The coal ash pond has already contaminated groundwater, resulting in a series of fines for Alabama Power for its pond at Plant Barry and other facilities. According to the Sierra Club, groundwater at the Plant Barry pond contains arsenic levels 806% above the legal limit. Arsenic, cobalt, and selenium levels were also in excess. Proponents of the “cap-in-place” method Alabama Power nonetheless believe that sealing an unlined pond filled with toxins is nonetheless safer and more cost-effective, citing Alabama Power’s suspiciously low estimates for its plan compared with removal and disposal, along with their own stubborn insistence that environmental factors like hurricanes somehow don’t pose a threat. Evidence like the Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina due to damage from Hurricane Florence points to the contrary.
Plant Barry already had a close call last year when Hurricane Sally made landfall in Gulf Shores as a Category 2 storm. Earlier forecasts predicted the storm would land in Mobile some 25 miles south from Plant Barry and make its way up the state, spelling catastrophe for the coal ash pond, which sits on the other side of a levee from the Mobile River. Dismantling the coal ash pond altogether and sending its sludge to lined landfills would be a far more environmentally friendly option that would arguably require less long-term management. As Alabama Power looks to transition its plants away from coal and toward natural gas and nuclear power, ithat’s an attractive option.
A perhaps even better plan to incorporate into that disposal would be to reuse some of that coal ash as a replacement for raw minerals and virgin resources used in construction materials. According to the EPA, in 2018 alone, more than 40 million tons of coal ash were reused for roofing materials, bricks, wallboard, and even concrete. The pond at Plant Barry contains more than 21 million tons of coal ash. There is hope for the coal ash pond to shut down safely, but Plant Barry must reckon with another major issue environmental groups are still combatting: air pollution.
Earlier this year, the Sierra Club and the environmental justice group GASP filed a petition to the EPA demanding that the agency review a permit issued to Alabama Power by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in February that has allowed Plant Barry to emit dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide. Both organizations explicitly called out ADEM’s lack of oversight. “If Alabama Power was required to account for the true health and environmental cost of operating Plant Barry, it would close tomorrow. It’s past time for Alabama Power to stop relying on dirty fossil fuels to generate power,” Mobile Bay Sierra Club leader Carol Adams-Davis said in a press release.