(Mobile, Ala.) – Four Alabama environmental organizations have released new interactive maps highlighting groundwater pollution reported by Alabama Power and Power South at coal ash pits throughout the state. Alabama Power’s federally required monitoring shows significant pollution of groundwater with arsenic, radium, and more. Pollution has persisted even after Alabama Power closed their leaking Gadsden pit using cap-in-place - the same method it plans for millions of tons of coal ash in their pits statewide.
The environmental organizations - Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, and Mobile Baykeeper - developed these maps to show the threat coal ash poses to our groundwater, rivers, wildlife, economies, and health. Across the state, six coal ash pits are slated to be capped-in-place. Cap-in-place covers the ash pit on top but still leaves it unlined on the bottom, allowing groundwater pollution to continue.
“These maps clearly illustrate why we can’t leave coal ash in unlined pits next to our waterways,” said Casi (kc) Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper’s Executive Director & Baykeeper. “It is obvious from Alabama Power’s and Power South’s own groundwater monitoring data that toxic pollution in every unlined coal ash pit in Alabama is seeping into nearby groundwater and rivers.”
The maps come on the heels of a new report showing that Alabama Power’s only capped-in-place pit at Plant Gadsden is still leaking arsenic and radium into groundwater above national limits. The utility plans to use the same method at every unlined ash pit in the state. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) recently fined Alabama Power $250,000 (less than 0.03% of the utility’s 2017 net profit) for the Gadsden violations. Meanwhile, utilities across the Southeast like Georgia Power, Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, Dominion Energy, and TVA are collectively moving nearly 250 million tons of coal ash to upland, lined landfills to protect citizens in their states.
The data underlying these maps comes from Alabama Power’s and Power South’s own groundwater monitoring reports. The reports show that groundwater violations have occurred at every one of Alabama Power’s six pits slated for closure. In the reports the utilities take samples from multiple wells along the edges of the ash pit. The samples at each well are then statistically manipulated to come up with a confidence interval (or range) of how much of a pollutant is in the groundwater at that site. Only when the upper AND lower value for that range are above the regulatory limit is the utility determined to be in violation. These maps show the average value from that range only where both the lower and upper end of the range are above regulatory limits. These violations have resulted in $1,750,000 in fines for the utilities, but they have simply paid the fines and have not yet taken action to stop the pollution.
At Plant Barry, arsenic - up to 973% the national limit - and cobalt are currently leaking into our groundwater. The utility’s own reports also show groundwater levels are frequently higher than the level of the ash in the pit and flowing towards the Mobile River. In addition , cap-in-place does not protect against flooding.
According to Callaway, the data underscores why the Plant Barry coal ash pit cannot be capped in place. “Closing an unlined pit of toxic coal ash within several hundred feet of a major river is irresponsible when Alabama Power’s own data clearly shows that the ash is in groundwater. ADEM and Alabama Power must learn from their mistakes at Plant Gadsden,” Callaway says. “The only solution that will guarantee the health of our communities, environment and economy is to dig up and move the coal ash to an upland, lined landfill away from vulnerable waterways.”
Mobile Baykeeper is urging citizens to write to their commissioners and learn more about this issue.
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. The EPA has found that individuals who live next to an unlined wet ash pond and get drinking water from a well can have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic. Having these toxins permeating our waterways could damage our way of life, preventing us from swimming, fishing, working, and playing on the water.
At Plant Barry, located 25 miles north of Mobile Bay in Bucks, AL, more than 16 million tons of coal ash sits in a 600-acre pit directly adjacent to the Mobile River and Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The Delta is one of the nation’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, often called “North America’s Amazon”. After the utility burns their coal, they dump the ash in the pit, where it essentially dissolves into the water. This toxin-filled water sits behind an earthen dam where it is already leaking into groundwater. In the event of a flood or hurricane, it can potentially cause a catastrophic spill 20 times larger than Deepwater Horizon. Similar spills have already happened at coal ash pits in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Additionally, Plant Barry sits less than a mile from the potential 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 Plant Barry’s inundation zone, meaning that it would be covered by coal ash in the event of a failure of the dam.
Mobile Baykeeper released their own pollution report on Plant Barry in 2018.
In November 2016, to comply with federal regulations, Alabama Power announced its preliminary closure plans to “cap-in-place” the coal ash at Plant Barry. This was not their original plan; their original plan was to dig it up and move it. The decision contrasts with those of other Southeastern utilities who are removing their coal ash to lined storage or recycling it for beneficial reuse.
Mobile Baykeeper is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization that works to provide citizens a means to protect the beauty, health and heritage of the Mobile Bay Watershed and our coastal communities. To learn more about Mobile Baykeeper, please visit www.mobilebaykeeper.org.