BY JASON JOHNSON AND GABRIEL TYNES
The inherent threat of more than 21 million cubic yards of coal ash breaching a storage pond at Plant Barry north of Mobile and polluting water miles downriver with arsenic, radium and other toxic substances, prompted the Dauphin Island Town Council to recently pass a resolution encouraging Alabama Power to “properly dispose” of the material, rather than proceed with its current plan to drain the ash and cap it in place.
The issue came to the forefront after high-profile coal ash spills in Tennessee and North Carolina in 2008 and 2014, respectively, and Mobile Baykeeper has continued to express concerns about the vulnerability of the earthen dam encompassing Plant Barry’s pond.
Baykeeper has repeatedly raised the issue with elected officials in Daphne, Fairhope, Mobile and those on the Mobile and Baldwin county commissions, presenting them with a three-page summary of a 200-page report along with a draft resolution similar to Dauphin Island’s.
“We’ve had some really good conversations,” Baykeeper Program Director Cade Kistler said. “It was well received and our goal was to help them understand the threat it imposes not only to the environment, but also to our economy, tourism, real estate, fisheries, property values on [Mobile Bay] and just kind of imagining what this could have in store for us if we don’t do it right the first time.”
Because water is a keystone for quality of life in his community, Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said passing the resolution was an easy decision to make.
“Generally speaking, we’re trying to encourage responsibility and do the best we can do,” Collier said. “[Plant Barry] is probably farther from us than any other community that may be affected, but everything flows south and we’re in the ecotourism business. I heard what [Baykeeper] had to say and I compare it to [BP’s Deepwater Horizon] oil spill in terms of potential consequences.”
Mobile County Commissioners are currently considering how they would like to see Alabama Power proceed, though Commission President Connie Hudson has stressed that any position the county takes would be one in spirit because it “has no legal control over” what Alabama Power does with its coal ash ponds. The county’s environmental staff is currently drafting a letter seeking input from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) about the concerns Baykeeper and others have raised with Alabama Power’s current proposal.
Hudson said the ultimate goal is the health, safety and welfare of citizens, but all three commissioners said they’d prefer to get more information before taking an official position, and Commissioner Merceria Ludgood echoed that position. In addition, Commissioner Jerry Carl said he’d like to know how much more time and money it would take to remove the coal ash — a cost he believes consumers would ultimately bear.
“I may be a little off, but they’re talking about moving somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 tractor-trailer loads, seven days a week for 30 years, and the damage that could happen from that is more so than keeping it where it’s at and capping it,” he said. “My question for Alabama Power is: ‘How much does that cost?’ Because they’re going to pass that on to the consumers.”
Last week, Baldwin County Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood indicated she is performing due diligence before taking a firm position on the issue as well.
“I am still researching information,” she wrote in an email. “I have listened to Baykeeper’s concerns and began my research. I have taken a tour of the Plant Barry coal ash pond in person … I have contacted environmentalists, civil engineers, friends and acquaintances here and in other states who are familiar with both methods of closure for these ponds. I have spent a lot of time on this so far. I’m still gathering information and at this time do not have any additional comments about this issue. However, I do take these types of issues very seriously.”
Kistler acknowledged cleanup costs may indeed be passed on to customers — he’s seen one study indicating a $5 increase in monthly bills for periods as long as 15 years — but, “it’s a lot less than a spill would cost to clean up.”
Cleanup following the Kingston ash spill in Tennessee cost $1 billion and took 10 years to complete, but according to Kistler, it’s still a lingering problem for the region.
“Now, workers tasked with handling the ash are filing lawsuits over its detrimental health effects. The people who live there, their property is essentially valueless at this point,” he said. “With the Dan River (North Carolina) spill, there’s a study out there showing within the first six months after the spill, the hits to the economy were up to $200 million to $300 million.
While Baykeeper has been focusing get local resolutions passed, Kistler said that’s just one way elected officials could apply pressure to Alabama Power — noting they could also encourage constituent campaigns and enforceable actions at the state level.
In March, Virginia passed bipartisan legislation ordering the removal of more than 27 million cubic yards of coal ash from unlined ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It has also banned cap-in-place closures from being used on any unlined pond. In April, the state of North Carolina took a similar action when it ordered Duke Energy to excavate of all of its unlined coal ash pits — an administrative order the company is currently appealing.
Meanwhile, in early May Alabama Power was slapped with a $250,000 fine from ADEM for excessive levels of arsenic and radium leaching into the groundwater from an unlined coal ash pond in Gadsden. Company spokesman Michael Sznajderman said the utility self-reported those violations, adding it continually monitors groundwater data at all of its disposal facilities.
“Alabama Power is committed to safely and permanently closing” all of its ash ponds, Sznajderman wrote via email. “The [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] rules for the management and disposal of coal combustion residuals sets out two options for the safe and effective closure of ash ponds, including the close-in-place method. EPA determined that both methods — close in place and close by removal — can be equally protective. ADEM regulations also allow close in place.”
Executive Director Casi Callaway said Baykeeper has no problem with elected officials “doing [their] homework” and seeking input from all parties, but also noted the environmental community has little faith in ADEM to “do what is right for our waterways, economy and communities without real pressure.”
That pressure, she hopes, can come from the state’s elected officials. At the end of the day, she hopes those officials will listen to facts, not talking points.
“I have a great respect for Commissioner Carl, but most of what he’s saying is coming directly from Alabama Power and we already know it to be incorrect,” Callaway said. “Similar projects in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee didn’t take 30 years, and it is infinitely better to have toxic coal ash on our roadways than in our waterways.”
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