PICTURED: Lagniappe | A dam enclosing more than 21 million cubic feet of coal ash rises behind the eroded bank of the Mobile River.
The day in 1956 when the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant was officially dedicated was one of great celebration for the Mobile area.
The state-of-the-art plant was celebrated by politicians and business leaders as a game changer for this area, which at that time was the state’s fastest growing with a ravenous hunger for electricity that was outstripping the abilities of Alabama Power’s 1920s-era plant in Chickasaw. Barry, named after a recently retired Alabama Power president, had come online with twin 125,000-kilowatt turbines in 1954, after beginning construction three years earlier, and was built for expansion up to 1 million kilowatts.
The dedication of the plant seemed to be more about pomp and circumstance, with dignitaries meeting around town to talk about the grandiosity of the electric plant that would lead Mobile through the second half of the century and beyond. The September 21, 1956 edition of the Press-Register carried several stories about “Barry Steam Plant’s” dedication, and even a fair number of ads congratulating Alabama Power on its triumph.
General Electric, which built the two turbines that would power the growth of the greater Mobile area, even bought a full-page ad in the Press-Register touting Barry as “one of the world’s most modern power plants.”
But despite appearing to have the overwhelming backing of most of the area’s movers and shakers, ushering the plant’s construction along the banks of the Mobile River in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta from drawing board to reality hadn’t been completely smooth sailing.
When the plant was first proposed, Mobile Mayor E.M. Megginson and G.P. Brock, president of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, appeared at a meeting of the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) in support of Alabama Power’s initial petition. According to a Press-Register story from the time, they told the PSC not only would the plant support a rapidly growing Mobile area, but it would also be instrumental in luring industrial growth.
“We are now negotiating with a firm we are sure will require a lot of power if they come to Mobile,” Meggingson teased.
Alabama Electric Cooperative Inc. of Andalusia, however, filed a petition seeking to block the competition. Alabama Power’s attorney called the petition a “retaliatory move” stemming from Alabama Power’s own attempt to keep the co-op from getting a $3.1 million loan to build a steam plant in Gantt.
In the hearing, Alabama Power did outline the kind of growth that had the company eager to spend $40 million in 1950s dollars to build the massive new plant. They explained how sales in the Mobile division had grown from 105 million kilowatt hours in 1930 to 576 million in 1950 and expected that to be more than 1 billion kilowatt hours by 1956.
Alabama Power itself was growing at breakneck speed, and by 1956 the company employed 5,300 people, had an annual payroll of $27 million and served 620 communities and 583,559 customers, according to a 500-page, in-house history of the company called “Developed for Service.”
Barry’s position near the Mobile River was critical to its mission, and in the ’50s not much thought was given to matters such as environmental impact and the delicate nature of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, more than 300 square miles of wetlands and open waters comprising the second largest delta in the contiguous United States. The delta is home to more than 500 species of plants, 300 species of birds, 126 species of fish, 46 mammals, 69 reptiles and 30 amphibians, making it one of the more ecologically diverse places in North America.
Still, the need for energy outweighed — and arguably may still — any fears of what a huge, coal-fired power plant might do to the delta. For instance, one of the first big parts of Barry’s construction was dredging a nearly half mile-long canal through the swamps that would bring water for cooling the huge condensers, and barges carrying coal for firing boilers. And for 63 years, Barry Steam Plant has walked the tightrope specific to those who make power in especially environmentally sensitive parts of the country.
Even as the plant landed on lists of the nation’s dirtiest, primarily for the carbon dioxide and sulfur belched from its candy cane smokestacks, the company has also poured millions into installing “scrubbers” and other innovations that have kept it on the right side of generally tightening regulations regarding air and water emissions.
Until more recent years, the microscope has primarily been focused on airborne releases. And while regulators have been concerned about greenhouse gases, other potential problems grew. In the mid-’60s Barry constructed the beginnings of its pond designed to handle a slurry of wet coal ash left over from the firing of its boilers. With the typical environmental foresight of the day, the ponds were simply dug into the mud alongside the river and a dam of mud and clay built up around it to keep the toxins separate from open water.
Over the past 50-plus years, that pond has been expanded four times and is now just under 600 acres in size. A federal inspection in 2017 estimated the pond holding roughly 21 million tons of coal sludge more than 30 feet deep. Catastrophes in North Carolina and Kingston, Tennessee, however, finally brought attention to the dangers such ash ponds present, and now Alabama Power must close them all across the state.
It would be impossible to say Plant Barry’s coal ash pond is not a big part of the Mobile area’s history over the past 50-plus years. The growth of the pond mirrors the growth of the area, and Barry Steam Plant has provided the electricity that has helped Mobile coax in higher tech, lower pollution industries and also the area’s population growth.
Of Plant Barry’s five coal-burning units, two were converted to cleaner natural gas to create the heat it needs to turn its turbines and another was retired. And as of April the plant was no longer dumping wet ash into its pond in preparation for gaining the permits necessary to drain it and eventually “cap-in-place” those millions of tons of toxic ash, according to a company spokesman. The company says leaving the ash in the mud is the safest, cheapest method of disposing of it, even as its sister company in Georgia, as well as other power companies all across the eastern half of the country, are digging their ponds out and putting the ash into lined landfills that will keep arsenic and other toxins out of the groundwater.
Plant Barry expects to begin the process of burying the 21 million tons of coal ash in its pond later this year once permits are obtained.
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