Despite meeting the requirements set by the Environmental Protection Agency, a long-term plan to secure millions of tons of coal ash at Alabama Power facilities across the state has environmentalists concerned about the potential for groundwater contamination.

Alabama Power, which maintains six sites traditionally used as coal-fired power plants, announced last week it would be capping old coal ash ponds at each of those facilities over the next several years to meet new EPA standards.

Those requirements are a response to the 2008 “Kingston Disaster,” which saw a large coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, cause flooding along more than 300 acres and release toxic coal ash into two nearby river systems.

In July, a final rule governing the “Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities” (CCR) went into effect, pushing facilities, such as Alabama Power’s James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant in North Mobile County, to begin phasing out the storage of wet coal ash.

The change leaves energy companies two options: move coal ash to a lined landfill, or dewater the existing ponds, consolidate old ash in its current location and cap inactive storage ponds with a waterproof lining. Last week, Alabama Power announced it would be pursuing the latter.

“We actually announced a year ago that, based on where those rules were going, we anticipated closing all of our wet ash handling facilities and moving toward a dry ash handling type of system,” Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said. “We think it’s a safe and effective option, and it’s approved by the EPA for these types of facilities.”

As part of that early action, Alabama Power has stopped creating new ash at two of its six facilities across the state — though partially because the company has increased its use of natural gas and other “diversified” fuel sources, reducing the need for coal.

At those facilities, located in Etowah and Greene counties, Sznajderman said the transition is already underway. However, he said changes may be implemented over a much longer period at facilities like Barry Steam Plant, which still processes coal today.

“All along the way, there’s a variety of deadlines, specific criteria and standards you have to meet,” Sznajderman said. “Historically, we’ve always followed all environmental laws and tried to meet or exceed the standards required.”

However, Mobile Baykeeper and other environmental groups have already expressed concern about the plan, claiming that simply covering up “millions of tons of coal ash” at Barry Steam Plant would leave the nearby Mobile River and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta susceptible to pollution in the interim and even after dry storage is available.

With coal ash containing arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium and other toxins, Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway told Lagniappe any spill affecting the local water supply would no doubt pose serious health risks, and could have economic impacts as well.

“We depend on clean water as a source of recreation for swimming, fishing, hunting and boating, but we also depend on it for the health of our economy — industries like seafood, tourism and real estate, who rely on clean water to be successful,” Callaway said. “Alabama Power has decided that the cost of protecting the health of our environment, economy and community is simply too high.”

Sznajderman, on the other hand, was quick to say that “cost is not something Baykeeper isn’t concerned about,” adding that it would be much more expensive to transport the coal ash at its six facilities to new locations than it would be to securely cap it in place.

While the cost of the plan hasn’t been determined, Sznajderman said, the cheaper option will still cost Alabama Power “billions of dollars” over the next several years, and those expenses will likely affect customers’ power rates, though Sznajderman said it’s still “unclear” how much.

Cost aside, Alabama Power believes its plan has environmental advantages as well. According to Sznajderman, relocating coal ash would mean transporting it “through populated areas” to a number of new locations that wouldn’t be subject to the same level of monitoring and inspection that is required at active coal facilities.

“In most cases, as you consolidate coal ash, you’re moving it away from the river, and consolidation creates a smaller footprint for the remaining material, which is dry, capped, monitored and subject to regular inspection,” Sznajderman said. “At all of our coal ash facilities, in addition to the daily inspections, we’ll be adding additional groundwater monitoring equipment to ensure this material stays where it is.”

However, as Baykeeper has pointed out, energy companies in other states have been more willing to relocate at least some of their existing coal ash to lined landfills. Just to the east, Georgia Power plans to excavate and remove coal ash from 16 of its 29 storage ponds and is specifically targeting those with the closest proximity to natural waterways.

Though Callaway said the additional monitoring equipment would be beneficial, she added that organizations like Baykeeper will still be “relying on them to tell us they’re not polluting the groundwater.” However, she did say Alabama Power has “historically been a great company and a leader in the community.”

She’s just hoping they’ll “get this one right” as well.

“They’ve been real clear this is still preliminary, but we’ve asked Alabama Power to lead on this issue, and do the right thing the first time,” Callaway said. “We are sensitive to the cost, but we’re also looking at the entire cost, and we encourage Alabama Power to do the same. They have to take worst-case scenarios and public health into consideration instead of just analyzing the cost of doing the least.”

One thing Sznajderman and Callaway did agree on is that new regulations for storing coal ash will most likely outlast the changing political winds. Finalized in the Federal Registry more than a year ago, the recent policies could not be overturned by President-elect Donald Trump without some sort of congressional action.