For over 50 years, Alabama Power dumped 21 million tons of coal ash from its James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant into a pond in the Mobile River floodplain. 

This practice of mixing coal ash — the remnants from burning coal, which contain toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead — with water and enclosing it with earthen dams was a common one for power companies when Alabama Power constructed its pond in 1965. Today, though, a considerable industry shift is underway: Many Southern utilities are moving to excavate the material and relocate it to dry, lined landfills away from rivers or recycling it into building materials like concrete.

Alabama Power is an exception. In order to comply with federal regulations, it plans to remove the water from the pond, but the coal ash would stay in the pit along the coast. For that reason, Plant Barry “sticks out like a sore thumb in the Southeast,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Alabama is the only state SELC lawyers work in where there is no plan for coal ash excavation and removal, despite concerns over spills caused by extreme weather. “In light of all the hurricanes we’ve had in the Southeast in the last 20 years,” Holleman said, “nobody would allow” developers today to put a massive amount of industrial waste on the coast. 

Recent studies by environmental organizations have highlighted the risks of pollution from permanently storing industrial waste at Plant Barry. It’s on top of an aquifer, on the edge of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta — often referred to as America’s Amazon for its biodiversity — and is just 20 miles upstream of Mobile Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. Water surrounds three-quarters of the plant site, said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper. The organization’s reports show heavy metals leach into groundwater and likely flow into the Mobile River — a problem that wouldn’t be solved by capping in place. Erosion, flooding, or a hurricane could cause a major breach of the earthen dam that holds in the pond, inundating shorelines and fisheries with toxic sludge. 

Jack Bonnikson, a spokesperson for Alabama Power, said after studying the area, the utility “concluded that sealing our coal ash sites in place is a safe and effective option and that our engineering plans go beyond the requirements of the law.” 

While the plant is no longer adding coal ash to the pond, it’s still causing problems. An annual monitoring report by Alabama Power in 2018 revealed elevated levels of heavy metals at Plant Barry’s monitoring wells, including nearly nine times the legal level of arsenic, a known carcinogen. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) fined Plant Barry, and five other coal-fired power plants for coal ash ponds violating the state’s clean water laws by contaminating groundwater. But many environmental advocates considered the $250,000 fines per plant “a slap on the wrist,” Keith Johnston, SELC managing attorney, told last year. 

For years, Plant Barry has also operated its remaining two coal-fired turbines on long-expired air and water pollution permits. Last month, environmental groups sued ADEM to speed up the permitting process. Callaway said the news is troubling because the plant has not been under a legal obligation to comply with up-to-date regulations for coal ash. In a statement to Southerly, ADEM said that it is “in the process of reviewing and drafting proposed renewal permits for Barry Steam Plant in preparations for public notice and comment” in the coming months.

A view of Alabama Power’s Plant Barry from Mobile River in February 2020. Photo courtesy Mobile Baykeeper

Two catastrophic coal ash spills in the past 12 years have led to stricter federal regulations on how utilities handle the toxic waste. In 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston plant broke, covering 300 acres of rural Roane County, Tennessee in thick, black sludge. Hundreds of cleanup workers have fallen sick and dozens have died. Then, in 2014, a drainage pipe burst under a coal ash pond at the Dan River Steam Station near Eden, North Carolina, coating the riverbed for 70 miles. 

In 2015, the EPA passed rules outlining closures for unsafe or polluting coal ash ponds and gave two options for utilities managing the remaining waste: Excavate the coal ash and move it to dry landfills, or cap them. Major Southeastern utilities, including Duke Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Dominion Energy, have chosen the former voluntarily, as a result of litigation, or through state legislation. Georgia Power, the sister company of Alabama Power also owned by Southern Company, has excavated coastal coal ash ponds.

Last month, Alabama Power released a revision to its cap-in-place plan for Plant Barry, noting that it will decrease the footprint of the coal ash pond by 45%. Bonnikson said that includes removing around a billion gallons of water, moving the coal ash farther from the river, and “placing an impermeable cap on the site, and installing a state-of-the-art drainage system.” He also noted that the measures “will remediate groundwater.” Johnston, from SELC, is still concerned, saying this means the company plans to put all the ash into the middle of the pit rather than move it away from the site.  

With hurricane season starting June 1, potential damage to the pond is a major concern. Scientists predict this year’s hurricane season could be especially active. Bonnikson from Alabama power said the coal ash pond has been “in place since 1965 and has remained stable and effective through numerous hurricanes and extreme weather events,” and that its dike is 5 feet higher than the 100-year flood zone elevation requirements. But research shows Gulf Coast hurricanes have become more destructive, and 100-year floods could become more common

Callaway said a spill would devastate families who have harvested oysters in Mobile Bay for generations, and affect every aspect of the local economy, including the fishing industry, tourism, the port, and chemical manufacturing — which are all already struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic. “I cannot imagine allowing one industry the opportunity to take away every other industry and quality of life for all of us in coastal Alabama,” she said.

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.

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