Flooding in the Delta Highlights Threat of Catastrophic Coal Ash Spill

Flooding in the Delta Highlights Threat of Catastrophic Coal Ash Spill

We Need Your Help to Protect from Toxic Coal Ash! Click Below to Act Now or Keep Reading to Learn More.

The Plant Barry ash pit as seen from the air during flooding in January 2016. Photo by Cade Kistler - Mobile Baykeeper; Flight Provided by Southwings

In the first week of 2019, a few inches of rain fell throughout the Mobile River Watershed. A typical rain like this can transform the Mobile-Tensaw Delta into a large flooded forest. Looming on the banks of this flood-prone area is Alabama Power’s 597-acre unlined dam filled with toxic coal ash. More than 21 million tons of coal ash is only held back by an earthen (dirt) dam.

On January 7 2019, during the height of this flooding, Mobile Baykeeper staff flew with a SouthWings pilot over the flooded area to check on the dam. Two days later, staff visited the ash pit aboard the Baykeeper boat. As we approached the ash pit, the swampy forest gave way, revealing waters from the Mobile River reaching as much as 15 feet up the sides of the dam. The river flowed powerfully through the forest and surged alongside the ash pond dam. The forest surrounding the dam, usually completely dry, was flooded with river water.

The earthen dam around the ash pit usually stands 25 feet above the surrounding landscape. As pictured here during river flooding on 01/09/2019it is covered by as much as 15 feet of water with only a small amount remaining above water. Photo by Laura Stone - Mobile Baykeeper.

This flooding is extremely concerning:

  • Coal ash is full of toxic heavy metals that cause health issues in humans and are bad for the environment. The ash pit at Plant Barry is no different, Alabama Power’s has continued to pollute groundwater with arsenic and cobalt in violation of groundwater standards.

  • A major flood-prone river surrounds three sides of the dam. Images from our flight and boat trip in the first week of 2019 show just a few inches of rain throughout the watershed caused massive flooding. The most recent coal ash spill happened after Hurricane Florence dumped 35 inches of rain in 24 hours in North Carolina. When a hurricane of that magnitude strikes Coastal Alabama there is a significant likelihood the dam at Plant Barry would be overtopped or breached allowing coal ash to escape. This would be catastrophic.

  • Coal ash dam breaks are not uncommon. In 2008, an ash pit in Kingston, Tenn. ruptured, spilling tons of coal ash into nearby rivers. The spill took nearly a decade and $1billion+ dollars to cleanup. Since then, ash has spilled from pits around the nation. In most recent history, at least 2,000 cubic yards (the equivalent of 200 dump truck loads) of coal ash spilled into the Cape Fear River during Hurricane Florence last September. The plant in North Carolina was more than 2,600 ft from the side of the river. Plant Barry is only 200 ft from the Mobile River.

  • Severe storms are becoming more andmore common. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey was a 1000-year flood event and the third one greater than a 500-year to hit the Houston area in three years. Last September, Hurricane Florence was one of five 1000-year floods to deluge the eastern U.S. in 2019 alone.


In this picture taken in January 2016 flood water from the Mobile river can be seen nearly overtopping the dam. The water in the pit is also near the top of the dam. Small repairs are also observed near a very concerning bulge in the dam. Photo - Mobile Baykeeper

Despite these risks, Alabama Power plans to leave their coal ash on the side of the Mobile River. They plan to pump the water out of the ash (dewatering), reduce the size of the pit, and put a liner on top (cap-in-place). The bottom of the pit will still be unlined, allowing pollution to continue entering groundwater. Even more concerning, it will remain within the 100-year floodplain. In Mobile, the rainiest city in the country, the real question is when, not if, a major hurricane will strike the Alabama coast. When it does, it is critical that Alabama Power not have 20 million tons of coal ash sitting upstream of Mobile Bay behind a dirt dam in the 100-year floodplain.

A solution exists and nearly every other state in the Southeast is doing it.

  • Georgia Power, Alabama Power’s sister company, is removing ash from every coastal ash pit.

  • South Carolina is removing ash from every single pit in the State.

  • North Carolina is removing millions of tons of coal ash at eight sites.

  • Virginia elected officials have agreed on a bipartisan bill to require coal ash removal at ash pits throughout the state.

Alabamians deserve clean water just as much as other citizens in the Southeast.

Leaving toxic coal ash within a few hundred feet of a major river that is prone to severe flooding is simply nowhere near protective enough. Alabama Power is a leader in so many ways in our communities. It is disappointing they are refusing to take the lead to protect Mobile and Baldwin Counties from 21 million tons of toxic ash. Mobile Baykeeper will fight ardently for coal ash removal until Alabama Power commits to #DigItUpAndMoveIt so Mobile Bay, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, our local economy, and our communities are safe from coal ash.

Video from January 9 2019, shows flooding reaching more than 10 feet up the sides of Plant Barry’s ash pit dam. This flooding highlights the threat of a potential catastrophic collapse. It also shows the dangers of closing the pond in place on the side of the Mobile River. Alabama Power’s current plan. Video by Chad Chappell - Mobile Baykeeper;

Are you ready to help in the fight to protect the Delta, Mobile Bay, and our economy from coal ash?

Fill in the form below to act now! It takes only 30 seconds and sends a clear message to Alabama Power that we don’t want toxic coal ash left in an unlinked pit on the side of the Delta.

The Plant Barry ash pit as seen from the air during flooding in January 2019. Photo by Cade Kistler - Mobile Baykeeper; Flight Provided by Southwings

**Correction - 2/1/19: An earlier version of this article stated Georgia Power is removing ash from every ash pond adjacent to waterways. Georgia Power is actually removing ash from all 19 of their coastal ponds but not necessarily from every pond adjacent to waterways

More Information - Mobile Baykeeper has released a detailed pollution report that examines all aspects of the issues at Plant Barry. To read Mobile Baykeeper's detailed pollution report on Plant Barry's coal ash pit, please click here.  

To learn more about Mobile Baykeeper’s work on coal ash, visit our site call 251-433-4229, or email Program Director Cade Kistler - ckistler@mobilebaykeeper.org.

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