As we wrangle with bridge tolls and Civic Center fixes, another great example of money possibly speaking louder than the voice of the people is taking place in the swamps of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta as Alabama Power strong-arms our community into accepting the burial of 21 million tons of toxic coal ash right next to the Mobile River.
And pretty soon, $30,000 of taxpayer money will be put into producing a film about the issue, but the group doing it says its goal isn’t to actually determine whether it’s better for Alabama Power to leave the coal ash in its current unlined and leaking pit, or to dig it up and haul it to an unlined landfill.
Yes, that’s right. The Mobile and Baldwin County Commissions have each kicked in $15,000 to help the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) make a movie designed to show “both sides of the story” regarding excavation versus cap-in-place. MBNEP Director Roberta Swann told the Mobile County Commission last week her group was approached by “elected officials” to make the movie from a scientific standpoint, but they won’t attempt to determine whether one plan is better than the other.
What’s the point of burning up $30,000 in taxpayer money ostensibly to gather scientific research that provides no conclusion as to which of these solutions is actually better for the environment and the community? I can’t help feeling like it’s all designed just to give politicians a slick, produced movie to hide behind when anyone asks them later why they never did anything about coal ash.
“Well that Estuary Program movie said they was both equal,” is what we’ll probably hear.
Meanwhile, Alabama Power keeps moving forward with plans to bury its toxic waste. Permitting is supposed to begin in the next couple of months. Which leads to the other question of whether this movie can even be scientifically researched and put together in time for it to actually play any role in how local officials approach this situation, or is it just a show piece for afterwards or just another opportunity for politicians to say they’re “gathering information?”
I don’t mean to get all conspiratorial here, but let me put on the tin foil hat for just a moment. The idea that both county commissions have just suddenly developed a burning interest in this subject in the final months before permitting begins strikes me as something far less than genuine. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations changed in 2015, so they’ve known for four years this was coming. And the issue has come up many times over the past four years. Any politician who hasn’t educated themselves on this subject by now either isn’t terribly interested or never expected to be asked about it.
This baby didn’t just show up on the doorstep.
So now unnamed politicians are asking a group that has an Alabama Power public relations person sitting on its executive board, and that has been a frequent recipient of Alabama Power donations, to produce a movie that won’t come to any conclusions about which method is best for the environment? Again, what’s the point? Why not put that $30,000 toward groundwater testing around Plant Barry? Seems like that would offer a whole lot clearer picture of what’s going on than a movie with no conclusion.
As Lagniappe has written about the coal ash problem over the past couple of months I’ve been sadly surprised by the fecklessness of most of our local officials. They twist themselves like yoga instructors trying to make excuses for Alabama Power, or simply parrot whatever the power company told them to say.
Alabama Power, for its part, does a masterful job of muddying the waters. They push fake news all over state websites, disguising public relations pieces as journalism. Outlets like Yellowhammer News regurgitate these public relations pieces in favor of cap-in-place as if they’re news.
I even wrote Yellowhammer owner and editor Tim Howe last month and asked if they were paid by Alabama Power to run their public relations articles as news, or are owned in any part by the utility. His answer was: “We frequently publish content from third party sites, with attribution, because we enjoy highlighting the good things happening around the Yellowhammer State. Thanks again for being a loyal Yellowhammer reader!” That doesn’t seem like a tough question to answer — if the answer is no. But draw your own conclusions.
It’s not hard to find Alabama Power’s public relations efforts thinly disguised as actual news. Its website, Alabama Newscenter, pumps out “good news from home” and is clearly labeled as being owned and operated by Alabama Power. But some of those stories wind up on other websites, like Yellowhammer, pushed as news, and the relationships aren’t terribly clear.
Alabama Power is a huge political donor, so it’s natural that politicians in some of the big races where they pump in lots of dollars will look the other way. Gov. Ivey, cough, cough. But in 2018 the utility sprinkled $13 million across the state for a variety of projects near and dear to community leaders. I have little doubt those donations are a big reason no one wants to offend Alabama Power.
So I can’t help thinking this movie by MBNEP financed with taxpayer money is likely little more than just another attempt by Alabama Power to push its agenda using a beholding third party.
In addressing the County Commission about money for the movie project last week, Swann mentioned that information in the community had been aimed at removing the coal ash, but their movie would be focused on both sides of the matter. Fair enough. I hope the moviemakers will have more luck getting Alabama Power to answer important questions than we have.
For instance, the one ash pond Alabama Power has already capped in place was fined in May by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) for leaching toxins into the groundwater. This is a fact. Alabama Power never answered our questions as to what they’re going to do about that. How will they stop it from happening again? I hope the movie covers that.
Also, Alabama Power never answered why cap-in-place is the safest, best method in Alabama, but not in Georgia, where its sister company is excavating and moving most of its ponds. Let’s hope that’s in our taxpayer-funded movie.
Alabama Power refused to tell us how much money they’re taking in from the 3-percent rate increase the Public Service Commission passed in January ostensibly to cover the costs of closing these coal ash ponds. Maybe MBNEP can get them to say.
Alabama Power didn’t answer the question of what they’d do if the pond at Plant Barry continues leaching toxins into the groundwater after it’s capped. That might be a nice ending for our $30,000 movie.
It will be interesting to see if the Alabama Power PR flacks on MBNEP’s board will help answer those questions.
If we get honest answers it might actually be worth 30,000 bucks, but I’m not holding my breath.
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