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Mobile Baykeeper, Alabama Power fight over what to do with coal ash

coal ash Alabama Power Mobile Baykeeper
Mobile Baykeeper | Flight provided by Southwings

Historically, coal ash pits have been a problem not only for our state but for several states across the country. For a long time, utility companies washed coal ash into big unlined pits.

Cade Kistler with the environmental group Mobile Baykeeper. Mobile Baykeeper is an underwriter for Alabama Public Radio.

“So the big problem is that we have coal ash across the US in these unlined pits," he said. “But what we found out was that…those toxic heavy metals were leaking out into the groundwater and subsequently the rivers that coal facilities are usually next to. And then eventually we started having some catastrophic spills because these are big earthen pits that are lined by nothing other than the soil underneath them next to rivers across the US so heavy rain and rivers and erosion- that is not great for a levy or earthen dam- we’ve seen that in different scenarios. ”

Those spills include pollutants like arsenic that the Centers for Disease Control say can cause a variety of cancers. Alabama Power produces coal ash as a byproduct of generating electricity.

It’s what the utility company does with the coal ash that is the issue with Mobile Baykeeper. The group says the most pressing issues seem to be twofold. One is groundwater pollution and the other is the possibility of a man-made catastrophe.

Mobile Baykeeper is not the only one who has a problem with this. Ben Raines is an author, filmmaker, and journalist who often focuses on Alabama’s environment.

“We’ve seen problems with these coal ash storage ponds before that they fail," he said. "We’ve seen them fail in a number of places, most famously in Kingston, Tennessee…where the dam at a TVA plant failed around the coal ash pond and about 3 million tons of coal ash spread out and dammed up and destroyed the Emory River.”

Raines is referring to a coal ash pond in Tennessee, but it’s the one on the Mobile River that involves Alabama Power and the utility was ready to respond, at least in writing. In an email to APR news, Alabama Power addressed several areas in which they do not see eye to eye with Mobile Baykeeper. As to a Kingston-style disaster happening in Alabama, the utility believes there is no factual basis to suggest something like that could happen here.

"The conditions that caused the TVA Kingston incident are demonstrably not present at Plant Barry, and there is no factual basis to suggest that something like Kingston could happen at Plant Barry or any of our sites." a spokesperson for Alabama Power said.

The event in Kingston was so catastrophic that it prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to write its Coal Ash Disposal Rule in 2015. Those new guidelines say utility companies have to cover up their coal ash or remove it. Through this rule, utilities are also required to report data on contamination.

Groundwater contamination has been a problem for Alabama Power. They were fined over $1 million for polluted groundwater in 2018. Their Plant Barry facility stores 21 million tons of coal ash on the Mobile River.

Alabama Power has two main solutions to this ash problem: how to contain it and how to deal with the groundwater pollution. The utility is covering the ash pond by what is known as cap in place to contain the ash. That means covering the coal ash without moving it to a lined container. They also have a method of fixing the groundwater pollution. It is called monitored natural attenuation. This method relies on natural resources to decrease the contaminants in the groundwater over time.

“We don’t think it’s going to work in the long run but even in their own assessment or corrective measures, Alabama Power says it may take decades," Kistler said. "It’s unknown how long it will take.”

In its email response to APR news, Alabama Power said, "Monitored natural attenuation has been recognized by EPA as an effective remediation strategy. As with any corrective measure, it is subject to site-specific investigation and verification. We have provided ADEM documentation of the effectiveness of our groundwater plans and are engaging in further dialogue with the agency."

Kistler said disagreements like these are what prompted Mobile Baykeeper to file an intent to sue.

This is kind of a last resort for us. This isn’t what we want to do is to go around filing lawsuits, but I’m still hopeful because this is a notice of intent to sue and what it allows is a 60-day period where AL Power can respond and perhaps we can find a way to resolve this issue,” he said. “This our effort to have the problem solved, to deal with the issue, and deal with the legalities of closing the pond in place— namely that the ash will stay in contact with groundwater and continue to pollute that groundwater.”

What is frustrating to both Kistler and Raines is that Alabama Power has taken a different approach than Georgia Power. Georgia Power has taken strong voluntary measures to clean their rivers. Alabama Power and Georgia Power are sister companies of the Southern Company.

“So, what’s happening with Alabama Power is they think that Alabamians are so stupid that we think it is OK to leave coal ash in the ponds here in Alabama even as the same company is pulling the coal ash out of the ponds in Georgia to protect the rivers in Georgia,” Raines said.

Alabama Power’s response: "As a requirement of EPA’s rule, closure by removal and closure in place must achieve the same groundwater protection standards. That means either approved closure method – closure by removal or closure in place – if implemented correctly can be equally protective of the environment. Each ash pond is different and presents unique characteristics, which is why our company, along with third-party independent experts, have closely studied our sites to deliver a closure solution that is safe and meets federal and state regulations. We are committed to continuing our safe closure of the ash pond within the permit we received this past year from ADEM...On background – while we don’t comment on the operations of our peer utilities in the Southern Company system, here is a look at Georgia Power’s closure plans."

Mobile Baykeeper says Alabama Power should excavate the coal ash from the unlined landfills and export it to safer, drier, lined landfills separated from groundwater and away from waterways or recycle it into cement and concrete.

“We’re impressed by what these utilities across the southeast are doing to protect their citizens and environment if these other utilities can do it too," Kistler said.

Alabama Power’s response: "Coal ash is a valuable byproduct that can be recycled into helpful materials, like cement. We actively market this product and recycle as much as possible. In 2021, for example, we recycled more ash than was produced from current generation. However, the volume stored at our six ash ponds is more than the market can absorb within regulatory closure deadlines."

As for the possibility of a catastrophic event, Raines says this added threat is because of the uniqueness of its location.

“This really comes to a head when you look at where Plant Barry is," he said. "It’s on the Mobile River. It is in the heart of the Mobile Tensaw Delta, which I have labelled America’s Amazon because it is the most diverse river system in North America, and it is not a close competition. Alabama is the leading state in aquatic diversity.”

Raines is not a fan of Alabama Power’s plan to cap in place, to cover the unlined landfill.

“It’s a terrible plan," he said. "There is no good plan that involves leaving 21 million tons of ash in an active river flood plain that floods every year and is flooding higher year over year with more damaging hurricanes.”

According to Alabama Power, "Local rainfall patterns were taken into account by the engineers who designed the Plant Barry ash pond dikes. Since 1965, 15 different tropical storms and hurricanes have passed within 50 miles of the plant site with no impact to plant operations or the ash pond. Even if there was an extreme “super storm” that caused 7 feet of flooding at the downtown airport, it still would not overtop the dikes at Plant Barry."

“Those heavy metals over time don’t disappear," Kistler said. "They’re going to be either in that pond or, from what we can tell, they are going to be leaking out into the groundwater slowly over time.”

Alabama Power’s response: "Mobile Baykeeper (was) informed that our plans were developed by independent experts, specializing in engineering and geology, to safely secure the material on the plant site. They also know that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management performed a robust review, concluded that the plan is safe and lawful, and issued a permit to Alabama Power. Alabama Power is executing closure in compliance with the permit under ADEM’s regulatory supervision."

Mobile Baykeeper’s intent to sue gives Alabama Power some time to respond.

Joe Moody is a senior producer and host for the APR newsroom. Before joining the team, Joe taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. He is a native of Montgomery and a proud Alabamian. He is currently studying library and information studies at the University of Alabama with a focus on archives. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys listening to jazz records and 45s from the 1950s and 60s.
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