I’m probably like many Americans in that I don’t always know what to think about claims of global warming or “climate change” and mankind’s exact role in such matters. Since I was a child there has been serious scientific opinion the world is on the verge of either freezing or boiling.
But so far the worst predictions haven’t come to pass. Al Gore became the country’s most famous weatherman in the ‘90s and early part of this century by burning tons of jet fuel to fly from town to town and explain how we’d all be underwater soon. Then he went back to his huge mansion to make improvements to the internet.
Obviously some warnings have been overstated. New York isn’t underwater yet, milk isn’t $12 a gallon and billions haven’t starved to death. Still, we are confronted by a majority of climate scientists who say Earth is warming.
So it seems the weather is changing. And if that’s a fact, we can all argue about WHY the weather is changing. It certainly changed plenty before humans discovered fire or built the Chevy Camaro, given the various ice ages and warming periods over the eons. But logically it’s also hard to argue all these cars, trucks and coal-burning power plants spewing fumes and carbon dioxide into the air have no effect.
Most of us probably fall in the middle somewhere between climate change “deniers” who don’t care how much pollution is created in the name of soft living, and environmental zealots who would really feel much better if humanity’s last great carbon output was the result of jumping en masse into a raging volcano and allowing the chimps to take over.
Now that I’ve meandered into areas destined to earn at least a few emails or letters telling me I’m an idiot, I’ll get to the point. Right now, most of us are at least a little nervous there is something to the climate change claims, even if we may not agree why it’s happening. And extreme weather-related events probably drive that lurking feeling far more than predictions we’ll be living in “Water World” by next Christmas.
The fires out in California have been shocking, as have a few hurricanes over the past two or three years. At the very minimum these issues have shown how important it is to be prepared for extreme weather and also exposed some ancillary problems extreme weather can create. One of those is the potential for a secondary environmental disaster when a big hurricane affects the ash retention ponds used by coal-burning power plants.
Just a few months ago we all watched Hurricane Florence inundate the Carolinas with massive amounts of water. One of the side effects of that was the breach of Duke Energy’s coal ash pond, which released at least 2,000 cubic yards of arsenic-laden coal ash, some of which made it into the Cape Fear River. Many of these coal ash ponds have already been scheduled for removal to a more permanent, less potentially hazardous location.
And that apparently was the case for our own worst nightmare waiting to happen — the massive, nearly 600-acre coal ash pond outside Alabama Power’s Plant Barry, which sits in the heart of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta just a few feet from the Mobile River. This pond holds 30 years’ worth of coal ash, estimated at 21 million cubic yards.
In November 2016, Alabama Power released its plans to close 12 coal ash ponds at six of its power plants, including the one at Plant Barry. However, the plan does not call for digging all of this hazardous material out of the ground and moving it, but just “capping” it with clay, dirt and grass. For those of us living downstream from Plant Barry, that amounts to a ticking time bomb.
But this “solution” to Alabama Power’s problem is nothing more than a Sword of Damocles hanging over our community’s collective head. Every time a big storm comes, we’ll all be singing, “If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s gonna break …” and looking up recipes for three-headed fish.
And even if the big storm doesn’t come, this particular ash pit isn’t even lined, so the prospect of toxins seeping into the groundwater or through the few feet of mud separating it from our delta is particularly likely. The environmental group Mobile Baykeeper released the results of a two-year study of the retention pond earlier this year and found there is already groundwater pollution and river pollution coming from the pond. Alabama Power was fined $1.5 million earlier this year for violations of the Alabama Water Control Act.
It appears Alabama Power at one time did recognize the dangers of leaving all that coal ash sitting next to the river and had plans to excavate the pond and move the toxins to a safe, lined containment area away from the water. A letter to the Corps of Engineers in March 2016 said the pond would be “cleaned out and closed following strict guidelines.” But the company did an about-face in November of that same year following the presidential election and decided on the much cheaper capping method.
Maybe this half-assed method of containment could be somewhat justified if Alabama Power was barely “getting by,” but this is a company that’s been making plenty of money as the only choice many of us have when it comes to buying electricity. A perusal of their 2017 annual report lists net income — AFTER dividends on preferred and preference stocks — at $848 million. That’s $26 million better than the year before, mostly based upon a rate increase. In 2016, Alabama Power made $37 million more than in 2015. So over those past two years, the company saw a revenue increase of $64 million, but still wants to cheap out on removing the risk of dumping all of their pollution into to our rivers.
Alabama Power is playing the game of claiming they’re doing the right thing when it’s clearly the wrong thing. Nothing really bad has happened so far, right? So why change the approach?
But that fix isn’t forward thinking at all. Putting aside even the obvious problems of groundwater leaching into the river system, we have all watched a number of very intense hurricanes hit the U.S. in the past few years. One day it may be our fate to get another Florence or Michael that rolls right up the mouth of Mobile Bay.
They say the weather is changing and more extreme storms are on the way. Alabama Power is just sticking its coal ash in the sand by not acknowledging there is at least a chance this could be true and moving that pond. Even if New York City never ends up underwater, we’ll at least know the Mobile River won’t ever be filled with coal ash.