also proposing additional flood protections. Alabama Power says this is a safer method than trucking the ash to a landfill. The State says it will issue the final permits sometime later this year.

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