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The Tensaw Timebomb: Alabama Power prepares to bury 21 million tons of coal ash at Plant Barry:

Within the next few months, Alabama Power is expected to obtain the permits necessary to cap-in-place, or essentially bury, 21 million tons of coal ash where it currently sits alongside the Mobile River in the Tensaw Delta at the James M. Barry Steam Plant.

The company has already capped, or is in the process of capping,11 similar ponds at its six coal-fired power plants across the state. These ponds are the result of decades of burning coal to produce the electricity used by more than 1.4 million households served by Alabama Power.

A 2015 change in law by the Environmental Protection Agency meant that ponds like those at Plant Barry, which sits unlined and less than five feet above groundwater aquifers, had to come into compliance or close. Power companies across the country were given two options to close those ponds: excavate and move the toxic coal ash to lined landfills, or remove and treat the water in the ponds and cap the remaining coal ash in place.

The decisions on how to best proceed have varied from state to state, company to company and even within companies, as cost-versus-risk have been assessed. For example, while Alabama Power has decided to cap-in-place, it’s sister company, Georgia Power, is digging out ponds at 19 of its facilities including all of those that sit closer to coastal waterways.

Environmental groups warn the dangers of leaving 21 million tons of coal ash in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta far outweigh any costs that might be borne by Alabama Power or its customers, as spills in Tennessee and North Carolina each cost more than $1 billion to clean up, and have resulted in long-term health and economic damage in their communities. Mobile Baykeeper warns the danger of such a spill into the Delta would be catastrophic.

But Alabama Power has argued digging out the nearly 600-acre pond at Plant Barry and trucking its contents to a lined landfill would cost millions more and take decades to achieve. The company has already been given a 3 percent rate increase by Alabama’s Public Service Commission for the express purpose of closing its ash ponds — an increase that would appear to generate more than $75 million a year for the company.

Even as Alabama Power argues cap-in-place is the safest and cheapest method of protecting the environment from arsenic and other toxins present in coal ash, the company has been freshly fined by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for groundwater contamination around one of its ponds near Gadsden — a pond already capped-in-place exactly as the company intends to do at Plant Barry.

Seeking to find answers to what potential dangers are associated with either capping or excavating these ponds, Lagniappe has put together a series of articles that will run over the next five weeks examining what is being proposed at Plant Barry and elsewhere around Alabama, and how it compares with other states. We have attempted to look at this issue from every angle and to understand why Alabama in general and Plant Barry in particular are outliers when it comes to the handling of coal ash.

State and local leaders have been put on the record as to where they stand on this issue, and Alabama Power has been offered the opportunity to explain the choice they’re making.

Over the next five weeks we hope to provide our community with a clear look at the risks and costs that could come from leaving 21 million tons of coal ash buried in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

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