Mobile and Baldwin County commissioners have agreed to split the cost of a $30,000 informational film highlighting the two primary options considered for closing the coal ash pond at Barry Steam Plant.
The film is being researched and produced by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP). According to Director Roberta Swann, the organizations will not be taking a side on what has proven to be a “politically charged” issue in Coastal Alabama and in communities around the country.
“Our interest in this is that the coal ash pond at Plant Barry is located in the Big Chippewa Watershed, which is inside the Mobile Tensaw Delta,” Swann said. “That’s one of the areas we’re currently engaged in watershed planning, and we believe [the ash pond] is a signature issue in that watershed.”
Since 2015, new federal regulations for storing coal ash — a byproduct of burning coal to generate electric power — have forced utilities around the country to change the way they’ve conducted business for decades and spend millions trying to come into compliance.
That has also resulted in the closure or planned closure of hundreds of coal ash ponds and landfills including the pond at Alabama Power’s Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County. It holds 21 million tons of spent coal ash — a toxic, watery mixture the company plans to seal on the banks of the Mobile River.
That pond, like similar structures across the country, has been shown to leak toxic chemicals like arsenic into nearby groundwater. Under the 2015 rules set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Protection Agency (EPA), utilities are given two options for permanently closing these ponds: excavate the material to a lined landfill or dewater the pond and cover it — also called “capping in place.”
In 2016, Alabama Power announced plans to pursue the latter, claiming that moving the material would take more money, more time and would require transporting the coal ash through other communities.
Since then, Mobile Baykeeper has pushed for the company to change course and excavate the material, arguing that leaving it where it is now wouldn’t prevent the threat of a dam failure sending tons of ash into the Mobile River. Baykeeper has also pointed out that all of Alabama Power’s ash ponds — including one already closed in place near Gadsden — have been fined by state regulators for leaking toxins into groundwater.
Speaking to the Mobile County Commission last week, Swann said most information in the community has been focused on removing the material, adding that MBNEP had been “asked by elected officials to provide scientifically accurate information related to the risks associated with both options.”
However, she emphasized that MBNEP’s film would not be advocating any particular side.
“We’re not in this to say which is the better plan. That’s not what we’re about,” Swann said. “We’re here to say: These are the issues related to cap in place and these are the issues related to excavation based on the hydrology and the location of Barry Steam Plant.”
While it’s unusual for MBNEP to get involved with a controversial subject like this outside of its normal watershed management activities, Swann said the organization was approached by local officials on both sides of the bay — many of whom have been asked in recent months to pass resolutions urging Alabama Power to change course and excavate the coal ash to another location away from the Mobile River.
Mobile County Commissioners were asked to take a position on the issue by Baykeeper earlier this summer, but they ultimately did not. Instead, the Commission asked the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for input and is now seeking additional information from MBNEP.
“I, for one, am very appreciative of having some fact-based information we can look at,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “It’s been confusing up to this point, depending on who you’re talking to.”
Across the bay, Baldwin County Commission President Charles “Skip” Gruber said officials have also struggled to get information to citizens on what is a very complex subject. That’s one of the reasons its members voted last month to put its $15,000 share of the cost of the project to help get the film into production.
Swann has said that using a film format doesn’t mean MBNEP won’t be conducting heavy scientific research into the issue. Asked about the choice, she said taking complex information and distilling it down into a concise film “makes it accessible to the greatest diversity of stakeholders” in the community.
Speaking to Lagniappe, she also said that her staff would be considering information from all kinds of sources including reports from Alabama Power, ADEM and the lengthy report Baykeeper released in June. Still, Swann acknowledged that there has been some concern about MBNEP’s involvement in this project.
Administered through and partially funded by the EPA, the MBNEP is one of several estuary programs around the country dedicated to promoting wise stewardship of water resources, but surprisingly, it has mostly been environmentalists questioning the organization’s sudden willingness to get involved.
“We’re not receiving funding from Alabama Power,” Swann said. “In the past, if we’ve received funding from Alabama Power, it has been for specific projects. But for the purposes of this film, we’ve not received any external funding other than [what] we asked for from Mobile and Baldwin counties.”
Despite those assurances, there’s still been some skepticism about the film. Specifically, some concerns have been raised by Baykeeper’s Executive Director Casi Callaway — a longtime member of MBNEP who serves on its executive committee. Beth Thomas, a public information specialist for Alabama Power, also serves on MBNEP’s executive committee, and Baykeeper and Alabama Power are also both listed as “Partners” on MBNEP’s website.
Alabama Power has aided with various MBNEP projects, such as installing rain barrels in Prichard, and the company has also donated between $5,000 and $9,999 to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab since 2010. MBNEP is a division of Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
Callaway said she supports the organization, but raised concerns about any project hoping to tackle an issue as complex as coal ash in just a few short months. Alabama Power could have the final approval needed for its closure plan by the end of the year, and while MBNEP’s timetable is loose, Swann said they’re aiming to release the film before the utility starts holding public meetings later this fall.
“MBNEP has built a persona of being based in scientific research and fact, but I believe making a video about coal ash is not as simple as they may think it is. They’ll have a very careful line to tread in order to not be making a public relations video for Alabama Power,” Callaway said. “Still, I believe their reputation is stellar, and I will be working alongside them to make sure they maintain that.”
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