The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is currently considering the issuance of three permits for Alabama Power’s Plant Barry in North Mobile County, including two for new facilities. A public hearing was held in Saraland Oct. 15, where Alabama Power General Manager of Environmental Affairs Mike Godfrey sought “prompt issuance.”
“Alabama Power is focused on providing our customers with reliable, affordable electricity and customer service while protecting the environment we all share,” he said. “Plant Barry plays an integral role in this mission, providing 2,370 megawatts to homes and businesses.”
The utility is seeking a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit for air emissions from a proposed combined cycle gas generator, a Title V “major source” operating permit for emissions under the Clean Air Act, and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for discharges from a planned wastewater treatment plant. The latter is being built to dewater Plant Barry’s nearly 600-acre coal ash pond, where more than 21 million tons of solid waste is stored on the banks of the Mobile River. A separate hearing, which has yet to be scheduled, will consider the company’s plan to “cap-in-place” the coal ash pond, rather than remove the waste to a lined landfill farther inland.
“The dewatering plan is specifically focused on ensuring the protection of public health and in-stream water quality throughout the ash pond closure process by requiring the collection and submission of additional water quality samples,” Godfrey told ADEM’s hearing officer. “Alabama Power will be using a mechanical treatment system at Barry similar to one used at Plant Gadsden during its successful ash pond dewatering process.”
The system is a “sophisticated, state-of-the-art chemical treatment plant” which is “highly engineered and controlled.”
Godfrey said the NPDES permit Alabama Power applied for is “more stringent” than those issued in the past, with more frequent monitoring of discharges and testing “on a host of new constituents that were not previously required.”
“Sampling for toxicity is now performed on a quarterly basis to ensure discharges have no observable effect on aquatic life,” he said.
But Cade Kistler, program director at Mobile Baykeeper, urged ADEM to tighten up its language on performance measures in the permit, specifically the amount of treated water the utility is allowed to discharge over time.
“Alabama Power in its dewatering plan states they will throttle flow to protect the integrity of the ash pond and to address changing site conditions as the ash pond volume decreases, but it’s not clear what that means quantitatively, and it’s not clear how enforceable a qualitative limit is,” he said.
With a max flow rate at 5.76 million gallons per day, Kistler claims Alabama Power can effectively discharge the entire 54 million gallons of water in the pond in just nine days.
“We believe the flow should have a quantitative limit in the NPDES permit and without a specific quantitative limit, there is no way to know how much of a pollutant could be or was released,” Kistler said. “So, without that, it seems to me ADEM can’t assure compliance with relative water quality standards.”
Kistler also urged the department to attach Alabama Power’s dewatering plan to the permit, and make it enforceable.
Regarding the PSD permit, Godfrey said the new gas generator “will be one of the most advanced combined cycle units in the world.”
He claimed with a “nominal generating capacity of 743 megawatts” the efficiency of the new unit “will also put downward pressure on the company’s air emissions including greenhouse gasses.” Godfrey further testified that Alabama Power has “already reduced air emissions significantly since 1996” with sulfur dioxide decreasing by 98 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions decreasing by 90 percent. Carbon emissions are also down 38 percent since 2007, he said, “and the company expects they will continue to decline.”
Using the same talking points, several partner agencies also testified on Alabama Power’s behalf.
Meanwhile, Keith Johnston, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, complained about the seven-minute time restriction for comments on the three permits, and ADEM’s lack of transparency by not livestreaming the meeting or allowing online participation. But he also suggested Alabama Power’s environmental record is not as laudable as the company would have you believe, and there is no reason to allow any leniency on permitting requirements.
“The NPDES is a very important permit,” he said. “This is a 67-year-old facility and that should be taken into consideration. Contamination has been emanating from this facility for so long that the Mobile River is impaired by mercury contamination from burning coal.”
The coal ash pond “has been polluting ground and surface water for well over 30 years,” Johnston added, while “pollution continues today and we know it’s coming from the Plant Barry site.”
Johnston also accused the company of failing to invest in the “best available technology.” He noted water used to generate electricity is discharged into the Mobile River at a temperature of between 108 and 112 degrees, which is lethal to some aquatic species. To combat the problem, much of the industry has adopted “closed-cycle cooling” technology which lowers the temperature of used water to ambient levels.
“If Alabama Power would just make the expenditure to go to closed-cycle cooling, they could avoid that variance,” he said.
In closing, Godfrey said, “We take our commitment to the protection of the environment very seriously. The protection of the Mobile River and air quality in South Alabama is a goal we share with all interested stakeholders.”
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