A week before Alabama Power is scheduled to host its first and only public meeting regarding plans to close the coal ash pond at Plant Barry in North Mobile County, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) this morning released a publicly funded video seeming to endorse the plan.
But to the contrary, MBNEP Communications Manager Herndon Graddick said the nonprofit environmental organization is not taking a position, and the timeliness of the video’s release ahead of the meeting is just a coincidence.
“We’ve been working on it seven days a week for the last several months, finished a few days ago and released it expeditiously,” he said. “We really tried to bring balance to the situation because we aren’t taking a position on it and wanted to give people the information to have informed opinions, whether they are the public or represent the public. We spent more than a year with dedicated staff looking into research and science behind it and contracted two outside firms for independent assessments.”
The nearly 24-minute video, entitled “The Unintended Consequences of Convenience: The Story of Coal Ash in Alabama,” was partially funded by $15,000 each from the Mobile and Baldwin county commissions. Graddick said MBNEP used substantially more of the organization’s financial resources to complete the project, and did not consult with or accept money from Alabama Power.
Power producers nationwide, driven by federal mandates put in place after 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash burst from a containment pond in Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008, are required to close existing coal ash ponds using either a “cap-in-place” method or by excavating the ash and relocating it to lined, upland landfills. Alabama Power has chosen the cap-in-place method, citing excessive costs, time and effort related to the excavation and relocation method.
The MBNEP video weighs the pros and cons of both options at Plant Barry, analyzing measures including the time required to complete, the carbon footprint, the effects on water quality, who will be responsible, the chances for a “catastrophic release” and the effects on human health.
Using a combination of animation, data visualization and still photographs, the video claims removing the ash would require more than 1 million dump trucks, “one leaving every four minutes, 10 hours a day, six days a week, for 24 years, spanning a generation of Alabamians.”
Although a railroad runs alongside the property and the coal itself is also frequently delivered via barge on the Mobile River, the video does not evaluate alternative methods of transporting the coal ash to an upland location.
Instead, it presents Alabama Power’s preferred cap-in-place method as taking half the time to complete, being less expensive and less risky, and falling completely within the responsibility of the utility.
It admits the method will always run the risk of catastrophic failure, but claims the likelihood of such a failure decreases more rapidly than the removal method, and the design of a new pond where Alabama Power is proposing to store the dewatered and consolidated ash is modeled to withstand a 500-year flood event plus a one-meter sea level rise.
The video also acknowledged the $250,000 fine Alabama Power was required to pay the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) last year for excessive levels of arsenic and cobalt detected in the groundwater around Plant Barry’s coal ash pond, but said those same levels have not been detected in any drinking water supply and there is not enough research on diluted concentrations of either element to determine their effects on human health.
Toward the end of the video, the narrator says, “We have all benefited from the convenience and affordability of electricity produced by coal. For decades, we’ve turned on the lights and opened the refrigerator without thinking about the waste generated. As consumers of electricity, the fate of this coal ash is our shared responsibility.”
That particular argument is similar to one used by Duke Energy after it spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014, but Graddick said he wrote the line and wasn’t familiar with Duke’s statement.
In an agreement reached there with state regulators earlier this year, Duke agreed to excavate seven of its nine coal ash ponds in North Carolina, moving the material to lined landfills away from watersheds. That plan will cost upwards of $9 billion, opposed to Alabama Power’s estimate of $2 billion, and Duke Energy is currently seeking approval to raise rates on consumers to offset part of the cost.
Here, Alabama Power received the blessing of the Alabama Public Service Commission to pass along a 3 percent rate increase to consumers to pay for its coal ash remediation plan. Consumers are already paying that increase, as it went into effect at the end of 2019.
“It’s not an endorsement of either option,” Graddick reiterated of the video. “I think ultimately it’s a judgment call. It’s not up to us, but it depends on the eye of the beholder. Some may be more comfortable with getting [the coal ash] out permanently and others are more comfortable with closing-in-place. It’s two imperfect options. We tried to present what we saw and through our research with outside experts.”
Meanwhile, Alabama Power quietly announced public meetings around the state regarding “assessments of corrective measures” by placing legal advertisements in a handful of newspapers earlier on two dates in May and June. The ads do not mention the phrase “coal ash” and provide no detail, but simply state the meeting is “to identify and discuss potential corrective measures that are available to address groundwater.” The meetings are required as part of federal coal ash guidelines.
Cade Kistler, program manager at Mobile Baykeeper, argues the meetings weren’t properly advertised and are designed to minimize attendance. Baykeeper has been critical of the company’s plan at Plant Barry throughout its adherence to the federal guidelines.
“Alabama Power is a $6 billion organization with a huge PR team, multiple communications firms on their payroll, and its own ‘News Center,’” Kistler said, claiming the newspaper advertisements were inadequate. “The additional fact this is happening during a pandemic is concerning and there is no option for remote attendance. It just seems the whole thing is intended to have low turnout.”
In a statement to Lagniappe, Alabama Power said the meeting is the only one scheduled by the company regarding Plant Barry, but “there will be additional opportunities for public involvement and comment through ADEM’s permitting process.”
Corporate Communications Manager Beth Thomas wrote the location was chosen based on its proximity to the plant, and the advertisements appeared “in major and community newspapers” in the vicinity, as well as on the company’s website.
“The public has access to a large volume of information about our closure plans on our public website and can communicate with us in many ways, and does,” she wrote. The meeting will feature “subject matter experts from the company attending who can answer questions from the public.”
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