Photo | Courtesy of Baykeeper
The nearly 600-acre coal ash pond at Plant Barry as seen during a high-water event along the Mobile River.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) nationwide rule governing the “Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities” became effective in October 2015, it left electric utilities in Alabama, including Alabama Power, PowerSouth and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), with two choices. Using guidelines initially established five years earlier by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, utilities with unlined surface impoundments, like Barry Steam Plant’s coal ash pond, were required to either retrofit those ponds to incorporate a composite liner or, if the ponds did not meet the minimum requirements of a set of EPA performance criteria, close them within five years.
Along with a set of statewide regulations imposed by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), utilities that elected to close coal ash ponds were given the option of either excavating the material to lined landfills farther from the water table in a process of restoring the original disposal sites to a natural state, or dewatering and consolidating the material on-site, closing the ponds in a process known as “capping-in-place.”
According to a March 2016 letter from Alabama Power to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the utility sought a permit to upgrade a bridge at Plant Barry “to provide safe access for heavy earth moving and haulage equipment and vehicle access” to its coal ash pond, which “will be cleaned out and closed,” requiring “that ash material be removed and hauled away to a permitted solid landfill.” But sometime between then and November 2016, the utility changed course.
Noting that similar cap-in-place plans at six of its power plants were evaluated separately and are all site-specific, Alabama Power responded via email to a set of questions posed by Lagniappe to explain at Plant Barry, “estimates indicate that closing-by-removal would add significant time and costs compared to closing [or capping]-in-place.”
Under the law, company spokesman Michael Sznajderman wrote: “The company has a maximum of 15 years to complete closure … 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.”
Sznajderman said the company also considered that closing by removal would also raise “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.”
According to Sznajderman, Plant Barry’s coal ash pond stopped accepting new coal ash deposits as of April. The company’s latest annual inspection of the pond, completed last September, noted the 600-acre site was within 84 percent of designed capacity. Some 21 million cubic yards of coal ash now rests at the site, stacked as much as 34-feet deep.
Mobile Baykeeper, which has spearheaded a campaign against Alabama Power’s cap-in-place plans in coordination with similar organizations across the state and nationwide, claims recent testing at Plant Gadsden, which showed high levels of pollutants even after its pond was capped last year, proves the technique is ineffective at preventing groundwater pollution.
“Closing an unlined pit of toxic coal ash within several hundred feet of a major river is irresponsible when Alabama Power’s own data clearly shows that the ash is in groundwater,” Baykeeper Director Casi Callaway said. “The only solution that will guarantee the health of our communities, environment and economy is to dig up and move the coal ash to an upland, lined landfill away from vulnerable waterways.”
In Georgia, Alabama Power sister company Georgia Power is removing coal ash from 19 of its 29 ponds located adjacent to lakes or rivers. The result will be as much of 30 million tons of the company’s estimated 86 million tons of coal ash relocated to lined landfills.
At its Plant Bowen in the northwest corner of the state, 20 million cubic yards of coal ash sits in a 250-acre pond on the shore of the Etowah River. There, the company is constructing a new lined landfill where the ash in the unlined pond will be dewatered, excavated and capped.
According to a news release last August, Georgia Power reported the completion of closure construction activities and removal of all ash from a total of five ponds at four of its plants statewide.
“Throughout the closure process, the company has remained dedicated to protecting water quality and the state’s waterways by making, and refining, site-specific closure decisions that balance multiple factors such as pond size, location, geology and amount of material,” Georgia Power said of its various plans for coal ash pond closures.
Duke Energy, which was responsible for the 2014 coal-ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina, has also committed to removing ash from some its more environmentally sensitive sites in multiple states. As of 2018, the company had implemented plans to excavate five basins in North Carolina, one in South Carolina, three in Indiana and one in Kentucky. At the time, Duke Energy reported approximately 22 million tons of ash had been excavated, with more than 5 million tons moved in 2018 alone.
But in April, citing excessive costs and “disruptive excavation,” the company appealed an order by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to remove ash from an additional nine ponds there.
“We are already excavating our basins where it makes sense to do so and will close the remaining basins in a manner that protects health, safety and financial impact on customers,” said Duke Energy North Carolina President Stephen De May. “In the meantime, we are compelled to appeal this order, which is not supported by the scientific evidence, has significant procedural errors and would impose tremendous costs on customers without any measurable benefit.”
In March, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation requiring the removal of coal ash from unlined ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but also permitted the area’s electric utility, Dominion Energy, to pass the related costs along to customers. In Alabama, the Public Service Commission already allows utilities to recover “justified” costs of environmental mandates from customers and the Public Service Commission gave Alabama Power a 3 percent rate increase beginning in January of this year for the express purpose of closing its coal ash ponds.
Sznajderman did not answer questions as to how much money this 3 percent increase will raise for Alabama Power annually, but in previous media reports has said 1.4 million customers will see an average increase of $4.49 per month in their power bill. That would add up to Alabama Power already taking in an additional $75.4 million a year from customers to cover the cost of handling coal ash ponds. At that rate it would take Alabama Power more than 26 years to recover the $2 billion cost it claims cap-in-place will bring.
For its part, Sznajderman noted Alabama Power employees “live in these communities too,” stating “the safety of our customers and the community is [our] highest priority.” Stepping around specific questions about the results of its recent groundwater testing, Sznajderman wrote: “The closure plan is designed to address the results” of those tests. “If any issues arise following closure, the company would work closely with regulators to address them.”
Beyond the EPA’s cap-in-place requirements, Alabama Power reports additional voluntary measures it is taking at Plant Barry.
First, it claims coal ash will be excavated and moved farther away from Mobile River and smaller tributaries around the site, creating buffers of up to 750 yards. The consolidation of ash will reduce the size of the pond’s footprint by more than 250 acres. Alabama Power will also construct a ”redundant dike system” as part of the plant’s broader, flood-protection measures and install a ”specially engineered barrier” over the material to keep it safely in place. Storm water systems will also be added to manage rainwater runoff.
Sznajderman said the company is also committed to monitoring groundwater at Plant Barry for “at least 30 years” in spite of EPA studies indicating maximum contaminant levels may not peak at such sites for seven to nine decades.
“Based on evaluations to date, none of the results from groundwater monitoring poses a risk to neighbors, nearby waterways or water sources,” he wrote.
Go to lagniappemobile.com to see complete text of questions and answers with Alabama Power.
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