The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) hosted a public hearing last week on Alabama Power’s permit application to cap-in-place one of the largest coal ash ponds in North America. Under rules passed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2015, 21 million tons of coal ash at Plant Barry in North Mobile County must be remediated by either the cap-in-place method or by removing the material to an upland, lined landfill.
Alabama Power, unlike some other utilities in the South, has sought permits to meet the standards using the cap-in-place method at all its coal ash ponds statewide, in what has been touted as a safer, cheaper alternative to removal. The issue has become a political hot button in recent years, as opponents point to coal ash spills in other parts of the country and warn the existing pond at Plant Barry is already leaching toxic chemicals into the environment, while the site is also vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes. But not a single elected official attended the hearing in Saraland March 30 to make points for or against the plan.
Instead, the issue was argued by dozens of members of the public, along with representatives of community organizations and economic interests. All told, 33 people spoke in opposition of the application, 11 spoke in favor of it and four people were still on the fence.
Generally, supporters testified the cap-in-place method meets federal regulations, would be less environmentally destructive and would be safer for the community than removing the coal ash. Alabama Power has suggested removing the ash would take a daily convoy of 200 trucks 15 years to complete, while the material would likely be transported through underserved communities.
Opponents note ADEM has already fined Alabama Power for excessive groundwater contamination at the site, and the utility has not performed independent alternative analysis for the feasibility of recycling or relocating the ash. Further, evidence from an Alabama Power pond in Gadsden that was capped in place in 2017 suggests it continues to leach toxic chemicals including arsenic into the groundwater.
Alabama Power’s proposal is to treat and dewater the existing 600-acre ash pond and consolidate the remaining coal ash into a 267-acre footprint, creating a larger buffer from the edge of the Mobile River. Further, the utility proposes to construct a redundant dike system, flood-protection measures, a subsurface retaining wall around the consolidated ash, and internal drainage and stormwater systems. The pond will be capped with a synthetic barrier.
The utility’s closure plans statewide are estimated to cost more than $3 billion as proposed, a cost that is already being passed onto consumers through rate increases. The company is also required to monitor groundwater around the facility for at least 30 years.
In a statement announcing the public hearing concerning Plant Barry and other sites around the state, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur pointed out the department does not dictate to the power company which method of closing the coal ash to use — capping it in place or excavating it and transporting it to a landfill.
“Federal and state rules leave that decision to the utility, and Alabama Power has chosen to cap in place,” LeFleur said. “ADEM’s role is to ensure those plans meet federal and state standards and provide the safeguards necessary to prevent spills and protect waterways and groundwater. The decision on whether to grant the permit will be driven by the data. We certainly welcome comments from the public, particularly as they relate to details of the plan. That’s why we’ve extended the comment period to seven days past the public hearing. We will evaluate all the comments and address all pertinent points.”
Written comments were accepted until 5 p.m. April 6. According to ADEM, all comments received at the hearing, via email and mail will be reviewed and a response to comments will be prepared as part of the official record. Then a determination will be made regarding the permit. The permits will not be voted upon in a public meeting. Below is a selection of comments from speakers at the March 30 public hearing.
OPPOSING THE APPLICATION
Arthur Gonzales, Mobile
“The impact on Alabama’s Power’s bottom line is simply not worth the impact of the next great disaster for the people and the wildlife of the Mobile area and the Gulf region.”
Jeremy Milling, Mobile
“So much of what we depend on and enjoy in our area is tied to the Mobile River and leaving the coal ash pond along the banks of the river puts all of that in jeopardy, which is completely unacceptable.”
Casi Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper
“Closing the coal ash pond in groundwater is in violation of the CCR [Coal Combustion Residuals Rule]. It cannot be done and there is no way to keep that coal ash from being re-wet because it is kept in groundwater. We have an opportunity and responsibility to do the right thing.”
Luke Adams, radiologist, Mobile
“Having friends and relatives that have suffered from cancer and knowing people in this area that have developed cancer, knowing the material in this ash causes cancer and the way it’s sitting allows it to continue to flow into the environment … There’s no telling how many cancers I’ve seen personally in 22 years of practice are related to this coal ash.”
William Mitchell Cunningham Jr., Baldwin County Democratic Executive Committee
“We have a national treasure … let’s don’t risk it. Alabama Power should be required to move their coal ash to modern, lined, upland landfills, properly managed. Let’s not play Russian roulette with coal ash.”
Clint Martin, Mobile
“The fact that we are here tonight even to consider issuing a permit to cap in place coal ash leaching toxic chemicals into our groundwater already, that sits on the banks of Mobile River which flows into one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the nation … to me is pure idiocracy.”
Tim Jones, Baldwin County
“Alabama Power was fined by the state maximum for a capped-in-place pit in Gadsden because it leaks … If Alabama Power cannot properly address this issue on a much smaller scale in a more stable environment, why are we trusting them to do the same in an area some call North America’s Amazon River Basin?”
William T. Chambers, minister and pastor, Creola
“I think Plant Barry has been and is now a great corporate neighbor … But that ash pond needs to be moved. We have a chance to avoid a catastrophic disaster before it happens. We have an obligation to preserve the delta and the bay right now.”
Keith Johnston, Southern Environmental Law Center
“This should never be the site of a permanent waste facility. Especially one with known toxic pollution that Alabama Power cannot control. ADEM would never permit a facility in an area like this today, but for the fact that the utility made the decision to put this there a long time ago.”
Glen Coffee, Mobile
“We have a ticking time bomb with the coal ash pond … We’ve been lucky for 75 years. It’s just a matter of time before we’re going to have a failure. I don’t trust Alabama Power Company at all and I don’t trust ADEM.”
James Pritchitt, Baldwin County
“The science experiments as outlined in the permit application and the idea of leaving the coal ash in place at the Barry site in Bucks are dangerous, if not also criminal. Removal of the dangerous, heavy-metal-laden coal ash and proper disposal away from sea level … is the only long-term, safe, guaranteed solution for centuries.”
Cade Kistler, Mobile Baykeeper
“Cap-in-place closure has thus far failed to stop ongoing groundwater pollution around the country and in Alabama. In the best case, closure in place is not a solution — it’s pushing the problem on someone else.”
Riva Fralik, Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship Environmental Action Committee
“Although it may be legal to cap it in place, the potential for disaster remains … A deadly ash flow into the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta of epic proportions, full of toxic, radioactive, heavy metal elements will destroy the bay for a long time.”
Lindsey Dixon, Spanish Fort
“My main concern is it’s already leaking. I want that water to be safe for my family. I have two children who love spending time on Mobile Bay and being in the water. I have to consider their safety and whether that natural resources will be there for them. Please deny this permit to cap it in place.”
Nicholas Williams, Baldwin County
“The delta is a special place … the biodiversity is astounding. We have a chance to see what happens to communities when they don’t prioritize protecting their wild places, and we have a choice to try to do it right this time.”
Lella Lowe, Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition
“Coal ash contamination of the Mobile River and nearby groundwater has serious implications for often low-income communities who rely on freshwater seafood and other wild game for subsistence protein consumption. Considering those most at risk … leaving the polluting substances in the ground is an outrageous proposal that ADEM must reject.”
Scott Snyder, Daphne
“This is really a generational decision … Without the removal of the coal ash, they’re going to be faced with this continuing environmental challenge that is going to have to be addressed at some point in time.”
Catherine Hastings, Fairhope Friends
“We think a cleanup [of a spill] would be absolutely disastrous. We know it would devastate the community nearby, it would affect the Tensaw delta, the economy in the Mobile area in the areas of fishing, recreation and tourism and most of all … we might end up with a loss of life.”
Jessie McDaniel, Mobile
“As a corporate citizen, Alabama Power does have a responsibility to manage this situation safely. If we can put a man on the moon, and all these other states have figured out a way to move the coal ash to a safe landfill … we can do that here.”
Benson O’Conner, Mobile
“This is a major river system in a swamp, where flooding happens every year … the site itself is in unlined groundwater … there’s just too much at risk downstream from this location, even if you take the environment out of it entirely. The entire economy of the region depends on the port.”
Sam St. John, Mobile
“The proposed Barry cap-in-place plan does not appear to satisfy any of the [CCR] requirements. I’m a stockholder in Southern Company and have been for 35 years. My dividend is gonna be the same whether they’re spending $2 billion or $3 billion. I’m just asking that ADEM have Alabama Power do the right thing for the citizens and for the laws of our country.”
SUPPORTING THE APPLICATION
Wiley Blankenship, Coastal Alabama Partnership
“This is something we’ve looked at very closely and we do support the close-in-place method approved by the EPA. We feel like it would be more dangerous if it were removed due to things like trucking incidents, accidents, over the course of many many years.”
Patrick Cagle, Alabama Mining Association
“[I] would not support this permit if I thought there was a chance that closing the Barry impoundment in place would negatively impact the coast and the fish I love to harvest and feed my family. The real risk to our coast and the Gulf is delaying action.”
David Rodgers, Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce
“Alabama Power has been a top-notch corporate citizen for this community and for the state of Alabama, with well over 100 years of service to this state and the economic wellbeing creating hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs in all of our communities. Mobile would not be where we are without the efforts of Alabama Power in our community.”
Larry Marrihew, Warrior Tombigbee Waterway Association
“Our river system has to be safe and efficient. We’re satisfied … that the proposed permits should not impact the river system in any negative way.”
Blake Hardwich, Energy Institute of Alabama
“It is important for the public and ADEM to know and understand that closing in place is a legal and safe approach for dealing with coal ash. Opponents of closure in place have tried to depict this approach as illegal and uncommon; more than half the coal ash in the South is being closed safely in place rather than being trucked through and to communities and compounding other environmental issues.”
Rickey Kornegay, Alabama AFL-CIO
“It’s estimated it would take at least 200 truckloads per day for the next 15 years to remove and transport it somewhere else. I believe Alabama Power has spent years researching the safest way to close the Plant Barry coal ash site and I have decided closing in place is the safest method.”
Allen Henry, Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association
“I support Alabama Power’s permit to seal in place their coal ash ponds because I trust their commitment to safety and to the environment shared with all of us.”
Jennifer Denson, Partners for Environmental Process
“Alabama Power has developed a workable plan to cap the ash in place. This plan complies with all state and federal guidelines and in fact, goes above and beyond what is required.”
Jonathan Hale, Prospect Mining
“I, for one, will always be in favor of safe engineering practices to solve any problems before us. I will not be in favor of something because some environmental groups want to make it as expensive as possible to operate the coal-fired units.”
Seth Hammett, Energy Institute of Alabama
“Those of us that work in this industry live here ourselves and many of us have children and grandchildren that live here. And we would not promote anything that would be dangerous to our families.”
UNSURE OF SUPPORT OR OPPOSITION
Robert Kennedy Jr., Mobile
“We know that everything that is made at some point in time will fail … I’m asking that a little more due diligence be done so we can truly understand as a customer what the impact is to us monetarily but most importantly, which of the options would actually mitigate the risk.”
Stephen Nodine, former Mobile County Commissioner
“I don’t see any representatives from Mobile County or any other elected officials over this most important matter. It concerns me greatly because this is an issue that will affect many aspects of our health and welfare. What can we do to achieve a compromise in this matter? I do not believe trucking it out would be a plausible thing … and capping it obviously has its drawbacks.”
Lee Barron III, MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians
“There have to be more solutions to this problem rather than saying we need to remove it or we need to leave it in place … The solutions haven’t been given to me or our representative in the community.”
Rhoda Vanderhart, Mobile
“I’ve not yet made up my mind what the best solution to this horrible problem is, but I know that we as a society are all complicit as we have mindlessly pursued and consumed cheap energy for many generations, without much thought of the future.”
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