Spurred by heavy rains earlier this month, flood waters in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta rose high enough to cover 15 feet of the 25-foot dam that separates millions of tons of toxic coal ash from the Mobile River.

In a statement Thursday, Mobile Baykeeper said the water levels documented during flooding near an Alabama Power facility’s James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant on Jan. 7 showcased the need to excavate and move coal ash that continues to be stored at the facility.

That day, staff from Baykeeper took ground-level and aerial photos and video of flooding near the dam lining the 597-acre unlined coal ash pit holding more than 21 million tons of coal ash — a toxic byproduct of burned coal that Baykeeper has urged Alabama Power to relocate.

On Jan. 7, 2019, floodwaters were seen covering up to 10-feet of a 25-foot damn the separates a coal ash pond from the Mobile River. (Courtesy of Baykeeper)

“When a small amount of rain can cause this severe flooding, just imagine what will happen during a tropical storm.” Executive Director Casi Callaway said. “Mobile is the rainiest city in the country. The real question is when, not if, a major hurricane will strike the Alabama coast. When it does, it is critical that Alabama Power not have 20 million tons of coal ash sitting in the Delta — mere miles upstream of Mobile Bay — behind a dirt dam.”

As Lagniappe has reported, Baykeeper and other organizations have advocated for Alabama Power to follow the lead of utilities in five other southern states, including Georgia Power, and excavate the coal ash at Plant Barry to a protected location that is lined on all sides.

While internal documents released by Baykeeper suggest Alabama Power might have previously considered that option, the company has maintained its intent to cap the existing coal ash pond in place and continue to the store the material in its current location since 2016.

“They plan to pump the water out of the ash (dewater it), reduce the size of the pit, and put a liner on top (cap-in-place),” the release reads. “The bottom of the pit will still be unlined, allowing pollution to continue entering groundwater.”

According to Baykeeper, leaving the material at its current location is unsafe because it’s flood-prone and susceptible to tropical weather. If the dam were to breach or the water level rise above 25 feet, coal ash could spill into the Mobile River and eventually make its way into Mobile Bay.

Coal ash stored at an Alabama Power facility in Bucks, Ala. (Courtesy of Baykeeper)

According to Baykeeper, that “would be catastrophic,” but it would not be uncommon. In 2008, an ash pit in Kingston, Tennessee ruptured, spilling tons of coal ash into nearby rivers.

More recently, 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash spilled into the Cape Fear River when Hurricane Florence dumped record-breaking amounts of rain on North Carolina in September of 2018.

“Alabama Power is a leader in so many ways in our communities. It is disappointing they are refusing to take the lead to protect the health, economy, and quality of life for people living in Mobile and Baldwin Counties from 21 million tons of toxic ash,” Callaway said. “Alabamians deserve clean water and we will fight for our coastal communities, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, our local economy, and our communities.”