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Gulf coast activists remain wary following Alabama Power coal ash plan


A Gulf Coast Environmental Group says Alabama Power’s recent announcement to recycle coal ash into cement won’t put an end to its work. The Coal Ash Action Group, featured in APR’s investigative report “Bad Chemistry,” says it will stay vigilant as long as it believes Mobile Bay is at risk.

The Coal Ash Action group says it will continue to alert the public about the threat from coal ash despite plans by Alabama Power. The utility will partner with Eco Material Technologies to recycle coal ash stored at Plant Barry into concrete. Coal ash is what’s left after coal is burned. Action group co-founder Diane Thomas says the danger of a chemical spill remains.

“We don’t know if what’s left over will still be buried in the same location, and it’s predicted to take 30 years.” Thomas said. “So all of the coal ash sitting on the bank of the river is still at risk of inundating the Delta for a number of years.”

APR first met the members of the Coal Ash Action Group in November. Cori Yonge brought us this story during our ten-month investigation “Bad Chemistry,” which looked into industrial chemicals allegedly killing Alabama neighbors.

“We want that coal ash moved. We are educating people so people know how big the issue is,” said eighty- year-old Sallie Smith during “Bad Chemistry.” She’s is one in a trio of grandmothers taking issue with Alabama Power’s plans to close the pond in place. Despite a stage-four cancer diagnosis and being an Alabama Power shareholder, Smith co-founded the Coal Ash Action Group. It’s a grass roots environmental effort. Seventy-five-year-old Diane Thomas, whom you heard earlier, is another senior in the group.

“When we go out, we tell people there’s a ticking time bomb, 20 miles from the head of the bay,” she said.

Alabama Power has a state permit to cap the pond. That means the ash would stay at the water’s edge forever. But the women are worried the ecologically diverse tangle of rivers and streams feeding Mobile Bay is just one flood away from an environmental catastrophe.

“This pond contains 21 million tons of toxic sludge, covers an area of about 451 football fields. The only thing holding it back from the bank of the river is a dirt dike,” said Thomas.

Seventy-nine year old Savan Wilson is the group’s third co-founder. She’s in charge of social media.

“We also now have an Instagram. And we even have a thread account because they’re tied together,” said Wilson.

The women want Alabama power to mirror actions in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia where they’re moving coal ash to lined landfills. The group may get a boost from the EPA which recently held a public hearing in Montgomery. The agency proposes denying the state’s coal ash permit program. At the hearing, Susan Comensky, Alabama Power’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs opposed the denial.

“Alabama Power’s plans are safe, compliant with federal and state regulations, and protect human health and the environment,” she said.

But Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center takes sides with the seniors.

“The question in my mind is, if South Carolina can do it, can’t Alabama do it?” he responded during APR’s “Bad Chemistry” investigation. “If North Carolina can do it, can’t Alabama do it? If Virginia can do it and Georgia can do it, can’t Alabama?”

As far Alabama Power’s current presence along the Gulf coast, the utility has a permit to cap the ash pond in place. A spokesperson for the company says the recycling plans won’t change that. Coal ash is what’s left after coal is burned. Diane Thomas calls the move good news but isn’t declaring victory.

“We’re going to continue to make people aware of the toxic lagoon 25 miles up river, and I don’t really think our efforts are going to change except we will tell people Alabama Power is doing something different other than just burying the whole mess on the side of the river,” she said.

If you’d like to listen to APR’s investigation “Bad Chemistry,” just click below.

APR Graduate student intern Cori Yonge returns to journalism after spending time in the corporate world. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Journalism and Media Studies from The University of Alabama and is ecstatic to be back working with public radio. Cori has an interest in health, environment, and science reporting and is the winner of both an Associated Press award and Sigma Delta Chi award for healthcare related stories. The mother of two daughters, Cori spent twelve years as a Girl Scout leader. Though her daughters are grown, she still enjoys camping with friends and family – especially if that time allows her to do some gourmet outdoor cooking. Cori and her husband Lynn live in Fairhope.
Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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