As Lagniappe began asking local elected officials where they stand on Alabama Power’s plan to bury 21 million tons of toxic coal ash alongside the Mobile River, I was surprised how many expressed either blind trust in the big utility and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), or displayed ignorance of a baby that’s been on their doorstep for four years.
Perhaps it was dumb of me to be surprised, but I did expect more than a few of the people we chose to lead us to have at least bothered to read the many news stories done on this subject over the past several years. Your favorite newspaper alone has written about the issues surrounding the shutdown of coal ash ponds around the state since 2016, and I know we’re not alone.
Somehow though, many of the 42 elected officials we attempted to get on the record in last week’s issue still pleaded ignorance of the subject and appear to think there’s still lots and lots of time to navel gaze, even though Alabama Power will be seeking water permits to begin the process of “capping in place” this fall.
Among those elected officials who didn’t just bag out of answering the question at all, many just played the game of “There are two sides to every story and I’m giving it a hard look.” I’d say that’s perfectly fine if it was 2017 and Alabama Power burying the remnants of coal burned over the past 54 years wasn’t going to start becoming reality in a few months. But it’s time to have an opinion on this, and it’s very clear trusting ADEM or Alabama Power to do what’s best is only going to end up with a solution that’s best for Alabama Power.
Of the politicos interviewed who did back the decision to cap in place, they parroted Alabama Power talking points to a degree that made it hard to believe they had considered any information not given to them by the utility. Alabama Power has been bringing elected officials from Mobile and Baldwin counties out to Barry Steam Plant to show them the 600-acre coal ash pond and tell them how safe the levees holding back all that toxic mess really are. They’re also quick to make the point having to move the pond to a lined landfill would raise everyone’s electric bills. They’ve also hammered home the idea that disturbing the coal ash is dangerous and all these trucks on the roads moving it would present a huge danger and create wear and tear on the roads.
Many politicians we spoke with repeated those very talking points, but didn’t seem to have the whole picture. For instance, most weren’t aware the Alabama Public Service Commission already granted Alabama Power a 3 percent rate increase earlier this year specifically for handling their coal ash pits. So everyone’s rates have already gone up and almost nobody noticed.
Others were surprised to find out Georgia Power — also owned by the Southern Company — is digging out most of its coal ash ponds and moving them to lined landfills. Or that a coal ash pond capped in place near Gadsden is already leaking toxins into the groundwater and received a fine from ADEM at the beginning of May. Most also were ignorant of the fact Alabama Power has already received fines from ADEM for toxic leaks at the Plant Barry pond.
For a lot of these people, Alabama Power is the bear they don’t want to poke. Maybe it’s because they like the money Alabama Power throws into their political coffers, or more likely it’s because of the money the company sprinkles around communities across the state for pet projects that keep politicians in office. New parks, festivals and other special events often count on Alabama Power bucks to become reality, and I’m sure few city councilors, mayors and county commissioners want to ruffle feathers, especially over something they don’t consider “their” issue.
It is especially ironic that most of our local leaders are conservatives who preach the gospel of not relying on or trusting government, yet in this case they suddenly are willing to abdicate any responsibility to an agency that only started issuing fines to Alabama Power after new regulation changes meant groundwater emissions readings could be seen by the public. ADEM hits Alabama Power with a tiny $250,000 fine, but never makes the company do anything to solve the problem.
The idea of trusting Alabama Power to make the decision that’s best for the community is rather naïve. If Alabama Power is so transparent, then why would they dodge so many questions we asked them for last week’s stories? They simply didn’t answer questions such as how much money their rate increase will generate, how much groundwater contamination they consider too much or why if capping the pond is the safest, best method of dealing with coal ash ponds, then why is its parent company doing it differently in Georgia.
We couldn’t get those answers and even the politicians who’ve been on the Alabama Power Magical Mystery Tour at Plant Barry don’t appear to have gotten that info either.
The basic questions are still hanging out there — why should we believe cap in place will work in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta when it’s already failing in Gadsden, and why is Alabama the only state around not requiring these ponds to be dug out of the ground?
Trusting utilities to put community safety ahead of their own financial concerns has proven disastrous time and time again. Ask the people of Kingston, Tennessee, who have spent more than a decade dealing with a massive coal ash spill when a levee broke.
We have no choices when it comes to using Alabama Power to provide our electricity, but we should have a say in whether they’re allowed to pollute our waterways and leave a 21 million ton toxic time bomb of coal ash in a position to possibly be washed into “America’s Amazon.”
Local elected officials need to realize this matter isn’t just going away, even if they bury their heads in the sand while Alabama Power buries its coal ash in the mud. It’s hard to believe those groundwater readings are suddenly going to get better even after the pond is capped and those who supported it are just going to look stupid when we’re still talking about this in five years.
The clock is ticking, folks. Get educated and at least ask some hard questions before you just roll over for Alabama Power.
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