Last August, the 30th member of a 900-person workforce tasked with the cleanup of the 2008 TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant coal ash spill died of an ailment believed to be linked to his two years of exposure to arsenic, radium and other toxins in the ash.
At least 200 others are currently sick or dying from similar ailments believed to be part of that cleanup work. They’re suing their employer, Jacobs Engineering, the company that sent them out to work with little protection and told them the coal ash was so safe they could eat a pound of it a day without ill effects. You have to wonder who tested that theory.
That’s what’s happening a decade after 525 million gallons of wet coal ash flooded more than 3,000 acres of nearby land and spilled into the Tennessee River after a retaining wall at the Kingston plant failed. The Kingston spill is the biggest coal ash spill in U.S. history, and hopefully will remain so. But the potential for one much, much larger looms just 30 miles north of Mobile, and Alabama Power is determined to make sure it hangs like a sword of Damocles over the southwest end of this state for decades to come.
Right now Alabama Power plans to drain and push dirt over a 597-acre pond containing 21 million tons of coal ash — and leave it sitting 200 feet from the Mobile River. That’s the very river that runs through the heart of downtown Mobile and empties into Mobile Bay, which then empties into the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, it’s a short trip for all that coal ash to destroy our world.
We’ve been writing about this threat for a couple of years now, and the environmental group Mobile Baykeeper has done a tremendous job of calling attention to what could easily be a disaster of generational proportions.
Just last week Baykeeper released photos of flooding around Alabama Power’s Plant Barry that should send a chill up the spine of anyone living downstream. January’s rains — certainly nothing Biblical by our rain-soaked standards — flooded the Mobile-Tensaw Delta around Barry’s ash pond, filling the adjacent woods and pushing flood currents 15 feet up the side of the pond’s 25-foot levee. That’s rushing floodwater against an earthen dam. Often that’s a horrible combination.
When Plant Barry was placed more or less in the middle of “America’s Amazon,” it was no doubt to take advantage of the plentiful water and relative scarcity of humans nearby. Over the years they’ve pounded tons and tons of coal ash — the toxic remnants of burned coal — into this unlined pit practically on the water’s edge. Calling it an “unlined pit” is really putting lipstick on a pig. It’s just a hole in the ground. No lining. Nothing to keep arsenic and other toxins from leaching into the groundwater. In fact, Alabama Power was fined just last year for “unpermitted release of ash pond pollutants related to Plant Barry ….” So it already leaks.
After horrific coal ash spills around the country, many power companies realized their own dangers — fiscally if not environmentally — and have moved to excavate ash pits and haul the contents to lined landfills away from water. In a letter to the Army Corp of Engineers in March 2016, it seemed Alabama Power was on its way to doing likewise. In the letter the company clearly tells the Corps it intends to move the coal ash from Plant Barry, stating the pond would be “cleaned out and closed following strict guidelines” established by the EPA. They changed their minds in November of that year following the presidential election.
I don’t want to get lost in a bunch of Republican/Democrat garbage here. Why they changed their minds isn’t nearly as relevant as the fact that they’re now determined to do the bare minimum by just draining and covering this massive environmental time bomb. I’m left with the mental image of some Alabama Power worker using a shovel to pat down the last bit of dirt on top of 21 tons of coal ash, brushing his hands together and saying, “There, that ought to hold ‘er!”
It’s rather hard to trust that Alabama Power has our best interests at heart here. Their money lines the pockets of so many state politicians it seems unbelievable they would ever face any real scrutiny from Montgomery. And simple logic tells us burying poison in the ground — especially in a swampy area — will lead to it finding its way into the water table and, eventually, into nearby tributaries.
That’s IF the earthen dam doesn’t just break one stormy day.
Think about what it would be like 10 years after a spill at Plant Barry. Fishing in the Delta and the Bay would probably be forbidden. Nearby Gulf fish might likely be off limits too. And how many people would be sick from exposure, either while just living life or working to clean up the mess?
We’ve seen enough to know many companies don’t do the right thing unless they’re forced to. Alabama Power absolutely falls into that category. The only reason they won’t remove that ash pit is because it would put a small dent in their very fat bottom line. A bottom line that comes from all of us buying their electricity — mostly with no other option.
I have to think there must be some people working at Alabama Power who would sleep better at night if those tons of coal ash were moved to a safer location. Surely they know you can’t spread it on bread and eat it, or whatever other idiotic thing someone is bound to say once there is a spill. Surely they know their company has made jillions of dollars over the decades selling electricity — and electric appliances!!! — to the people of southwest Alabama, so spending a little of that money to protect their customers from environmental disaster is just good business.
This is the time when our governor and other state leaders should step up and tell Alabama Power that just capping these poison pits isn’t going to be good enough. But the power of fat Alabama Power campaign donations probably renders that concept a dream.
Still, we have to try. Call or email your state representatives and the governor’s office and let them know if you’re not willing to let Alabama Power half-ass its way out of cleaning up their environmental mess.
Or just resign yourselves to worrying every time it rains hard.