Here’s the rundown
Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants.
Power plants typically mix the ash with water and dump it in massive “ponds” or pits nearby. Toxic pollutants commonly found in coal ash include heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, selenium, chromium, and lead, which are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and waterways. A report by a physician-led non-profit found that coal ash pits can leach toxic constituents thousands of times greater than drinking water standards. 11 workers died after they were exposed to coal ash from the Kingston, Tennessee spill and hundreds more cases of serious illness and death have since emerged.
Alabama Power’s Plant Barry holds more than 21 million tons of coal ash in an unlined pit just 25 miles upstream of Mobile Bay. The pit is surrounded on three sides by the Mobile River.
At Alabama Power’s Plant Barry, more than 21 million tons of toxic coal ash sits in a 600-acre unlined pit, allowing toxic chemicals to contaminate groundwater and the Mobile River. Alabama Power’s own reporting shows that they are already leaking 806% the legal limit of arsenic into our groundwater. Because of Plant Barry’s location directly on the Mobile River in the middle of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the coal ash stored there threatens nearby communities and our way of life – swimming, fishing, hunting, and boating on these waters.
Coal ash dam breaches are common, devastating, and expensive.
The 2008 Kingston coal ash spill resulted in 11 deaths, 40 damaged or destroyed homes, and up to $3 billion in damages and cleanup costs. In 2014 a power plant spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, estimated to cost the region $295 million. Other spills in North Carolina and elsewhere have had lasting and damaging impacts on the public health, economy, and environment of surrounding areas. Unsafe containment of coal ash can also affect our economy – industries such as seafood, tourism, and real estate rely on clean water.
During 2018’s Hurricane Florence, Duke Energy facilities experienced multiple coal ash spills. At Duke Energy’s Sutton Steam Plant, flooding from the hurricane breached the dam and caused coal ash to spill into the Cape Fear River – even after Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette warned years earlier that such a catastrophe might happen if the coal ash wasn’t removed. The safety assessments of Plant Barry’s coal ash pit are based on the 1000-year rain event (21.7 inches in 24 hours). The wettest tropical storms hitting the U.S. in recent history exceeded that amount by up to 40 inches.
Despite a $1.25 million fine (including $250,000 for violations specifically at Plant Barry) from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Alabama Power plans to leave their coal ash where it is with a band-aid measure called cap-in-place. Cap-in-place puts a liner over the top of the pit, leaving it unlined on the bottom. Alabama Power finished the cap-in-place process at Gadsden in the fall of 2018. In 2019 they continued to find as much as 10,000% (100x) the national groundwater limit for arsenic and 50% above the limit for radium. Researchers have even found that cap-in-place can make pollution worse.
Alabama Power estimates they will spend $1.2 billion (approximately $245 million per year) on cap-in-place and monitoring over the next 5 years alone. They are already charging their customers an average of $4.49/month more to cap-in-place. This is almost as much as Virginia utility customers are paying to remove 29 million tons of coal ash from pits statewide. Alabama Power has released no studies comparing the cost of cap-in-place to the cost of removal, but Mobile Baykeeper’s own estimate (based on removal in other states) gives an approximate cost of $1.4 billion dollars for removal of coal ash from Plant Barry.
We’re asking Alabama Power to remove their toxic coal ash to a lined, upland landfill or to be recycled like other Southern states are doing.
There is no silver bullet for coal ash but we have a choice: we can either leave 21 million tons of coal ash in an unlined landfill in a hurricane-prone, delicate delta or we can excavate it to be recycled or placed in lined, upland landfills away from Alabama’s waterways and vulnerable communities. Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina are removing their coal ash to upland, lined landfills. We need Alabama Power to do the same.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is coal ash?
Coal ash is what remains after coal is burned. It is a powdery material the utility mixes with water and sends to massive ponds near the power plant.
Is coal ash really toxic?
Yes. Coal ash contains high concentrations of heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, and lead, which are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and waterways. Since the 2008 Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill, more than 30 cleanup workers have died and hundreds more are seriously ill. A report by a physician-led non-profit found that coal ash ponds can leach toxic constituents thousands of times greater than drinking water standards.
Where is the coal ash pond in Coastal Alabama?
Alabama Power’s Plant Barry is immediately adjacent to the Mobile River, about 25 miles north of Mobile Bay. It is surrounded on three sides by the river.
Is pollution from the Plant Barry ash pond leaking into our environment now?
Yes, toxic pollutants like arsenic and cobalt are illegally leaking into groundwater at the site. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has issued multiple fines to Alabama Power, including a fine of $250,000 at Plant Barry for polluting groundwater.
What is 'cap-in-place' and what does it do?
Cap-in-place means removing the water from the coal ash pond, consolidating it, and covering the top of the pond with a synthetic liner. It does not line the bottom of the coal ash pond. Researchers have found cap-in-place can make pollution worse.
What doesn’t cap-in-place do?
Cap-in-place does not necessarily stop groundwater pollution and it does not protect the pond from flooding and the potential for a spill. A capped facility (H.F. Lee) in North Carolina spilled coal ash into a nearby river during flooding caused by a hurricane. Alabama Power finished the cap-in-place process at Gadsden in the fall of 2018. They continue to find arsenic as much as 10,000% above the national groundwater limit and radium 50% above the limit.
What could go wrong?
The worst-case scenario is a catastrophic coal ash spill. Alabama Power’s coal ash pond at Plant Barry has 21 million tons of toxic ash – that’s more than 20 times the volume of oil spilled in the BP Oil Disaster. Unlike the BP Oil Disaster, this coal ash pond is not out in the Gulf but 25 miles upriver from Mobile. The impact of a coal ash spill on our real estate, tourism, and seafood industries, as well as our environmental and public health, would be devastating. The Kingston, TN coal ash spill was only 1.1 million gallons and resulted in human death and illness, inestimable environmental damage, and cost an estimate of $3 billion to clean up.
What does the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) have to say about this?
ADEM has fined Alabama Power $1.25 million – less than 0.1% of the company’s 2018 net income – for their groundwater violations but are not currently requiring removal of coal ash. In their November 14, 2019 response to Alabama Power’s CCR documents submitted for approval, ADEM criticized the company for jumping to the conclusion of cap-in-place without doing proper research: “As stated previously, it is the Department’s position that any final decision regarding corrective measures at the sites is premature, considering the …extent of contamination at each of the sites has yet to be fully delineated.”
What are other states doing with their coal ash?
Coal ash removal is already taking place in nearby states.
- Alabama Power’s sister company, Georgia Power, has voluntarily agreed to remove coal ash from every one of the utility’s 19 coastal coal ash pits.
- In North Carolina, which has seen disastrous spills in the past, more than 13 million tons of coal ash have been removed and Duke Energy has agreed to remove a total of 80 million tons of coal ash cleaning every ash pit in the state.
- In Virginia, recent bipartisan legislation requires the removal of all 29 million tons of coal ash in the state
- In South Carolina, the electric utility Santee Cooper has voluntarily agreed to remove all of the coal ash at every pit in the state.
Won’t moving the coal ash pose its own problems?
Yes, it will. There is no perfect solution to deal with coal ash. However, the problems are known and manageable. As noted above, states around the Southeast have decided removal was the better option for their environment, economy, and community. Speculation by Alabama Power about dire side effects of removal, such as truck spills, are grossly overblown considering they are already trucking coal ash. Having a covered truck spill is possible but very rare, and spilling a relatively small volume on land is more manageable than spilling millions of tons into a major waterway. Further, trucks aren’t the only way to deal with the ash. To prevent an excessive amount of trucks, other utilities are using rail to remove coal ash, conducting on-site recycling, and building their own modern landfills.
How does the cost of removal compare to the cost of cap-in-place?
Alabama Power has declined to release any detailed information on the cost of removal. While every site is unique, using the average costs from coal ash removal in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia gives an approximate cost of $1.4 billion dollars for removal of coal ash from Plant Barry. Alabama Power estimates they will spend $896 million capping coal ash at Plant Barry alone. The utility has already added ~$4.49/month to Alabama customers’ bills to recoup their costs. This is approximately the same as the rate increase Virginia utility customers are paying to remove 29 million tons of coal ash from ponds statewide. Alabama Power’s 2018 financials show the utility had approximately $6 billion in revenue and $930 million in profits.
What about landfill location and poor and minority communities?
Coal ash disposal must not disproportionately affect any vulnerable communities. Alabama Power should consider this factor when selecting landfills for removal and in how those landfills are managed. Alabama Power has not released any research on landfill locations.
What does the EPA’s CCR rule say?
The Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule does not allow utilities to pick and choose between excavation and cap-in-place. They can cap-in-place only if the site and their plan (1) stop and prevent the coal ash from sitting in groundwater (impoundment), (2) eliminate free liquids, and (3) control, minimize, or eliminate leachate. From our analysis of Alabama Power’s plans and discussions with multiple geologists, the current closure-in-place plan can’t satisfy any of the CCR Rule requirements. It has to satisfy all of them, not just one or two; otherwise, cap-in-place is illegal.
What happened with the Tennessee coal ash spill?
The Kingston coal ash spill occurred in 2008 when heavy rain caused a dike to rupture at a coal ash pit at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Plant, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash. It resulted in 11 deaths, 40 damaged or destroyed homes, and up to $3 billion in damages and cleanup.
What about coal ash spills in North Carolina?
In 2014 a power plant spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. Ash was found up to 70 miles away. Academic papers have estimated the spill cost the region $295 million.
Other spills in North Carolina and elsewhere have had lasting and damaging impacts on the areas public health, economy, and environment.
Why is Alabama Power resisting removing the ash from Plant Barry?
We can identify only cost as the driving force behind Alabama Power’s decision to cap-in-place. All of the other reasons given to support capping-in-place have proved time and again to be insignificant or immaterial at the many other coal ash pits from which the coal ash has been removed.
What about hurricanes and flooding?
Hurricanes are an especially pressing concern. In 2018, Hurricane Florence caused multiple spills of coal ash from Duke Energy facilities. At Duke Energy’s Sutton Steam Plant, flooding from the hurricane breached the dam causing coal ash to spill into the Cape Fear River, this after Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette warned years earlier that such a catastrophe might happen if coal ash wasn’t removed from the side of the river.
Hurricane Florence also caused coal ash to spill at Duke Energy’s already capped H.F. Lee coal plant. The same site had a coal ash spill during Hurricane Matthew.
Hurricane Florence almost caused a coal ash spill into South Carolina’s Waccamaw River. There Santee Cooper’s Grainger Power station came mere inches from flood waters overtopping the ash ponds dam. The only reason the utility avoided a spill was because they had proactively begun removing coal ash. The facilities coal ash pond closest to the river was completely flooded only months after being emptied.
Plant Barry is within the flood area from storm surge for Category 3-5 storms and that doesn’t even include the potential for catastrophic river flooding.
Flooding is another concern. Plant Barry’s coal ash pond is within the 100 and 500 year flood plains. Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Florence (2018) were 1 in 1000 year events. In coastal Alabama, one of the rainiest areas in the United States, we can get 20 inches of rain in a day without a tropical storm in sight.
Isn’t Alabama Power already excavating the coal ash and moving it away from the river?
Alabama Power does plan to dewater and consolidate the coal ash at the current site along the Mobile River, but none of the ash will be removed from the pit. Based on Alabama Power’s plan, some of the ash will be moved inward a maximum of 750 yards farther from the river. However, much of the ash will remain within a few hundred yards of the river. For comparison purposes, at Duke Energy’s Sutton coal plant, whose coal ash pit spilled into the river during Hurricane Florence, every bit of the coal ash was located at least 650 yards from the river, some of it as much as 1 mile from the river.
Is the ash pond at Plant Barry lined?
No. Alabama Power often refers to a “natural clay liner”, but they have acknowledged in reports to the EPA and ADEM that there is no liner.
How high are groundwater levels at Plant Barry?
Alabama Power’s groundwater monitoring shows that the average groundwater level at the site is higher than the coal ash. The utility’s own monitoring has shown groundwater levels as high as 8.17 feet above sea level with an average groundwater level of >3.6 feet above sea level. This is especially problematic because Alabama Power’s documentation and figures of coal ash elevation at the site show the bottom of the ash is at approximately 3 feet above sea level with some portions of the ash as low as 10 feet below sea level. This strongly suggests that coal ash at Plant Barry is soaking in groundwater.
Has Alabama Power said how they will deal with the ongoing groundwater pollution?
Alabama Power recently released their “Assessment of Corrective Measures” which describes how they plan to address the ongoing groundwater pollution. While they outlined many potential strategies in the plan, they commit to only one: ‘Monitored Natural Attenuation’ which means that once the ash is covered by the cap, Alabama Power will wait (and hope) for “natural processes” to reduce the groundwater pollution over a period of several years to decades. However, the company will be liable for the closed pit for only thirty years after closure.
Is Alabama Power building a redundant dike around the ash pond?
Alabama Power has given some limited details about a redundant dike they say they will construct around the pond to protect it from flooding. The dike is often mentioned as being able to withstand the 500 year 24-hour flood, about 21 inches. Unfortunately, this is woefully inadequate to handle the kind of storm events that have hit the U.S. in the last few years.