During the reporting process for this series of stories on the closure plans for the coal ash storage pond at the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant in Mobile County, Lagniappe sent a series of questions to the plant’s owner and operator: Alabama Power.
Questions were sent via email to Michael Sznajderman, who works in Alabama Power’s public relations department. All of those questions and Sznajderman’s answers are listed below. Some have not been addressed in published stories but will be used in future reports in this series.
Q: Alabama Power was fined for groundwater contamination at six of its power plants across Alabama including Plant Barry in 2018 and was recently fined for similar contamination at Plant Gadsden — which has already been closed using a similar cap-in-place method. How can Alabama Power assure residents of Southwest Alabama that the Ash pond at Plant Barry won’t continue to contaminate groundwater after it’s sealed in place?
A: The safety of our customers and the community is Alabama’s Power’s highest priority. Our employees live in these communities, too. We are committed to safely and permanently closing all our ash ponds and are committed to complying with all state and federal regulations. As of April 2019, the company has stopped sending ash to all its ash ponds.
Q: Can Alabama Power confirm the data regarding groundwater contamination provided on Mobile Baykeeper’s website: https://www.mobilebaykeeper.org/bay-blog/2019/6/5/new-interactive-maps-of-statewide-groundwater-pollution-reveal-threat-posed-by-alabama-power-power-south-coal-ash-pit Would you care to comment on the data or web mapping tool?
A: There is no new information in the maps posted recently by the Riverkeeper groups and Alabama Rivers Alliance. Alabama Power has proactively reported information about groundwater results to ADEM, as well as posting information for the public on our website.
Q: In 2010, the EPA rated the dam of the Ash Pond at Barry Steam Plant with a “significant” hazard level, though as I understand, that was primarily because Alabama is the only state that does not have its own dam safety agency or specific dam safety regulations. Has the EPA inspected the dam since 2010, and if so, did the hazard level associated with the dam at Plant Barry changed?
A: Alabama Power operated ash ponds for decades as part of its environmental controls. The company has maintained a rigorous ash pond inspection program for more than 40 years, including detailed dam safety inspections following the same standards applied to the dams at the company’s hydroelectric reservoirs. The company has never had a structural failure at any of its ash ponds.
Q: How often is the dam of the Ash Pond at Barry Steam Plant inspected and by whom? Are outside agencies ever involved in those inspections and do any of them result in public reports? Would you be willing to voluntarily release any internal reports regarding the dam or ash pond?
A: Every one of the company’s ash ponds has received a thorough structural inspection through EPA and received the highest rating available for safe and reliable operation. Each impoundment is inspected thoroughly on an annual basis by qualified, licensed professional engineers, with more frequent inspections (multiple times weekly) by plant personnel. If anything out of the ordinary was noticed, repairs would be made right away.
Q: Was any part of the dam separating the coal ash pond from the Mobile River constructed using coal ash or coal ash sludge? If so, how much was used and what percentage of the dam does it comprise? If not, can AL Power tell us what materials the dam is comprised of and in what percentages?
A: The ash pond at Plant Barry is designed to manage at least a 1,000-year rain event. No ash was used in the original construction of the dike at Plant Barry, but some ash was utilized in an extension of inner portions of the uppermost structure. The extension raised the dike to an elevation that is three feet above the highest flood elevation ever recorded at the site. The extension includes enhancements, such as the installation of structural geogrid material, for additional protection. Information about the history, safety and design, and stability of the ash pond, as well as emergency plans, are posted on the company’s website. Safety is a top priority at all Alabama Power facilities.
Q: Can you speak generally about all byproducts generated as a result of coal-fired power production Plant Barry? What chemicals (solid, liquid or airborne) does Alabama Power monitor and what are the acceptable levels of those byproducts?
Q: Is there a level of groundwater contamination Alabama Power considers above acceptable levels at Plant Barry? Is there a level that would be significant enough for Alabama Power to warrant a change in how it plans to cap and close coal ash ponds here and elsewhere in the state?
A: Alabama Power is committed to fully complying with all state and federal regulations and to maintaining open communication with the communities it serves. The company has proactively shared groundwater monitoring data from all our ash ponds with regulators, stakeholders, local governments, the community and media, and will continue to do so.
Q: Is Alabama Power required to (or does it voluntarily) maintain any kind of emergency plan to respond to a significant breach or leak in the dam of the ash pond, and is there any equipment or tools onsite to respond to such an event? Are there any particular times or events — hurricanes, floods, etc. — where Alabama Power would consider the threat of a spill more likely?
A: The ash pond at Plant Barry is designed to manage at least a 1,000-year rain event. The company expects to begin dewatering the Barry ash pond later this year. As Alabama Power moves forward on the closure of the Plant Barry pond and dewatering is completed, there is a decrease in risk from weather-related events.
Q: Are you able to comment on why some utilities in other states that are subsidiaries of Southern Company (i.e. Georgia Power) are choosing to excavate some of their coal ash materials? Georgia Power’s plan in particular calls for a mix of both, but the majority is excavation. Is there a reason why a different approach is being used here?
A: EPA rules for management and disposal of CCR sets out two options for the safe and effective closure of ash ponds, including the close-in-place method. EPA determined that both methods – close in place and close by removal – can be equally protective. ADEM regulations also allow close in place. All ash pond closure plans – be it Alabama Power or another utility – are site-specific. Alabama Power’s pond closure plan goes beyond the EPA-prescribed close-in-place methodology.
Here are some of the additional elements in the Plant Barry pond closure plan:
- Material will be excavated and moved farther away from waterways, creating buffers of up to 750 yards from the Mobile River – a distance in some places longer than seven football fields. The consolidation will reduce the size of the footprint by more than 250 acres, or by more than a third.
- Using advanced engineering, Alabama Power will construct a redundant dike system as part of the plant’s increased, robust flood-protection measures.
- The company will install a specially engineered barrier over the material to keep it safely in place.
- Stormwater systems will be added to manage rainwater runoff.
Alabama Power will monitor groundwater around the facility for at least 30 years to ensure ongoing protection of water quality.
Q: Has Alabama Power compiled any financial estimates or studies about the costs of closing the ash pond at Barry Steam Plant using a “cap-in-place” method and how long that would take? Have any similar estimates or studies been made for the possibility of excavating the material to a lined landfill instead?
A: Current estimates for the company’s ash pond closure program, including Plant Barry, put the price at more than $2 billion. Under current plans, the permanent closure of the Barry ash pond is estimated to take approximately 13 years. Based on industry estimates and our own review, close-by-removal would cost three to five times more and take three to five times longer to safely complete closure.
Q: Did AL Power ever have a plan to remove the coal ash from Plant Barry or any other facilities in the state? If so, why did it change?
A: In developing pond closure plans, Alabama Power reviewed site-specific conditions and other factors at all its plants, resulting in the decision to close in place, with additional safeguards and protections, including consolidation of the material into smaller footprints following dewatering. As part of its review, the company considered the close-and-remove option, but the company never changed its plans once determining to close in place with additional enhancements.
Q: Earlier this year, Alabama Power increased its rates by around 3 percent to pay for the costs of “compliance with federal environmental laws” regarding the closure of ash ponds. How much money will that generate for the company annually? Also, is the 3 percent increase across the board for all Alabama Power users including businesses and large industrial consumers? Will these costs sunset after compliance is achieved? One of the things we’ve heard from supporters of a cap-in-place method is that it would cause further cost increases if the utility was required to excavate those coal ash ponds. Is there any estimation of how much that increase would be if Alabama Power were to change course, and how that cost may be passed on to consumers?
A: Costs for ash pond closures, which are driven by federal mandates, are recoverable under Public Service Commission regulations. The costs must be justified to the PSC as reasonable and are one of many factors that go into determining rates. Should these mandated environmental costs be reduced over time, this would be factored into rate calculations.
Q: Considering that cleanups in Tennessee and North Carolina have each been in excess of $1 billion, not including potential damages from lawsuits related to health problems suffered by workers, why is cap-in-place a financially less risky method of handling this issue?
A: It is misleading to relay information about the coal ash accidents in Tennessee (TVA-Kingston) and in North Carolina (Duke-Dan River) in describing the ash pond at Plant Barry. The design, topography and conditions at those facilities are not comparable to those at Plant Barry.
Q: Are there any rules the company places on its employee political action committee? Where does the money for the PAC come from and does the company monitor which candidates receive that money?
A: The Alabama Power Employees State PAC is a voluntary organization that is funded and run by company employees. Employees may choose to make voluntary contributions to the PAC. The PAC is a way for employees to participate in the political process and support candidates who understand the issues that are important to Alabama Power employees, customers, and shareholders. The PAC does not contribute to PSC candidates or to members or employees of the PSC who are running for other offices. Company policy also prohibits employees and their spouses from contributing to PSC candidates, or to PSC members or employees who are running for other offices.
Q: Some have said removal and transportation of coal ash presents a danger and offer that as a reason for cap-in-place. What are those specific dangers?
A: As already noted, estimates indicate that closing by removal would add significant time and costs compared to closing in place. Under the law, the company has a maximum of 15 years to complete closure, including allowed extensions. Closing by removal also raises issues related to trucking materials for years and, likely, decades through multiple communities – raising the risk of road accidents, impact to road infrastructure and related costs, as well as issues of traffic and noise.
Q: Does Alabama Power have defined environmental initiatives? What are they and how have they been enacted or practiced in South Alabama?
A: Alabama Power has a strong record of working to protect the environment we all share. Over the past 15 years, the company has invested more than $4 billion on environmental controls at its power plants, resulting in significant reductions in emissions. The company also works with agencies and nonprofit partners to improve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species and conserve natural resources. In the Mobile area specifically, the company has worked with the Nature Conservancy, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alabama Wildlife Federation, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as other public and private partners on multiple initiatives. They include community and river cleanups, shoreline and habitat restoration, offshore artificial reefs and recycling. Other initiatives include supporting electric vehicle infrastructure expansion, supporting the installation of rain barrels in local communities and helping nonprofits and customers become more energy efficient. (See highlights, below.)
Participation and support for Mobile-area environmental initiatives:
- Helenwood Oyster Reef – Partnership with Nature Conservancy including financial support and employee volunteers who worked to repair and revitalize the reef at Helenwood Park off Dauphin Island Parkway. Project received an Environmental Stewardship Award from Partners for Environmental Progress in 2018.
- Lightning Point Restoration Project – Bayou La Batre. (Supported by the Alabama Power Foundation).
- Dog River Clearwater Revival – Alabama Power Foundation supported installation of one of the first Bandalong litter traps in Eslava Creek, one of the main tributaries of Dog River.
- Alabama Coastal Clean-Up – sponsored by Alabama Power for 20 years running; company volunteers also participate annually.
- Conservation Corps – Alabama Power Foundation partnered with Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and MLK Avenue Redevelopment Corporation to establish a Conservation Corps to help train low-income and minority young adults in environmental job skills and provide on-the-job training opportunities.
- Mobile Bay National Estuary Program – support for its comprehensive watershed management plan for D’Olive and Tiawasse Creeks.
- Electric vehicles – a partnership with City of Mobile and the University of South Alabama on EV charging stations downtown and on the university campus.
- Plant Barry Environmental Stewardship Team – Employee volunteers work on environmental service projects in the community. Projects include setting up a recycling program at the plant, installing wood duck boxes, and volunteering at Mobile County Water Festival, Splinter Hill Bog, Meaher State Park and the Mobile County School System’s Environmental Studies Center. The group received an Environmental Stewardship award from Partners for Environmental Progress in 2017.
- Renew Our Rivers – Local employees are among the volunteers at ROR cleanups in Mobile County. Renew Our Rivers, in which Alabama Power partners with lake organizations and others across the state, is celebrating its 20th year. Since the program began, more than 117,000 volunteers have removed 15.5 million pounds of trash from Southeastern waterways. This year, more than 30 cleanups are scheduled across the state.
- Dauphin Island Sea Lab – The company, Alabama Power Foundation and employee volunteers have provided support for more than 30 years.
- Alabama Coastal Foundation – The company, Alabama Power Foundation and employees have supported multiple Foundation programs for more than 20 years.
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