Catching Up on Coal Ash: Why The Dam at Plant Barry is Unsafe

Catching Up on Coal Ash:

Why The Dam at Plant Barry is Unsafe

 Above: High water shown on the Mobile River adjacent to Plant Barry after a period of heavy rain.

Above: High water shown on the Mobile River adjacent to Plant Barry after a period of heavy rain.

In our last blog post from this series, we focused on one of the main issues presented in our coal ash report - groundwater pollution at Plant Barry. Perhaps an even more concerning issue is safety concerns with the dam that holds the coal ash pond together. This dam is made up of dirt, clay, and coal ash making it prone to collapse during hurricanes, major rains, and flooding. As residents of Coastal Alabama, we are no strangers to extreme weather.

 Above: The 2008 TVA spill in Kingston, TN devastated nearby communities, wildlife, and cost more than $1 billion to clean up. 

Above: The 2008 TVA spill in Kingston, TN devastated nearby communities, wildlife, and cost more than $1 billion to clean up. 

The scary thing is, we’ve seen dam failures happen in other areas of the country with catastrophic impacts, such as the 2008 TVA spill in Kingston, TN  and the 2014 Duke Energy spill into the Dan River. Each of these incidents has cost more than $1 billion to clean up and significantly impacted the health of local communities, property values, local economies, and the environment.

Earlier this year, we worked with  a dam safety expert to study the dam holding back the toxic coal ash at Plant Barry. The goal of the dam study was to evaluate the long-term stability of the dam and understand the risks it presents to downstream communities, the Delta, Mobile River, and Mobile Bay in the event of a breach or catastrophic failure of the dam.  

Here are three key findings from the Burgess Dam Safety Report:

  1. Flooding - The flood risk assessment showed that if a flood occurred, the water from the ash pond would rise to just under half an inch from the top of the dam, the dam safety expert described this as a “razor thin margin of error.”

  2. ErosionBig rivers move. Mobile River will eventually meander through the coal ash pond unless  “significant erosion protection measures” are implemented and maintained to prevent this from happening. There are few measures that could secure the dam for the long term.

  3. Seepage - Seepage of water through the sides of a dam, also known as “piping”, is one of the most common causes of failure for earthen dams (~40% of all earthen dam failures). This flow of water through the wall of the dam has been documented at the toe of the Plant Barry ash pond. At the site where seepage has been documented, there has been erosion and sand accumulation observed and there is a clearly visible change in slope showing the hazards of the earthen dam at Plant Barry.

The dam safety report clearly states, “closure of the Pond in-place is not advised.”

If the dam broke, it would release more than 21 million tons of toxic coal ash into the heart of the Delta,  a volume 20 times larger than the oil spilled from  BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster. We don’t want to see another disaster strike the Gulf Coast. Covering this leaking unlined pond near the Mobile River is irresponsible and threatens the health of our community, economy, and environment.

Here’s What You Can Do

Mobile Baykeeper is determined to find a responsible solution that protects our health, our way of life, our economy, and the biodiversity of the Mobile Bay Watershed. Our goal is simple: we want Alabama Power to do the right thing - move the coal ash out of the water and away from the River. Protect our rivers, wetlands, and Bay for our health, economy, and for future generations.

Alabama Power has proven to be a strong leader and good neighbor in communities throughout the state. It is only fitting that they should be a leader on this issue and make a decision to protect the health of our communities and environment from coal ash.

We encourage YOU to take action and tell Alabama Power about your concerns.  You can write to Alabama Power in just a few easy steps in the form below. Urge Alabama Power to do the right thing to protect the health of our environment, economy, and community.


Learn More

Barry Aerial.jpg

Visit mobilebaykeeper.org/coalash to learn more about this issue. To read the full coal ash pollution report, click on the button below. Fill out the form below to send a pre-drafted letter to Alabama Power or write your own instead.


Questions? Contact Program Director Cade Kistler at ckistler@mobilebaykeeper.org or call 251-433-4229.


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