With Hurricane Sally projected to drop at least 10 to 15 inches of rainfall on some areas of the Gulf Coast, environmentalists are keeping a close eye on the nearly 21 million cubic yards of spent coal ash stored in an unlined pond at Barry Steam Plant in North Mobile County.
As Lagniappe has reported, Alabama Power is in the process of finalizing plans to “cap in place” the toxic ash that has been accumulating in the Plant Barry pond for decades. Environmental groups like Mobile Bay Keeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center have urged the company to excavate the material to a lined landfill further away from the mouth of the Mobile River instead.
Other than the concerns about the potential contamination of groundwater near Plant Barry — something Alabama Power has been fined by state regulators for at multiple facilities — environmental advocates have long raised concerns about what would happen if a major storm struck Mobile Bay directly.
With Hurricane Sally shaping up to be a “very dangerous and historic flooding event scenario,” the question may soon be answered. Michael Sznajderman, a spokesperson for Alabama Power, said Tuesday the company is continuing to “closely monitor” Sally as it inches closer to the coastline.
“Plant personnel are monitoring all facilities and impoundments and all of our safety protocols are being executed by our subject matter experts,” Sznajderman wrote via email. “Historically, we’ve never had any type of structural failure at any of our ash ponds.”
Sznajderman noted the dam separating the ash pond from the Mobile River received the highest rating available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That “satisfactory” designation from an inspection in 2010 is higher than impoundments managed by other coal-burning utilities in Alabama.
Cade Kistler, program director for Mobile Baykeeper, said Hurricane Sally’s storm surge and direct rainfall on the coast is one of the things that can cause flooding. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which Plant Barry sits roughly in the middle of, is the end of a large river system, and rain that falls to the north eventually flows down into it.
“The key thing to remember is you’re draining a huge river system. If [Hurricane Sally] moves straight up to the north at 2 (miles per hour), all that water has to exit somewhere,” Kistler said. “Some of the coal ash spills in other states have happened on a sunny day two, three and four days after a storm because the watershed kept draining. This kind of slow moving storm that fills up a watershed is definitely a big concern.”
According to data collected by the United States Geological Survey, the level of the Mobile River at Plant Barry as of Tuesday afternoon was around 4.8 feet, but it is currently projected to rise to 10.3 feet by Saturday if heavy rains make their way into the Delta from more northern points in the watershed.
However, Kistler said predictions — especially those based on a storm that continues to shift its trajectory — aren’t always 100 percent accurate. The level of the Mobile River on Saturday could be lower or could be higher than the 10.3-foot prediction showing up in the data at the moment.
Kistler also noted it’s difficult to put an exact number on how much rainfall could trigger a breach or an overflow at the Barry ash pond. That can all vary based on how fast rain is coming down and how much rain has already saturated into the groundwater in a certain area.
A study funded by Baykeeper and conducted by Burgess Environmental in 2018 concluded that a “1 in 1,000 years rainfall event” or one producing 21.7 inches of rain over a 24-hour period could increase the pond’s level by roughly 5.6 feet. That would leave about a little over “1⁄4 of an inch” between the top of the ash pond water and the top of the dike, according to Burgess’s report.
It’s important to note that those numbers are based on Alabama Power’s own calculations of how much additional rain could flow through its system without causing significant impacts. It does not give any indication of how much rain might cause the level of Mobile River to rise above the dam itself.
Since that report was published, Alabama Power has also increased the height of the dam at Plant Barry.
Like Alabama Power, Baykeeper’s staff plans to keep an eye on the level of the river near Plant Barry as the storm moves ashore over the next 12 hours and rainfall from the north makes its way down the river system in the coming days. With the storm tracking eastward, Kistler is hopeful Sally’s rainfall won’t cause a catastrophic situation but he also said it’s the kind of slow moving storm that potentially could.
“I think this is definitely another wake up call and another warning,” Kistler added. “Hopefully, we won’t see any kind of breach because we don’t want to see that in any case. We’re going to continue monitoring the storm closely and will be following up after it’s moved out of our area.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).