Old King Coal's Legacy: Coal Ash in Alabama

Oct 21, 2015

All year long on Alabama Public Radio, we’ve been looking at water. Specifically, we’re reporting on the state of Alabama’s water supply and the health of our rivers. It’s a story of politics, pollution, and the obvious need that water is there when you turn on the tap.

Today, the topic is pollution. We'll look at how the state’s poorest communities are often hit the hardest by toxic chemicals, and how efforts to help may end up further hurting one Alabama town…

There’s a welcome sign at the city limits of Uniontown, Alabama. It reads it’s a “nice place to live.” This community is in the heart of the state’s impoverished black belt region. Along with the local Dollar General, the feed store, and the town auto shop, residents of Uniontown say they have a coal ash problem.

“Oh, it’s a funky smell. It smells really disgusting.”

Esther Calhoun has lived in Uniontown for 20 years.

“I smelled it about three weeks ago when we went out to the landfill, It makes you gag, it really makes you sick.”

Calhoun is referring to the Arrowhead Landfill just outside of town, and she’s not the only one complaining.

“I thought I was moving to a nice, safe environment."

Uniontown resident Ben Eaton is a retired school teacher.

“And to face this…we have a number of problems that need to be taken care of. And the landfill is top priority.

The Arrowhead Landfill brought Uniontown residents together for a community meeting. Esther Calhoun organized the event for the group Black Belt Citizens’ Fight for Health and Justice. She says supporters of the landfill promised good paying jobs, and that happened—but only for a while.

”But the thing about it, if you talk to some of them now, they really hate it because they didn’t really know what it was doing to the community. They really didn’t know, because they were getting a lot of money. A thousand dollars a week is a lot of money. And those who think about it now, the jobs didn’t last very long. It was to plan it, and go.”

The situation took another turn nearly seven years ago. 5 million tons of coal ash spilled after a dam ruptured in Kingston, Tennessee. It was called the worst spill of its type in history.

The hazard posed by coal ash takes a little explaining. Coal ash is the byproduct of coal fired power plants. It contains chemicals like mercury, cadium, and arsenic.

“When you put coal ash in water, contaminants will be easily leached out from the water, and if you have effluent in coal ash ponds, those effluents could be enriched in those contaminants.”

Dr. Avner Vengosh specializes in coal ash pollution at Duke University.

Tennessee’s problem became Uniontown’s when millions of tons of coal ash was stored at the Arrowhead landfill.

“It was dumped right in a black community, right in front of their homes. That was terrifying."

Esther Calhoun:

"‘Cause my neighbor, she lived right there and she was an older lady, she was like 72, and she would sit on that porch and she was terrified just looking at it. You know, I can’t go anywhere because this is mostly a poor residence. I can’t move, where am I gonna go?”

The owners of the Arrowhead Landfill say the facility has a system of liners underneath and vegetative cover on top to keep the chemicals contained. They also claim it's tested regularly to make sure everything is safe.

The Kingston spill isn’t the only possible source of coal ash that has environmentalists worried.

The Gorgas Steam Plant, just north of Birmingham, is one of nine coal-fired power plants at work across the length and breadth of the state. Nationwide, plants like these produce a reported 150 million tons of coal ash each year. Avner Vengosh explains the situation.

“So what we have in the U.S. is a situation that we are protecting the sky because of preventing emission of metals and contaminants to the atmosphere. But at the same time, the level of contaminants in coal ash is being further concentrated.”

Vengosh isn’t the only person concerned about coal ash.

“We have over 44 coal ash ponds across the state,”

Adam Johnston is with the environmental group Alabama Rivers Alliance.

“Some of them are really close to drinking water supplies, and in the case of Gadsden, Alabama, there’s a coal ash pond 0.8 miles upstream of the drinking water intake for that entire community."

APR news asked Alabama Power on a number of occasions to comment on the coal ash situation. Each time, the utility declined a recorded interview. Off tape, Alabama Power says other forms of pollution like storm water runoff do more harm. The utility also insists that they monitor their coal ash along with state and federal inspectors. Vengosh says there’s a hole in those policies.

“Each of the coal ash ponds has what we call outfall, which is regulated by the state with respect to the volume of effluent that is allowed to be discharged from the coal ash pond into the rivers or lakes that are associated with those coal ash pond. However, the levels of contaminants in those effluents in the outfalls are not regulated.”

Back at the Uniontown meeting, residents talk about what life here was like before the Kingston Coal ash arrived and what it’s like now. Calhoun recalls dropping by one of her neighbors'.

“When I would go down there to visit, I couldn’t even sit out there, you know, in the yard. Mostly when you live in the country you sit on the porch, you hang your clothes out, all that changed. You have a garden, she used to have a little garden right in front of her house, all that stuff changed. “

Regulations are finally catching up. Just last month, the EPA imposed strict limits on the amount of toxic chemicals that can be released from ash ponds into waterways. Those caps will take effect in the next five years. In response, both the TVA and Alabama Power say they plan to eventually close their ash ponds, and power companies across the country are expected to follow suit.

The catch for communities like Uniontown is that the use of coal is expected to remain steady, and all that ash still has to go somewhere. On the top of the list is landfills – just like Arrowhead Landfill, which is already advertising itself to companies nationwide as the perfect place to send coal ash.

So for Ben Eaton, Esther Calhoun and all the residents of Uniontown, things may get a lot worse before they get better.