BUCKS, Ala (WKRG) — Environmentalists say in the best case scenario, it poses a risk of groundwater contamination, and in the worst case scenario, it poses a risk of an environmental catastrophe. It’s a coal ash pond at the Barry Steam Plant in north Mobile County.
The plant has been providing electricity for the area for more than 60 years by burning coal. When coal is burned, it leaves behind ash as a by-product. At Barry, that ash been dumped for decades into a holding pond that’s dammed up to keep it out of the nearby Mobile River.
“Arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, you name it,” says Casi Callaway of Mobile Baykeeper when describing the dangerous elements in the coal ash. She’s not only concerned about what is in the pond, but how it’s being kept out of the river.
“Unfortunately the dam was never made of any significant construction material,” she said. “It was made of dirt, a little bit of clay, and coal ash from the pit itself.”
Fisherman, boaters, and barge operators might have a hard time seeing the pond from the river, especially in the summer when vegetation blocks the view. But Cade Kistler of Baykeeper says the dam walls are just 50 feet in some places from the banks of the river.
“If there was a clear path, it make take you 10 seconds to walk from the river to the dam,” Kistler said. “And essentially behind that is 20 million tons of coal ash and coal ash contaminated water. When you’ve got a dirt dam, for intents and purposes, sitting next to a major river system, it’s a scary situation.”
The pond is enormous: 600 acres, 30 feet deep, holding more than 20 million tons of sludge. The concern is that the dam could breach due to flooding or storm surge from a major hurricane.
“If that happens, it could be a wall of mud and muck coming down the Mobile River and it could tank the whole Mobile Bay,” says Callaway. “It’s 21 million tons of coal ash with all those heavy metals in it.The volume would be 20 times that of the BP Oil disaster, in our communities.”
It may sound like a far-fetched scenario, but it’s already happened. In 2008, a dike broke at a coal-burning plant near Kingston, Tennessee. A billion gallons of coal ash slurry was released. The local ecology and economy were decimated. It took seven years and 1.2 billion dollars to clean up.
That accident, and a smaller but similar situation in North Carolina in 2014, led the federal government in 2015 to pass a rule ending the practice of using coal ash ponds. Utilities were given two options to deal with existing ponds. The companies could dig up the dangerous sludge and move it to lined landfills, inland and away from rivers, or remove the water from the ponds and cover the remaining dry toxic material – a practice known as capping in place.
Alabama Power considered trucking the sludge across Highway-43 to a lined landfill but ultimately decided on the much cheaper capping-in-place option.
“Based on industry estimates and our own review, close-by-removal would cost three to five times more and take three to five times longer to safely complete closure,” said Alabama Power spokesperson Beth Thomas in a written statement.
Alabama Power recently raised rates by 3-percent to help pay for the cap-in-place closure, a process it says will take 13 years and $2 billion to complete.
Environmentalists, though, oppose that option. They say the dangerous elements would remain in an unlined pit posing a real risk of groundwater contamination. Baykeeper’s independent studies already have shown elevated levels of certain toxins in groundwater near the Barry site.
Alabama Power already has completed a capped-in-place closure of a small coal ash pond at its plant near Gadsden. In May, the company was fined $250,000 by Alabama Department of Environmental Management for groundwater contamination, the largest allowable ADEM fine.
Environmentalists also fear a capped pond in Mobile still poses a risk of catastrophe from storm surge or flooding breaching the dam.
“It’s still surrounded by the Mobile River, a fast-moving river,” said Callaway. “That river has moved historically and it’s going to move again. Plus, it’s in a high-velocity flood zone.”
Alabama Power disagrees saying it will install a specially engineered barrier over the material to keep it safely in place, will construct a redundant dike system for flood protection, and will add stormwater systems to manage rainwater runoff.
Baykeeper points out that all other major utilities in the southeast have opted for removal of ash ponds, including Georgia Power, which like Alabama Power, is a division of the Southern Company
“Georgia Power, the company, the utility itself, said we have to do the right thing for our community, our customers, our economy, and our natural resources,” she said. “We’ve got South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia all doing the right thing. Why not Alabama?”
Alabama Power cites a recent study showing about two-thirds of coal ash ponds across the country are being capped-in-place. Thomas says concerns of a structural collapse leading to a catastrophic release into the Mobile River are unfounded.
“The company has never had a structural failure at any of its ash ponds,” she said.