Photo | Lagniappe
Alabama Power’s Barry Steam Plant near Axis deposits coal ash in a 597-acre pond on site. Mobile Baykeeper has been advocating for its removal, while the company has pursued an effort to cap the pond and leave the coal ash in place.
Documents obtained by Mobile Baykeeper suggest Alabama Power was planning to dig up coal ash stored at the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant and move it to a landfill, but abruptly abandoned those efforts in November 2016.
Plant Barry’s coal ash — a toxic waste product of burned coal — is currently contained in a 597-acre pond on the site that is more than 30 feet deep in some places. The pond is surrounded by a 21-foot-tall dirt and clay embankment, but that barrier has been known to leak, a concern for environmental groups given the pond’s proximity to the Mobile River.
The company was fined earlier this year for violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act, reportedly for allowing the “unpermitted discharge of pollutants associated with ash pond wastewater from the Plant Barry Ash Pond to waters of the state.”
Other than leaks, Baykeeper has also raised concerns about a total breach caused by a natural disaster or lack of maintenance or preventative measures. Consequently, the organization has been pushing for Alabama Power to excavate the pond’s contents and bury it at an offsite landfill.
However, in November 2016, Alabama Power unveiled a plan to close 12 coal ash ponds at six of its power plants, including Plant Barry. Instead of digging up and moving the ash, though, the plans calls for covering the ponds in place — a much less expensive option.
Baykeeper — citing a letter company officials sent to the Army Corps of Engineers in March 2016 as part of an unrelated project — now claims Alabama Power had initially planned to excavate the material but shifted to the current plan just a few months later.
At the time, Alabama Power was applying for a Corps permit in order to upgrade an existing bridge on the property. The bridge, according to the application, crossed a “manmade discharge canal” connected to the Mobile River.
The letter also mentions Alabama Power converting all of its steam boilers to natural gas in light of new coal regulations imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2015. The company also clearly tells the Corps it intends to move the coal ash from Plant Barry, stating the pond would be “cleaned out and closed following strict guidelines” established by the EPA.
Further, the letter states “closure activities will require that ash material be removed and hauled away to a permitted solid landfill.”
However, those plans appear to have changed sometime between March 2016 and the release of Alabama Power’s plan to close its coal ash ponds six months later.
Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said that by abandoning its plan to permanently move the coal ash offsite, Alabama Power “prioritized cost savings over safety.”
“The letter to the Corps of Engineers clearly shows that Alabama Power has the ability and even had plans to remove coal ash from a leaking pit on the side of the Mobile River,” she said in a statement. “Coal ash spills in the Carolinas following Hurricane Florence show how one major storm could trigger a disaster 20 times larger than the BP oil spill. We need Alabama Power to be a leader on this issue and do the right thing.”
Reached about the surfacing of that 2016 correspondence, Alabama Power spokesperson Michael Sznajderman told Lagniappe the letter had nothing to do with how the company opted to close down the coal ash pond at Plant Barry.
He also reiterated the company has made “significant progress toward safely and permanently closing all its ash facilities in a manner recognized by the [EPA].”
He said Alabama Power is protecting the environment at Plant Barry by implementing the following measures:
• Treating and removing all water from the pond.
• Excavating material and moving it farther away from waterways, creating buffers of up to 750 yards from the Mobile River. The excavation and consolidation of the material will reduce the footprint of the old pond site by 200 acres, or more than one-third.
• Constructing a redundant dike system as part of the plant’s increased, robust flood-protection measures.
• Installing a specially engineered, watertight barrier over the material to keep it safely in place.
• Adding stormwater management systems to capture all rainwater runoff.
• Monitoring groundwater around the facility for at least 30 years to ensure ongoing protection of water quality.
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