The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) recently greenlighted Alabama Power’s plan to “cap in place” its 593-acre coal ash pond at Plant Barry in North Mobile County, issuing a final determination of the utility’s initial permit and variance applications July 1.
Although the plan has not yet received the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the issuance of the ADEM permits marks the end of a years-long process in which Alabama Power sought to avoid a second option for remediating the pond under EPA guidelines: excavating the estimated 21 million cubic yards of sludge from the pond and removing it to an inland, lined landfill.
Instead, in an effort to save both time and money, the ADEM permit allows Alabama Power to cap the material in place, after it is dewatered and consolidated within the existing, unlined pond.
“Closure of the Plant Barry ash pond will be accomplished by capping in place,” ADEM noted in a response to comments on the application. “The closure performance standards described in [the state code] will be achieved by dewatering the unit to remove free liquids and interstitial water, consolidating the [material] to reduce the closure footprint farther away from waterways and capping the unit with a final cover system.”
More specifically, Alabama Power plans to reduce the size of the pond by roughly 45 percent, creating a buffer of as much as 750 yards from the edge of the Mobile River. The utility also intends to construct a redundant dike system around the pond, install flood-protection measures and a subsurface retaining wall around the consolidated ash, plus internal drainage and stormwater systems. The pond will be capped with a synthetic barrier, although the permit granted a variance for the minimum slope requirement on the cap.
The permit also requires Alabama Power to maintain a system of groundwater monitoring wells and corrective action requirements for 30 years after closure, but the pond will remain unlined.
During a public comment period that ended earlier this year, dozens of concerns about the proposal were raised including the pond’s proximity to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, existing groundwater contamination from heavy metals, post-closure care and environmental justice.
In issuing the permit, ADEM responded to these and other concerns by concluding the utility’s application “is in compliance with the applicable state and federal solid waste disposal requirements and thus, the denial, suspension or revocation is not warranted.”
Beth Thomas, a spokesperson for Alabama Power, said the EPA rules require the closure to be complete in 15 years and “we are on schedule to meet that target.” As part of the $860 million closure proposal, the utility has already constructed a water treatment facility on the site and begun the dewatering process.
“Dewatering at the plant is ongoing,” Thomas reported. “The company is using a mechanical treatment plant to support a successful dewatering process. This system is a sophisticated, state-of-the-art chemical treatment plant that utilizes multiple wastewater treatment steps. Once the water is removed, Alabama Power will consolidate the material moving it further away from waterways.”
Mobile Baykeeper Cade Kistler, who helped lead local opposition to Alabama Power’s cap-in-place plan at Plant Barry, said the permit issuance “merely pushes the likelihood of a catastrophic spill down the road, while the coal ash continues to contaminate water now.”
In 2018, ADEM fined the utility $1.25 million for groundwater contamination near six coal ash ponds, including Plant Barry. Testing continues to indicate elevated levels of arsenic and cobalt in the groundwater around Plant Barry, while a similar project to cap in place a pond at Plant Gadsden, completed in 2018, indicates pollutants continue to leach from the site, even after it was capped.
Kistler also pointed to efforts in other Southeastern states to remove coal ash to upland, lined ponds. ADEM dismissed similar comments by advising the state rule is “mirrored after” federal regulations.
“The federal rule … allows two methods for the closure of CCR [coal combustion residuals] surface impoundments,” ADEM concluded. “Closure must be completed either by leaving the [material] in place and installing a final cover system known as ‘cap in place,’ or by removal. The department evaluates each [coal ash pond] individually to determine if the permit application complies with the requirements.”
“Alabama Power is taking the path of least resistance and leaving their coal ash in place in one of the worst spots in the country, the flood- and hurricane-prone, amazingly biodiverse Mobile-Tensaw River Delta,” Kistler said. “This decision by Alabama Power puts the risk of a major coal ash spill on the people and environment of South Alabama rather than doing the right thing by cleaning up their toxic mess.”
The pond has been classified as exhibiting “significant hazard potential,” but ADEM concluded its structural stability and maintenance is currently “consistent with recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices.” The dam is inspected by Alabama Power staff at least once per week and certified by third-party engineers annually, the department noted.
Two of Plant Barry’s six generating units remain coal-fired, Thomas said, and all current and future coal ash is being deposited into a newer, lined pond on site. Separately, air and stormwater permits have been received for the proposed Unit 8 at Plant Barry, a 720-megawatt combined-cycle gas generator approved as part of a $1 billion expansion last year.
“The company is always evaluating our units based on our desire to provide reliable and affordable power to our customers,” she wrote.
Kistler said Baykeeper would continue to oppose the plan.
“ADEM’s permitting program has not been approved by the EPA and we believe Alabama Power’s plan does not meet the federal coal ash requirements,” he said. “Simply put, ADEM was wrong to grant this permit. We will continue to work with elected officials and the EPA to see this irresponsible plan stopped in order to protect our communities, economy and environment.”
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