Local elected officials met behind closed doors with executives of Alabama Power at the Fairhope Satellite Courthouse Monday morning. Before a reporter was expelled from the meeting, which was not publicly announced, a slide about coal ash was projected on a white screen hanging from the wall. Jill Stork, a division area manager for Alabama Power, was at the head of the conference table and told the reporter it was “a private meeting,” closed to both the media and the public.
Cliff McCollum, the director of the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation’s Constituent Services Office, cited the Open Meetings Act to explain the meeting was exempt from public notice or attendance because it constituted “a quorum of a subcommittee, committee or full governmental body, in person or by electronic communication, with state or federal officials for the purpose of reporting or obtaining information or seeking support for issues of importance to the subcommittee, committee or full governmental body.”
No clarification of the exemption was offered by either McCollum or other participants in the meeting, but Beth Thomas, a spokesperson for Alabama Power, later simply wrote that “Alabama Power routinely meets with elected officials as well as stakeholder groups like [Mobile] Baykeeper to update them on our business.”
Contacted for response to Thomas’ comment, Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said: “We haven’t been updated by Alabama Power in several months though we would love to be included. Additionally, we also knew about this meeting and were told it was not open to the public despite many requests from us and several elected officials to have a meeting with all parties present.”
Besides Stork, McCollum disclosed that other representatives from Alabama Power attending the meeting included External Affairs Representative Preston Cauthen, Vice President of the Mobile Division Nick Sellers, Governmental & Community Affairs Manager Sam Schjott and Tripp Ward, manager of the Alabama Power office in Bay Minette.
The meeting was attended by the entire Baldwin County state legislative delegation except for State Sen. Greg Albritton, as well as Baldwin County Commissioners Jeb Ball and Billie Jo Underwood, along with Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood and Donna Givens, the director of legislative and governmental affairs for Baldwin Electric Membership Cooperative.
Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, who was hired late last month as the Baldwin County Commission’s new public information officer and community engagement manager, was the only person who responded to requests for additional information from elected officials.
In an email on behalf of Underwood, Bloodworth Botop wrote: “Two commissioners along with state elected officials attended an educational session this morning related to Plant Barry where information was shared by Alabama Power representatives. It is my understanding that this information will also be shared with the public.”
As Lagniappe detailed in a series of reports over the summer, Plant Barry in North Mobile County, the primary source of electricity for much of South Alabama, was commissioned in 1954 and at one time operated as many as five coal-fired generators. Over the decades, Alabama Power has accumulated 21 million tons of solid waste byproduct, primarily coal ash, in a 600-acre pond surrounded by an earthen dam along the banks of the Mobile River.
In its efforts to increase efficiencies and, later, comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) effective in 2016, Alabama Power reduced the number of coal-fired generators at the site to two and announced a controversial decision to “cap-in-place” the pond, rather than remove the accumulated material and remediate the site.
In spite of the risk of the continued leaching of toxins into the groundwater — the company was fined $250,000 by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management last year for groundwater violations at five ponds, including one that’s already been capped — or worse, a breach of the pond before the 13 years it will take for the cap to be fully in place, Alabama Power has maintained it is adhering to EPA guidelines and both the cap-in-place and remove-and-remediate methods “can be equally protective.”
But Callaway suggested if the company is so certain of its plans, it shouldn’t collude with elected officials to discuss them behind closed doors.
“Why keep a wall between the public, our elected officials and a decision that can greatly impact our community, economy and natural resources for decades to come?” she asked. “Why would our elected officials allow that to happen and why would Alabama Power even ask them to do so?”
As Lagniappe reported in June, political action committees linked to Alabama Power spent almost $100,000 in contributions to local statewide candidates during the 2018 election cycle and have increased contributions to elected officials in the first half of 2019. Links to our series of reporting are available by visiting lagniappemobile.com/series/tensaw-timebomb.
“This was a continuation of meetings that us and other elected officials have been having with Alabama Power … for information purposes,” McCollum said after the meeting. “There was no quorum, it was a continuing, ongoing informational meeting between these stakeholders.”
But Callaway suggested something stinks.
“What does Alabama Power have to fear in holding a public meeting?” she asked. “Our community deserves better than a divide and conquer approach. We want to work together for a permanent solution to close Alabama Power’s coal ash pit.”
No representatives of the Mobile County legislative delegation who were contacted for this story would say whether a similar meeting was scheduled across the bay.
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