(Mobile, Ala.) - Arsenic and radium are still leaking from Plant Gadsden’s unlined coal ash pit after Alabama Power closed it using the cap-in-place method. This is the same method the utility plans to use for Plant Barry’s coal ash pit, located just 25 miles north of Mobile on the Mobile River. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) proposed the maximum fine of $250,000 for Alabama Power’s violations at Plant Gadsden.
ADEM has already fined the utility $1.25 million for statewide violations. Alabama Power finished the cap-in-place process at Gadsden in fall of 2018.
Despite their ongoing groundwater pollution, Alabama Power has decided to close all of their ash pits by capping-in-place. This includes the more than 20 million tons of unlined coal ash at Plant Barry, which is already leaking arsenic and cobalt into groundwater. Cap-in-place covers the coal ash pit on top but still leaves it unlined on the bottom, often near vulnerable waterways like the Mobile River.
According to Casi Callaway, Executive Director & Baykeeper of Mobile Baykeeper, the pollution shown by the newest data underscores why the plant cannot be capped-in-place. “Unfortunately, this evidence of toxic and even pollution confirms our warnings to Alabama Power,” Callaway says. Mobile Baykeeper released their own pollution report on Plant Barry last year, which includes three years of data and detailed study. “Closing an unlined pit of toxic coal ash within several hundred feet of a major river will not work. Planning to close an unlined pit when Alabama Power’s own data clearly shows that capping-in-place doesn’t work is even more irresponsible to our economy, environment, and quality of life,” Callaway says. “ADEM and Alabama Power must learn from the mistakes made by covering up coal ash at Plant Gadsden. The only solution that will guarantee the health of our communities and environment is to dig up the coal ash and move it to an upland, lined landfill away from our vitally important waterways or recycle it.”
Alabama remains one of the few Southeastern states leaving its coal ash in place next to our waterways. Concerned citizens are urging elected officials and Alabama Power to do the right thing and move their ash. Citizens who want to take action on this issue can send a letter to their elected officials by visiting mobilebaykeeper.org/coalash.
Coal ash is the toxic waste that remains after coal is burned. It contains high concentrations of heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, selenium, and chromium, which are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and waterways.
At Plant Barry, located 25 miles north of Mobile in Bucks, AL, more than 20 million tons of coal ash sits in an unlined pit directly adjacent to the Mobile River and Mobile-Tensaw Delta. This is one of the nation’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, often called “North America’s Amazon”. The ash is dumped in a massive coal ash pit, where it dissolves into the water in the pit. This toxin-filled water sits behind an earthen dam where it is leaking into groundwater. In the event of a breach or hurricane, it can potentially cause a catastrophic incident and spill into the Mobile River, eventually reaching the Bay. The fallout from such a breach would be 20 times larger than the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
Additionally, Plant Barry sits less than a mile from the backup drinking water source for the more than 300,000 citizens who get their drinking water from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS). The MAWSS pumping station lies within the inundation zone, meaning that it would be covered by coal ash in the event of a dam failure at Plant Barry.
Alabama Power is planning to “cap-in-place” the coal ash at Plant Barry, leaving the ash to sit in an unlined pit and pollute the nearby groundwater for decades to come. This decision contrasts with that of other utilities in the Southeast.
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 the state agency recently ordered the state’s electric utility, Duke Energy, to remove coal ash from 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.
Alabama Power has conducted federally required groundwater monitoring since 2017 at Plant Barry. To date their own reports have shown annual violations of federal groundwater protection standards at 11 of the 16 test wells surrounding the plant, including for cobalt and arsenic, with some samples as high as 973% of the groundwater standards for arsenic. This groundwater pollution has resulted in a $250,000 fine for Plant Barry alone, part of the $1.25 million fine ADEM gave them for statewide violations.
Alabama Power capped their Plant Gadsden ash pit in place just a few months ago, in the fall of 2018. The ash pit at Plant Gadsden was the first in the state to be closed using the cap-in-place methodology. The utility has now found arsenic and radium concentrations above the legal limit - as much as 10,000% (100x the limit) of the groundwater limit for arsenic and 50% above the limit for radium - polluting groundwater near the ash pit.