Coal Ash is a Danger We Can't Ignore

The storm of a lifetime, landscapes forever changed, future generations affected.

Plant Barry, sitting directly on the banks of the Mobile River, North Mobile County. Photo: Cade Kistler. Flight provided by Southwings.

These are the realities facing residents of the Carolinas in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence which made landfall on the North Carolina coast on September 14, 2018. With powerful winds and heavy rain, Florence left a trail of devastation in its path.

Hurricane Florence did not directly impact the Gulf Coast, but this catastrophic storm highlighted critical weaknesses of coal ash ponds in coastal areas. This summer we caught up on coal ash and explained the dangers of this toxic material including the grave dangers of having a coal ash pond in a floodplain near the coast just upstream of Mobile Bay.

Toxic Coal Ash Spills into Rivers Across the Carolinas

Duke Energy’s coal ash pond has been breached by floodwaters from Florence, and its coal ash is flowing into the Cape Fear River. (Associated Press Video via WTVHD; Sept. 21)

Hurricane Florence caused three types of coal ash events to occur: devastating spills, mitigated spills, and avoided spills.

Devastating Spills

Much like Alabama Power’s Plant Barry near Mobile, Alabama, Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton coal ash pond sits on the edge of a large river near the coast. Environmental groups have warned for years that the pond is prone to flooding and potential disaster. Over five years ago Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette penned an op-ed for the Wilmington Star News warning that,

The threat of disaster is very real if Duke makes the irresponsible decision to leave any coal ash at the Sutton plant. The likelihood of a hurricane striking the Cape Fear River basin only ups the ante for a possible spill.

Coal ash flows out of Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton ash pond into the Cape Fear River. Photo - Waterkeeper Alliance.

Only after a lengthy and contentious lawsuit was Duke Energy finally forced to begin removal of the coal ash. Tragically, it was too late. Flooding from Hurricane Florence caused the dam to fail releasing toxic coal ash into the Cape Fear River. It is now evident that some portion of the 400,000+ tons of coal ash from the pond is now flowing down the Cape Fear River. Downstream from the pond, over a quarter million residents of Wilmington, NC will now deal with this toxic mess. On September 16th, Burdette visited the site of the massive breaches, and found a waterfall of coal ash cascading into the Cape Fear River. After evaluating the situation by boat on September 21st he made this statement:

“Coal ash will be in the floodwaters of downtown Wilmington shortly. The coal ash ponds, Sutton Lake, and the Cape Fear river are now one. This was an entirely avertable tragedy that Duke Energy could have prevented. We will all be paying for this disaster for years to come.

Mitigated Spills

Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee Plant, had documented coal ash spills after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. After those spills Duke Energy made improvements to the inactive ponds and publicly felt confident that the ponds were protected from any river flooding that might happen in the future. However in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, extensive spills were reported by Duke Energy and documented by Waterkeeper Alliance member Neuse Riverkeeper. Although there are disagreements about how much coal ash spilled from the ponds into the Neuse River, the fact that the spills occurred - even after improvements like cap-in-place were made - is alarming and discredits claims by utilities that these ash ponds can be safely located on the side of major rivers.

September 21, 2018 - Florence's floodwaters breached a dam holding back a large reservoir at a North Carolina, power plant Friday, and coal ash from an adjacent dump is flowing into a nearby river. Waterkeeper Alliance members rescued a turtle from the muck. Video via Waterkeeper Alliance

Avoided Spills

Santee Cooper, the power and water authority for South Carolina, announced after Hurricane Florence that floodwaters from Florence would likely flow into their coal ash ponds along the Waccamaw River. However, the South Carolina utility, which has begun removing coal ash at every site in the state acted quickly to prevent a disaster like the one in neighboring North Carolina.  In stark contrast to other utilities, Santee Cooper collaborated with the state of South Carolina, the local Riverkeeper, and other groups to find ways to ensure disaster was averted. Prompt action was taken to move the coal ash away from the water, preventing a disaster similar to what was seen in North Carolina. Waccamaw Riverkeeper Cara Schildtknecht praised Santee Cooper’s actions saying, “I think if they wouldn’t have already been so proactive in removing that coal ash, we’d be facing a completely different problem. It would be devastating,”

Crews on Monday monitor the temporary dam surrounding Santee Cooper’s Grainger power station coal ash pond. They were sent out to squeeze air bubbles out of the dam in hopes of filling it with another inch or so of water. Paul Zoeller/Santee Cooper

Duke Energy and Santee Cooper’s coal ash ponds were deemed vulnerable by Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups for years. This concern was renewed after Hurricane Matthew caused coal ash spills throughout North Carolina in 2016. Duke Energy maintained that their sites were safe and concerns about potential disaster at the ponds were not warranted, statements that sound ominously similar to Alabama Power’s own announcements. Now coal ash is spilling into North Carolina’s rivers and will work its way up the food chain towards the dinner plates of local residents.  

The worst part? We have a much larger threat looming in our own backyard.

Coal Ash Threats Closer To Home

Plant Barry’s coal ash pond is surrounded by an unlined, earthen dam, as there is no barrier other than dirt and soil separating the hazardous coal ash and the Mobile River. The pond is nearly 600 acres: massive in comparison to Lake Sutton’s 1,100 acre coal ash pond. Lake Sutton's pond contains 540,000 tons on coal ash whereas Plant Barry’s contains 20 million tons of coal ash.

The ash pond closely borders the Mobile River, a major tributary of Mobile Bay. Any spill of coal ash into the river would undoubtedly make its way downstream to the Bay, its rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Plant Barry’s coal ash pond borders the Mobile River in Bucks, AL. Photo: Cade Kistler - Mobile Baykeeper

The coal ash in the Cape Fear River area contains the same substances found in the coal ash at Plant Barry along the Mobile River in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Like Duke Energy, Alabama Power has tested the area around the coal ash pond bordering the delta and has stated the groundwater contamination does not “pose a risk to neighbors, nearby waterways or water sources.”

Our own report found this is not true, and the Mobile River has already been affected by leaks in the coal ash pond at Plant Barry. Our findings show high levels of pollutants that are dangerous to humans and the environment. Moreover, Alabama Power’s own federally required monitoring resulted in the state issuing a $250,000 fine at the facility. However, even with these conclusive results and fines Alabama Power continues with plans to leave the coal ash on the side of the Mobile River in a flood prone area in the Delta.

Plant Barry experiences severe flooding after a 4” rain pushed the Mobile River near flood stage in this picture taken January 3rd, 2016. Photo: Cade Kistler - Mobile Baykeeper

Hurricane Florence reminded us that it takes just one storm to cause catastrophic and historic devastation. Florence also proved to us that if we do not do the right thing to safeguard our delicate environment, then we face serious consequences that will last for generations.

So where does this leave us here on the Gulf Coast?

Mobile Baykeeper has been pleading for Alabama Power to do the right thing: dig up the coal ash and move it away from the river. We urge Alabama Power to follow the lead of states like South Carolina where every single coal ash pond is being excavated or Alabama Power’s sister company, Georgia Power who is voluntarily removing 19 coal ash ponds into upland, lined landfills.

Coal ash pours out of Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton ash pond in North Carolina. Photo: Kemp Burdette - Cape Fear Riverkeeper

It’s time for Alabama Power to do the right thing and protect Coastal Alabama from catastrophes such as those occurring right now in North Carolina. Alabama Power has proven to be a strong leader and good neighbor in communities throughout the state. Now Alabamians need them to be a leader on this issue and make a decision that prioritizes the health of our communities, environment, and economy.

We need YOU to take action and tell Alabama Power about your concerns. You can help protect coastal Alabama from coal ash using the form below to send a letter to Alabama Power. It only takes a few moments and can have a huge impact. Urge Alabama Power to do the right thing to protect the health of our environment, economy, and community!

View the gallery below to see photos documenting pollution after Hurricane Florence. All photos were taken by Waterkeeper Alliance member groups and staff.


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