The only thing between the Mobile River and the most catastrophic coal ash spill the United States has ever seen is a 21-foot-tall dirt and clay embankment.

This barrier is somewhere around four miles long and encloses a 597-acre pond filled with toxic ash more than 30 feet deep in places.

The “dam,” as the embankment is also called, is more than 50 years old, and was constructed by Alabama Power about a decade after the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant fired up its first coal-powered generator in 1954, becoming South Alabama’s primary source of electricity.

Plant Barry is about 25 miles north of downtown Mobile, in the heart of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and on a primary source of inflow for the Mobile Bay watershed. And that ash pond is now more than just a potential threat.

Earlier this month, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management fined Alabama Power and another utility, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, a combined $1.5 million for ongoing violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act at the Plant Barry Coal Ash Pond and five other sites statewide, including PowerSouth’s Lowman Power Plant in Leroy, about an hour north of Mobile.

But local environmental organization Mobile Baykeeper this week released the results of a two-year study of the Plant Barry Coal Ash Pond, indicating poor groundwater quality may be the least of the facility’s concerns. In addition to finding “frequent” discharges of illegal pollutants, independent analysis determined the pond at Plant Barry exists in an inappropriate area and carries a high potential for dam failure.

Alabama Power recently unveiled plans to close the pond, clean it and “cap it in place,” but Baykeeper believes anything short of digging up the ash and moving it to an inland, lined and capped landfill will leave the area vulnerable to a catastrophic flood and a cleanup effort that could take more than 10 years and billions of dollars to complete.

“I think it becomes very clear,” said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper. “We spent a little more than two years researching and making a careful study for what is the best option for public health, our environment, and the economy and it is evident there is groundwater pollution, river pollution and potential for catastrophe if we don’t move the ash off the river.”

The worst coal ash spill in U.S. history occurred in 2008 in Kingston, Tennessee, where a TVA-owned pond with similar construction to Alabama Power’s Plant Barry burst open, releasing more than 5 million cubic yards of ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers, also destroying homes along the waterfront and in a nearby valley.

In 2011, WE Energies fouled Lake Michigan with about 2,500 cubic yards of ash after a cliff collapsed at a coal ash pond near Milwaukee. And in 2014, a Duke Energy coal ash pond in Eden, North Carolina failed, spilling some 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

Each of those facilities are substantially smaller than Plant Barry, which has deposited more than 21 million tons of coal ash in its pond over the last five decades.

“The Kingston, Tennessee coal ash breach was 10 years ago and has cost $1.2 billion in cleanup,” Callaway noted. “It is 80 acres and our site is 600 acres, so do the math. The other way to look at it is this site [contains] 20 times the material that was spilled in the BP oil spill disaster … If there is a spill, industry will close, there will be no shipping, you could close the Port of Mobile, destroy fishing, hunting and recreational grounds in Mobile and Baldwin counties, and destroy the entire quality of life around coastal Alabama.”

Courtesy Mobile Baykeeper | The 597-acre Plant Barry coal ash pond sits in an oxbow of the Mobile River. Over 50 years, more than 21 million cubic yards of coal residual has been disposed of in the pond.

Industry regulation
In the wake of the Kingston spill, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted new regulations for the disposal of coal ash, known in the industry as “coal combustion residuals” or CCRs, directing many utilities to clean and close existing ponds. In response to the new regulations and incidents involving breaches nationwide, several utilities in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina voluntarily chose to excavate their existing ponds, moving the ash inland and disposing of it in landfills.

Alabama Power spokesperson Michael Sznajderman confirmed there are no such plans at Plant Barry, suggesting the cap-and-close process currently underway at its CCR pond in Gadsden will serve as a benchmark for a similar process at Plant Barry.

“The bottom line is we looked at the options … and when we talk about ‘close-in-place,’ what we really mean is closing the pond and in every case consolidating the material, removing the water, treating the water, the ash is then dried and consolidated so the footprint will ultimately be smaller,” Sznajderman said. “We’re still fine tuning but the footprint will be 30-50 percent smaller before the ash is capped. Then we will continue to monitor it to ensure everything stays where it is supposed to stay.”

The dam at Plant Barry is actually an “engineered perimeter embankment,” generally constructed of “stable organic clays overlying medium dense to dense sands,” according to Alabama Power. Roughly the shape of a gradual, inverted “U,” the dam is covered with a two-foot layer of “sandy clays and clayey sands” and topped with vegetation — namely grass — which is managed so the dam can be inspected.

In the entire 597 acres, there is a single discharge point — a 48-inch pipe near the southern border, where according to Alabama Power “initial analyses indicated that the pond did not have sufficient spillway and storage capacity to adequately manage flow during and following the peak discharge from the 1,000-year storm.”

Hurricane Harvey, which inundated South Texas with as much as 50 inches of rain in places over four days last year, was a 1,000-year storm.

Alabama Power itself, in a 2013 operational plan, admitted parts of Plant Barry’s property including portions of the CCR pond are within 100-year floodplains. But the utility claims the southern dam embankment has been raised to compensate for the vulnerability, and the pipe was recently upgraded with “cementitious materials” and found to be free of deficiencies.

Still the EPA has assigned the pond a “significant hazard potential” classification, indicating that while there is “no probable loss of human life” in the event of a failure, “there is a potential for economic loss or environmental damage.”

The last annual surface impoundment inspection was conducted in November by an internal engineer, who estimated there were 21 million cubic yards of CCR in the pond at the time, an amount that would — to use a cliché — fill more than 6,363 Olympic sized swimming pools. The figure increased from 15.7 million cubic yards of CCR observed in the pond just two years ago.

The pond is unlined, meaning even after it cleaned and capped, contaminants may still seep into the groundwater below.

When Alabama Power’s plans for Plant Barry were announced in 2016, Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) Birmingham office said, “allowing coal ash to be left in unlined pits that are submerged in groundwater and next to our rivers is not a cleanup plan, nor does it protect the people of Alabama. Moving the coal ash from Plant Barry to dry, lined storage away from our rivers and out of our groundwater is the only solution that we know works to stop this type of pollution.”

Baykeeper’s new report, compiled with the assistance of the SELC and Waterkeeper Alliance, goes into more detail, suggesting testing at the site has uncovered elevated levels of arsenic, calcium, strontium, TDS, barium, selenium, aluminum, iron, manganese, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, vanadium, lead, sulfate and sulfur around the site and in the soil, and selenium and lead were found in exceedance of ADEM’s ecological standards.

“EPA ecological water standards were exceeded for arsenic, lead, barium, selenium, vanadium, cadmium, manganese, aluminum, copper, calcium, and iron, arsenic levels were extremely high and indicate leakage from the coal ash pond, sediment samples revealed an increase in arsenic and selenium levels closer to the cooling water discharge,” the report states.

In response the ADEM fines for groundwater pollution, Alabama Power claims “none of the results detected pose a risk to neighbors, nearby waterways or water sources.”

“Regarding the orders (fines) from ADEM, we are still reviewing them,” Sznajderman wrote last week. “As for the proposed fines, Alabama Power has taken responsible, reasonable actions at every step of the way and do not believe the amount of the penalty is warranted.”

Lagniappe | A dam enclosing more than 21 million cubic feet of coal ash rises behind the eroded bank of the Mobile River.

If the levee breaks
During a boat tour around the site last week, Mobile Baykeeper Program Director Cade Kistler said the dam’s construction, as well as its proximity to the fast-flowing and meandering Mobile River should raise red flags.

“There have been times we’ve been up here and the water level is 10 feet higher,” he said. “When the river is in a flood stage, the water spills over the bank and rushes right up against the pond. In periods of heavy rain, rainwater infiltrating the pond has a single discharge point — that pipe — which can easily be overwhelmed and fail.”

A similar discharge pipe failure lead to the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina in 2014. The spill in Kingston was caused when a dam similar to Plant Barry’s simply collapsed after a heavy rainfall.

“We’re seeing more rain and more extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, which if you take and put over Mobile Bay, would have likely filled this pond to capacity and stressed this dam to its limit,” Kistler said. “It’s really not a matter of when, but if.”

In accordance with regulations, Alabama Power has published an Emergency Action Plan in preparation for a catastrophic collapse. In addition to detailing an immediate response effort, the plan also contains “inundation maps” showing areas that would be affected by spill on the first day.

The entire width of the delta, eight to 10 miles eastward to Stockton, could be inundated with ash, which would then flow downriver toward Mobile Bay, according to the maps. In fewer than six hours, a wall of coal ash sludge more than 10 feet thick can surge as much as three miles from the site.

“We’re talking about a spill that could close the entire river system to intrastate commerce,” Kistler said. “It could also do untold damage to recreational and environmental assets. If this dam burst it would change coastal Alabama unfathomably.”

Kistler said Baykeeper is advocating for Alabama Power to excavate the pond and remove the ash because even if it is cleaned and capped, the wild nature of the Mobile River and the area’s susceptibility to natural disasters cannot be predicted.

“Rivers like these move over time, slowly eroding at the shore,” he said. “So even if you take all these actions to consolidate and dewater and cap the ash, if you leave it in the floodplain we’ll be facing the same threat eternally. And who knows what can happen between now and the time that process is complete?”

For its part, Alabama Power says by the end of the year, it will no longer be depositing new CCR material to Plant Barry’s pond. Compliance with new CCR regulations statewide is expected to cost the utility $1 billion, according to testimony to the Alabama Public Service Commission, and the company touts its $4 billion in environmental investments over the past 15 years.

Sznajderman points out “company employees live and work in these communities too,” and “Alabama Power’s highest priority is the safety of customers and the communities we serve.”

“Alabama Power has operated ash facilities for decades as part of environmental controls. The company has maintained a rigorous ash facility inspection program for more than 40 years, including detailed dam safety inspections following the same standards applied to the dams at the company’s hydroelectric reservoirs,” he wrote in response to the Baykeeper report this week. “Every one of the company’s ash facilities has received a thorough structural inspection through EPA and received the highest rating available for safe and reliable operation.”

Callaway urged the utility to listen to customers instead of investors, saying industries it serves along the river will be “massively affected” if the levee breaks.

“I want to assume our power company listens to its customers and if the community tells them it is the right thing to do they’ll do it,” she said. “It’s not just about recreation and the environment — this is about the economy. People and businesses are using that river everyday, so I think Alabama Power has a responsibility to all of its customers and all of its clients to do the right thing.”