The potential for continued groundwater contamination near the Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County worries environmental groups who want Alabama Power to excavate millions of tons of toxic coal ash stored there, but the biggest concern has always been more of a “what if?”
“The worst-case scenario is a breach of the dam,” Mobile Baykeeper Director Casi Callaway said. “We’ve seen these incidents occur in other areas of the Southeast already. Imagine another BP oil disaster, but, instead, with millions of tons of coal ash spilling into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.”
As Alabama Power has stuck to its plan to cap-in-place 21 million cubic yards of coal ash stored in an unlined pond at Plant Barry, advocates like Callaway have pointed to major disasters at similar plants in Tennessee and North Carolina as a warning for what could happen here.
The power company has called comparisons to the 2008 Kingston spill and the 2014 incident on the Dan River “misleading,” and its supporters have painted the kind of “worst-case scenarios” Callaway mentioned as alarmist. One such detractor called it the “Chicken Little theory.”
That doesn’t mean Alabama Power hasn’t thought about it, though. In fact, it’s required to.
The 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule the Environmental Project Agency (EPA) rolled out after Kingston have led to closure of the ash pond at Barry and hundreds more around the U.S., but it also required power plants storing wet coal ash to evaluate their own infrastructure and develop and maintain emergency action plans for various “what if” scenarios.
The dam at Barry’s ash pond has a “significant hazard potential,” per the EPA. That means that a significant failure most likely wouldn’t result in any loss of human life — primarily because of its remote location — but it could cause significant economic and environmental damage.
Alabama Power didn’t directly answer questions about what, if any, equipment it keeps on-site in case of a failure, but the emergency action plan it filed with the EPA gives some indication of how various scenarios would be handled. There are designated employees tasked with evaluating potential failures and beginning a multi-pronged response if one actually did occur.
Those personnel meet annually to go over their role in possible emergencies. The plan also says Alabama Power maintains concrete, sand, stone and other materials at Barry to construct a “reverse filter” that could help slow the spread of coal ash downstream were a breach to occur.
In the same document, Alabama Power included what are known as inundation maps, which detail areas, including portions of the Delta, that could be covered in coal ash if a dam failure were to occur at Plant Barry. In some cases, it says a breach could expand five miles from the dam.
According to the company, though, the north end of the pond is utilized for dry ash storage only and contains no standing water, which means a failure of those areas would not be considered as much of a threat and likely wouldn’t have as significant an environmental impact.
As for the dam separating the ash pond from the Mobile River, it was inspected in 2010 under the supervision of the EPA along with every other coal ash impoundment and landfill in the country. Alabama Power’s facilities were rated highly, especially compared to others in the state.
All the company’s dams were deemed “satisfactory” by the EPA, meaning there weren’t any existing safety deficiencies. Meanwhile, Tennessee Valley Authority and PowerSouth – the state’s only other coal-burner utilities — saw mixed ratings, including some “fair” and “poor.”
Even though Alabama is the only state in the country that doesn’t have an established dam safety program, Alabama Power has maintained its own for years. A company spokesman also noted to Lagniappe that it has never had a major structural failure at any of its ash ponds.
“The company has maintained a rigorous ash pond 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,” spokesperson Michael Sznajderman said. “Each impoundment is inspected thoroughly on an annual basis by qualified, licensed, professional engineers, with more frequent inspections (multiple times weekly) by plant personnel.”
While Alabama Power is confident in its dam program, others still have concerns. For starters, Baykeeper has noted that the “inundation maps” Alabama Power released don’t include any measurements of what impact a major spill into the Mobile River would have downstream.
Pete Harrison, staff attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, has noted other spills, like the 2014 Dan River incident, had impacts as far as 70 miles downstream. He has previously said in 2017 that whatever toxins were to leak out during a spill at Plant Barry would eventually reach Mobile Bay.
As part of its work to investigate the conditions at Barry, Baykeeper also commissioned a dam safety report, which Burgess Environmental published in March 2018. In that report, engineers note what they found to be shortcomings in Alabama Power’s evaluation of Barry’s ash dam.
For starters, Burgess said it’s unusual the inspections are performed by Alabama Power itself.
“While this is consistent with the [EPA] standard, it is more typical for an organization to contract out an independent third party to assess important dam structures,” the report says. “The simplicity of the assessments is striking. It is more typical to include more rigorous and comprehensive analyses when assessing the integrity of such an important structure.”
In addition to the inspection process, Burgess said there were a number of structural concerns with the dam because of its location — pointing out that the ash pond was built on wetlands and had to be closed because if failed to meet three of the five EPA location requirements.
The report indicates there were no records of the early stages of the dam’s construction, but says it was built on clay without a liner — a common practice then. According to Sznajderman, some extensions to the dam’s uppermost structures have been constructed from coal ash since.
Another big concern for Burgess, Baykeeper and most other organizations that have pushed for the coal ash at Plant Barry to be moved to an offsite landfill has been the possibility of flooding causing a breach into or overflow into the Mobile River. It sits in a low-lying, flood-prone area.
That’s also a scenario Alabama Power has considered as part of its emergency action plan, which included a risk assessment based on a 1,000-year flooding event. Sznajderman previously said Barry was designed to manage that level of rainfall — about 21.7 inches in a 24-hour period.
However, the Burgess report said a flooding event of that magnitude would bring the water level to a half an inch from the top of the dike, and a number of variables could easily push it over.
“This is a razor-thin margin of error, which can be easily affected by debris getting stuck in the outfall, damage to the outfall or internal wave erosion that is likely to accompany an extreme rainfall event,” the report reads. “The water level within the pond rose to within a few feet of the top of the dikes on February 3, 2016. This event occurred in response to approximately 4 inches of rainfall, which is significantly less than the 1-in-1,000 years, 24-hour rainfall event.”
Some environmentalists have also pointed out that, even with routine inspections, dams can fail.
As part of the reporting for this series, Lagniappe reached out to Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper in North Carolina. Before the 2014 spill caused the Tar Heel State to overhaul its handling of its coal ash pits, Burdette and others environmentalists were pushing for Duke Energy to excavate the material it had stored on the banks of the Cape Fear River for years.
In 2010 he saw firsthand when a berm holding coal ash at a Duke Energy plant gave way. He said that same berm had passed an inspection “with flying colors” just weeks before but then failed after three days of rainfall —around 20 inches, he said — occurred upstream.
“We were worried about the berms failing in a hurricane and it was a concern we expressed but they said: ‘These dams are inspected. They’re safe and they could never fail,’” Burdette added. “Then we had an event that wasn’t even a hurricane, just heavy rain, and they did fail.”
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