• What is coal ash?
Coal ash is what remains after coal is burned. It is a typically powdery material consisting of several remnants from burning coal. The ash is then mixed with water and sent to massive ponds near the coal-burning power plant.
• Is coal ash really toxic?
Yes. Coal ash contains high concentrations of heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, selenium, chromium, and lead which are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and waterways. 11 workers died after being exposed to coal ash from the Kingston TN spill. Hundreds more cases of serious illness and death have since emerged. A report by a physician led non-profit finds that coal ash ponds can leach toxic constituents thousands of times greater than drinking water standards.
• What happened with the Tennessee coal ash spill?
The Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill occurred on Monday December 22, 2008, when a dike ruptured at a cooccurred in 2008 when rain caused a dike to rupture at a coal ash pit at TVA’s Kingston Plant releasing 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash. It resulted in 11 deaths, 40 damaged or destroyed homes, and up to $3 billion in damages and cleanup costs.
• What about coal ash spills in North Carolina?
The 2014 Dan River coal ash spill happened when a coal burning power plant operated by Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. Ash from the spill was found up to 70 miles away. Scholarly papers have shown the spill caused a combined cost of $295 million to the river and region.
More spills have occurred in North Carolina and elsewhere causing serious negative impacts.
• Where is the coal ash pit on Mobile River?
Alabama Power’s James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant (Also Known as Plant Barry or Barry Steam Plant) is about 25 miles north of Mobile Bay. Because of Plant Barry's location directly on the Mobile River in the middle of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the coal ash stored there threatens nearby communities and our way of life - swimming, fishing, hunting, and boating on these waters. Unsafe containment of coal ash can also affect our economy - industries such as seafood, tourism, and real estate rely on clean water.
• What is cap-in-place and why isn’t it acceptable?
Cap-in-place covers the coal ash pit on top but still leaves it unlined on the bottom, often near vulnerable waterways, doing nothing to stop groundwater pollution. For example, Alabama Power finished the cap-in-place process at Gadsden in the fall of 2018. The violations they’re still finding are as much as 10,000% (100x) of the national groundwater limit for arsenic and 50% above the limit for radium.
• What does the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) have to say about this?
ADEM maintains that cap-in-place or removal are both approved methods under the EPA rule and neither state nor federal CCR rules "specify the selection of one method or another." They have fined Alabama Power and other utilities millions of dollars for their groundwater violations but are not currently requiring removal.
• What are other states doing with their coal ash?
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.
• What solutions do advocacy groups propose?
Alabama Rivers Alliance, Alabama Environmental Council, Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Cahaba River Society, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Coosa River Basin Alliance, Coosa Riverkeeper, Clean Healthy Educated Safe & Sustainable Community, Environmental Defense Alliance, Friends of Big Canoe Creek, Friends of Locust Fork River, Friends of the Magnolia River, Friends of Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, Gasp, Hurricane Creekkeeper, Little River Waterkeeper, Mike Freeman Fishing, Mobile Baykeeper, Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, The People’s Justice Council, Shoals Environmental Alliance, Sierra Club Alabama Chapter, Sierra Club Mobile Bay Group, Southern Environmental Law Center, Tennessee Riverkeeper, Waterkeepers Alabama, and Wild South have all released a joint statement reading, “We all firmly believe coal ash should be dug up and moved because it is polluting Alabama’s waters. As much as possible should be recycled into concrete and the rest should be moved to upland, lined landfills using the best available technology standards, ensuring all people, communities and businesses of Alabama are out of harm’s way.”
• Won’t moving the coal ash pose its own problems?
Yes, it will. There is no perfect solution to deal with coal ash. The ash is toxic and must be handled carefully and responsibly. However, Mobile Baykeeper believes that the biggest risk leaving the ash in an unlined pit where there is known and ongoing groundwater pollution and it is immediately next to a massive flood prone river. Many other states have weighed these risks and decided removal was the better option for their environment, economy, and community.
• How much will moving it cost?
While Alabama Power has repeatedly claimed that removing the coal ash at Plant Barry would be too expensive, they have released virtually no details on the cost of removal. In states where removal has or is taking place there are costs that can give us ideas of what removal might cost at Plant Barry.
In South Carolina, utility Santee Cooper is removing all coal ash in the state, about 12 million yd3, at a cost of ~430 million. That’s about ~$36/cubic yard.
In Tennessee, TVA has estimated that the cost of removing 12 million yd3 of coal ash from their Gallatin site will cost $640 million. That’s ~$53/cubic yard.
In Virginia, Dominon Energy is planning on removing nearly 30 million tons of coal ash at a cost of $3 billion and only expects to add about $5 to customer rates over the course of the cleanup process. A cost of ~$109/cubic yard.
Plant Barry has approximately 21 million cubic yards of coal ash. While we recognize that every site is unique, using the average cost from the examples in the states above gives an approximate cost of $1.4 billion dollars for removal of coal ash from Plant Barry. This is well within cleanup costs incurred by other states. Alabama Power’s 2018 financials show the utility had [approximately $6 billion in revenue and $930 million in profits]. Additionally, Alabama Power has already raised rates to recoup costs of coal ash closure and [the utility estimates they will spend $1.2 billion] (approximately $245 million per year) on closure-in-place and monitoring over the next 5 years alone.
: https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/Facts & Financials/APC Annual Report - FINAL.pdf#page=32 : https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/Facts & Financials/APC Annual Report - FINAL.pdf
• What about poor and minority communities?
We have stated many times that coal ash disposal cannot disproportionately affect coal any vulnerable communities. Alabama Power and other power utilities should make sure that they consider this factor when selecting landfills for removal and in how those landfills are managed. Egregious failures to protect low income/minority communities from coal ash (such as what happened when the ash from TVA’s Kingston spill was transported to a unprepared community and landfill in Uniontown, Al) cannot be repeated.
• What about hurricanes and flooding?
Hurricanes are an especially pressing concern. In 2018, Hurricane Florence caused multiple spills of coal ash from Duke Energy facilities. At Duke Energy’s Sutton Steam Plant, flooding from the hurricane breached the dam causing coal ash to spill into the Cape Fear River, this after Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette warned years earlier that such a catastrophe might happen if coal ash wasn’t removed from the side of the river.
Hurricane Florence also caused coal ash to spill at Duke Energy’s already capped H.F. Lee coal plant. The same site had a coal ash spill during Hurricane Matthew.
Hurricane Florence almost caused a coal ash spill into South Carolina’s Waccamaw River. There Santee Cooper’s Grainger Power station came mere inches from flood waters overtopping the ash ponds dam. The only reason the utility avoided a spill was because they had proactively begun removing coal ash. The facilities coal ash pond closest to the river was completely flooded only months after being emptied.
Plant Barry is within the flood area from storm surge for Category 3-5 storms and that doesn’t even include the potential for catastrophic river flooding.
Flooding is another concern. Plant Barry’s coal ash pond is within the 100 and 500 year flood plains. Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Florence (2018) were 1 in 1000 year events. In coastal Alabama, one of the rainiest areas in the United States, we can get 20 inches of rain in a day without a tropical storm in sight.
• Isn’t Alabama Power already excavating the coal ash and moving it away from the river?
Alabama Power does plan to consolidate the coal ash within the footprint of the current site. Based on their plan a marginal amount of the site will be moved up to 750 yards away from the river. However, much of the site will still be within a few hundred yards of the river. The image below, from Alabama Power’s closure plan shows the how the ash pond will be consolidated. To make it more readable we have added a red outline to illustrate the current extent of the ash pond and a green line to show the approximate extent of the ash pond once capped in place.
At one of the Duke Energy sites (L.V. Sutton coal plant) where coal ash spilled during Hurricane Florence the coal ash pond was up to 1 mile from the river and at no point was it closer than 650 yards.
• Is the ash pond at Plant Barry lined?
No, while Alabama Power often cites a natural clay liner, they specifically documented that there is no liner in their [own reports to the EPA and ADEM].
: https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/ccr/plant-barry/ash-pond/design-criteria/Liner Design Criteria - Ash Pond.pdf
• How high are groundwater levels at Plant Barry?
Alabama Power’s own monitoring has shown [groundwater levels as high as 8.17 feet] above sea level with an average groundwater level of 3.66 feet above sea level. This is especially problematic because Alabama Power’s documentation and figures of coal ash at the site show the bottom of the ash is at [approximately 3 feet above sea level] with some portions of the ash as low as 10 feet below sea level.
: https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/ccr/plant-barry/ash-pond/design-criteria/History of Construction - Ash Pond.pdf#page=2 : https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/ccr/plant-barry/ash-pond/groundwater-monitoring-and-corrective-action/Assessment of Corrective Measures Plant Barry Ash Pond.pdf#page=37
• Has Alabama Power said how they will deal with the ongoing groundwater pollution?
Alabama Power recently released their “[Assessment of Corrective Measures]” where they have to determine how they will deal with the ongoing groundwater pollution. While they outlined many potential strategies in the plan, the only one [they specifically committed to was ‘Monitored Natural Attenuation’] essentially once the ash is covered by the cap, Alabama Power will wait for natural processes to reduce the groundwater pollution over a period of [several years to decades].
: https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/ccr/plant-barry/ash-pond/groundwater-monitoring-and-corrective-action/Assessment of Corrective Measures Plant Barry Ash Pond.pdf#page=21 : https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/ccr/plant-barry/ash-pond/groundwater-monitoring-and-corrective-action/Assessment of Corrective Measures Plant Barry Ash Pond.pdf#page=31 : https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Our Company/How We Operate/ccr/plant-barry/ash-pond/groundwater-monitoring-and-corrective-action/Assessment of Corrective Measures Plant Barry Ash Pond.pdf
• Is Alabama Power building a redundant dike around the ash pond?
Alabama Power has given some limited details about a redundant dike they say they will construct around the pond to protect from flooding. However, the biggest concern is that during a major flood event the whole ash pond could be submerged with a potential to undermine the cap and leaving the dam and cap exposed to dramatic erosive forces. Essentially, a landfill of toxic coal ash under a river. In many other states, utilities, communities, and regulatory agencies have decided that is too high of a risk to bear and begun to move coal ash to lined upland landfills or recycle it in concrete rather than closing toxic waste pits in areas they shouldn’t be by building dikes around them.
• Alabama Power is complying with the EPA’s CCR rule. Why isn’t that enough?
The EPA rule was crafted to allow utilities a great deal of autonomy in how they clos their coal ash pits in order to give utilities flexibility to choose the right solution for their specific site. Unfortunately, the rule has almost no rules regarding how you can close the coal ash pond as long as you can make an argument that it will meet the rules performance standards. Unfortunately, even though Alabama Power has made a dogged effort to show that closure of the coal ash pond at Plant Barry using cap-in-place methodology will meet those standards, there are numerous indications that it will not. Regardless, this is a legally available method. However, with ongoing groundwater pollution, and the issues that have already presented themselves at Alabama Power’s fist site closed through cap-in-place methodology, Gadsden, where significant pollution of groundwater is still ongoing after the site has been capped.
At the end of the day just because an option is legally available does not make it right or appropriate.