Wilsonville Mayor Lee McCarty has become an improbable central figure in the ongoing discussion about how Alabama Power should deal with decades of spent coal ash at its various power plants across the Yellowhammer State.
The utility currently plans to “cap in place” 21 million tons of coal ash stored in an unlined pond at the Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County, but 230 miles to the north, some Wilsonville residents are concerned with a plan to leave an even larger ash pond in place along the Coosa River.
For the past couple of years, McCarty has been quite a vocal critic Alabama Power’s plan to de-water and cap in place 23 million tons of coal ash stored at its E.C. Gaston Plant, which has been a major economic driver in Wilsonville — a town of around 2,000 people.
Similar to what happened at Plant Barry, monitoring at the Gaston plant has shown that its 269-acre ash pond has leached arsenic into the groundwater. It was one of several Alabama Power plants that received $250,000 fines from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in 2018 on the first day that new federal regulations required utilities to disclose their groundwater monitoring results to the public.
Both ADEM and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules allow the pond to be closed in place like Alabama Power is proposing, but McCarty said he believes “it will pollute in perpetuity if it’s not moved.” And unlike Plant Barry, McCarty said people actually live close to Gaston.
“Plant Barry sits in an awful location for an ash pond, but Wilsonville is not much better,” McCarty said. “The ash pond here directly abuts the Coosa River, and in some ways it’s even worse than Barry’s because we’ve got people living much closer to the plant itself.”
Alabama Power maintains the plans for closing each of its coal ash ponds go “above and beyond” the requirements of both ADEM and the EPA. At Gaston, the company plans to treat and remove all of the water in the pond, create a 330-yard buffer between the ash and the river and create a redundant dike system as part of its “robust flood protection measures.”
However, environmentalists have expressed concern about that plan because the only facility Alabama Power has fully capped in place so far is still leaking arsenic and radium into the groundwater. That plant was fined $250,000 by ADEM for those violations in May.
McCarty also pointed out that many utilities in other Southeastern states — including Georgia Power, which is also owned by Southern Company – are excavating some if not all of their ash ponds, though many were forced to do so by lawsuits and mandates from state regulators.
Alabama Power, on the other hand, has maintained that excavating the materials from its ash ponds would be far more expensive, take years to complete and would cause long-lasting logistical troubles for moving the hazardous material on the state’s roadways.
“Those ponds in other states do tend to be smaller than the ones we’re talking about at Barry and Wilsonville. These are gigantic ash ponds, and I’m not an engineer or a logistical expert, but I can see it would be a massive undertaking to move them,” McCarty said. “However, they made the mess. This is a significant hazard to these communities that they’re leaving there forever.”
One thing McCarty has tried to do in his own community is to educate residents and other local leaders about coal ash. That has included efforts like bringing attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center to speak at town hall meetings. It’s worth noting that Alabama Power representatives were invited and did speak to residents at subsequent meetings.
Similar to efforts Mobile Baykeeper has made locally, McCarty has also worked to get other public bodies to adopt symbolic resolutions asking the utility to excavate its coal ash material to off-site landfills on higher ground instead of leaving it in place where it is.
At McCarty’s urging, the Shelby County Mayors’ Association passed such a proclamation earlier this year. He also pushed a resolution that led to the Alabama League of Municipalities encouraging ADEM to “adopt regulations requiring removal of coal ash” from ponds that are adjacent to bodies of water that would be patterned after rules adopted in other states.
Despite that, McCarty acknowledged he’s seen some pushback from his own community and constituents due to genuine disagreements and because of the stature Alabama Power and the Gaston Plant have in the community. He said it employs many people in the area.
“I would say a majority of people have listened to all of the disinformation that the power company puts out and they are wedded to the current, ultra-conservative mantra that anything the EPA does is bad,” McCarty said. “I’ve never voted for a Democrat for president in my life, so anybody who says I’m some kind of liberal whacko is crazy, but I also know facts and I know that this groundwater is contaminated and this coal ash is poisonous and potentially disastrous to my constituents’ health, safety and welfare. It has absolutely got to be moved.”
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