Photo | Courtesy of Baykeeper
Environmental organizations have questioned why all of the coal ash ponds in Alabama are S being closed differently than some in other Southeastern states.
Since 2015, new federal regulations for storing coal ash have forced utilities like Alabama Power and others across the country to change the way they’ve conducted business for decades and spend millions trying to come into compliance.
Those regulatory changes have resulted in the closure or planned closure of hundreds of coal ash ponds, and in some cases, led to the shuttering of power plants and the loss of jobs.
However, Frank Holleman, an attorney who has focused on coal ash in his work with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), told Lagniappe this is a problem the industry created for itself — a can it kicked until it ran out of road.
“We’re dealing with a pollution problem that never had to happen,” Holleman said. “When you burn coal to generate electricity, of course you’re not producing any wastewater, but utilities created this system to save some marginal dollars and for their own convenience.”
Burning coal creates a number of harmful byproducts including arsenic, cadmium and cobalt, and for years, coal-fired power plants in the United States have mixed spent coal ash with water and stored the wet ash that results from that process in large ponds — most of them unlined.
The problem is, the vast majority of those ponds are leaking into the groundwater and have been for years. That’s one of the things the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was trying to address when it enacted new rules on where wet ash ponds could be used in 2015.
Since then, the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule has forced hundreds of these ponds to close, including the 21 million-cubic-yard pond at Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County, which, like others in Alabama, is too close to the groundwater beneath it to continue operating safely.
As of April, Alabama Power had stopped sending ash to all of its ponds and is now using dry handling and storage statewide. Company spokesman Michael Sznajderman said 69 percent of the ash produced at Plant Barry today is being recycled to be used in materials like concrete.
The rest is trucked five miles north to Waste Management’s Chastang Landfill in Mt. Vernon, though the company is trying to expand its recycling program and reuse more of its ash.
“At this time, we are recycling about 390 tons daily with about 180 tons going daily to the landfill. The daily amount going to the landfill equates to about seven, 25-ton truckloads,” Sznajderman said. “The amount recycled and the amount sent to the landfill will vary depending on the generation schedule at Barry and our ability to sell ash to the market for beneficial reuse.”
Now the company is moving forward with plans to close its coal ash ponds for good, and under the same 2015 EPA rules, utilities are given two options for doing so: excavating the material to a lined landfill or dewatering the pond, consolidating the existing ash and covering it, or “capping” it, in place.
That’s where utilities like Alabama Power and PowerSouth differ from others around the Southeast. Unlike several other states in the region, where many if not all ash ponds are being excavated, all of the power plants in Alabama have or are planning to cap their ponds in place.
‘Like a sore thumb’
It can be difficult to say how plans to close coal ash ponds in Alabama stack up with efforts in other states for a number of reasons, but mostly because this issue is still very much in flux.
Since March, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has announced plans to excavate coal ash from two ponds it had previously planned to cap in place near Nashville and Memphis.
High levels of arsenic contamination at a plant in Memphis led TVA to announce plans to remove and rebury 5 million tons of ash from an unlined pit at the facility in March. However, TVA spokesman Scott Brooks told Lagniappe there were other factors at play as well.
“There’s also been an expressed interest in redevelopment of that property because it’s prime waterfront property,” he said. “It probably wouldn’t be the best option to leave in place, because if we dig up the ash, we can address the contamination issues regardless of where it’s coming from, instead of capping and leaving it with what we knew was an issue with contamination.”
TVA also agreed last month to remove 12 million additional tons of coal ash from a plant near Nashville as part of a settlement with state regulators. Brooks said there was already an on-site landfill at that facility, which he said is always preferable to trucking coal ash somewhere else.
The ash ponds TVA maintained at its Alabama facilities have already been closed in place.
In Georgia and South Carolina, utilities have voluntarily decided to remove coal ash from a number of unlined ponds. Throughout the region, though, state governments are also moving to require utilities to excavate their ash ponds through environmental regulation and legislation.
Duke Energy was in the process of excavating eight of its 14 sites in North Carolina when the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) ruled earlier this year that the utility would have to remove ash from the other six as well. At the time, DEQ’s secretary said, “Science clearly shows excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment.”
Virginia also passed bipartisan legislation requiring Dominion Energy to remove all of its ash this year — one of the many changes that has made tracking this issue nationally a challenge.
The most comprehensive effort to collect information on how various states are closing their ponds has been an effort by Earthjustice — an environmental legal team that has compiled information on hundreds of ash ponds and landfills at more than 260 U.S. power plants.
Some of their data is out of date because of how quickly these decisions can shift at the state and company levels, but Sznajderman still cited it to support his assertion that Alabama Power’s closure plans are not out of step with the industry. Indeed, of the 737 coal units Earthjustice reviewed, 493 are being closed using cap in place, while only 225 will be removed entirely.
Of the 50 largest ash ponds by volume only one — Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen — is planned to be closed by removal. At 21 million cubic yards, it is just slightly larger than Barry’s. In all, Georgia Power has agreed to excavate 19 of its 29 ash ponds including those from both of its coastal plants.
Other than saying all ash pond closure plans are “site specific,” Sznajderman did not address why Alabama Power’s sister company to the east is handling coal ash differently.
Like Georgia Power, though, multiple utilities in the Southeast have changed course and announced plans to excavate coal ash once slated to be capped in place — many in response to public, political or legal pressure from environmental groups and regulatory agencies.
That has not been the case in Alabama, which is the only state the SELC works in that plans to cap every one of its coal ash ponds in place. Holleman said it’s “sticking out like a sore thumb.”
“On the Atlantic Coast — from Florida to Maryland — every coal ash site operated by every utility in those states is being excavated so there will no longer be a risk of a coal ash disaster in the coastal areas of those Southern states when a hurricane hits the shore,” Holleman said. “Georgia Power, a sister company of Alabama Power, has agreed to excavate a number of sites including the ash at every coastal site it operates, as well as its largest.”
Like Holleman, Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway also said that Alabama Power comparing its plan for Barry’s ash pond to the total volume being excavated around the country obscures how similar plants in the region are proceeding.
Callaway noted, and Earthjustice’s data confirms, that with a few exceptions, ash ponds in other states within the same proximity to major waterways like the Mobile River are being excavated.
“Sure, the only states where environmental groups and riverkeepers have been loud about this issue are in the Southeast, but that’s because it’s the only place where there’s been a fight,” Callaway said. “The vast majority of states, especially ones like California and everywhere north of the Mason Dixon line said: ‘We’ve got to do this right.’ It didn’t even cross their mind to leave it sitting next to a major river system [like] we have decided to do in Alabama.”
As Lagniappe has reported, in addition to the minimum requirements set out in state and federal regulations that allow cap in place closure methods to be used at certain ash ponds, Alabama Power has included some additional safeguards in its plan to close Barry’s pond.
Those details and Earthjustice’s national coal ash data is available at lagniappemobile.com.
Something in the water
An EPA spokesperson told Lagniappe that cap in place and removal methods can be equally protective of the environment “if certain performance standards can be met” — standards that are based on a utility’s ability to show that a capped pond isn’t leaking into groundwater off-site.
If those standards aren’t met, what happens next depends on where the facility is. In 2018, the Trump administration rolled back certain provisions of the 2015 EPA rule and gave more leeway to the director of state agencies like the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
It allowed states with a water permitting program “to suspend groundwater monitoring requirements” if there wasn’t evidence that the byproducts of coal ash were moving toward the groundwater outside of a facility being monitored. Environmentalists say allowing state agencies like ADEM to govern water permitting on their own will allow them to define what pollution is.
“The 2018 rule gave state agency directors the authority to make decisions that had in the past been left up to a purely scientific determination,” Holleman said. “The problem is, those directors are creatures of politics. They’re politically appointed by the governor or the legislature and their budgets, including their salaries, come from state legislatures or the governor.”
To put it mildly, the environmental community in Alabama is not confident in ADEM’s ability or willingness to police utilities under this new federal authority.
Holleman noted that coal ash ponds here have been polluting groundwater for years and ADEM could have fined them or pulled their state permit entirely at any point. Yet, the first time those fines were assessed to utilities in Alabama was in 2018 — after they were compelled to publicly disclose their own groundwater monitoring data for the first time.
Currently, Alabama Power is moving forward with plans to close all of its coal ash ponds in place even though the only one it’s completely closed using that method has already been shown to be leaking arsenic and radium into groundwater monitoring wells at Plant Gadsden.
ADEM fined Alabama Power $250,000 for the violation in May, and Baykeeper has held the incident out as proof that capping unlined ash ponds won’t prevent them from leaching into the groundwater and putting nearby waterways at risk.
Alabama Power hasn’t fully addressed how the issue will be corrected as part of its post-closure compliance work at the Gadsden plant. Sznajderman did say the violation there was “self-reported” to ADEM and the company is working to address it going forward.
Lagniappe reached out to ADEM with questions about how it would handle Plant Gadsden and other facilities where leaks are detected going forward, but was told the agency couldn’t comment because it’s currently considering several permits that will impact Alabama Power.
At the moment, ADEM is considering whether to grant Alabama Power a state permit that would allow it to close the pond at Plant Barry as planned. It will also soon be reviewing a remediation plan for removing the coal ash that’s been shown to be in the groundwater there.
That plan is expected to be submitted by Alabama Power sometime in July as part of an application for ADEM’s new National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
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