Coal+ fire + water = electricity: Danger to Mobile River

By: Emily Bailey | Contributor

Photo credit: Mobile Baykeeper

Toxic coal ash from an Alabama Power plant continues to leech into Mobile River, and residents have one more day to sign a petition urging the state to order an excavation and cleanup.

The 21 million tons of ash, a byproduct of the coal-burning process that provides electricity to the Mobile region, is mixed with water and sent to massive unlined ponds near Plant Barry, just feet from the river. The utility itself reported that heavy metals, including arsenic, are leaking into groundwater at 800 times the legal level.

Mobile Baykeeper, a nonprofit watchdog group, needs 800 signatures and has so far collected all but 252. At a citizen hearing in Saraland last week, residents warned of the danger the Barry Coal Ash Pit poses to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of six coal ash pits across the state, including a second pit 25 miles north Mobile Bay. 

Among the witnesses, according to Mobile Baykeeper, was Nicholas Williams, who grew up crabbing from local waterways. Environmentalists have been warning since 2016 that a hurricane or flood could poison the Mobile Bay Watershed create a catastrophe on the scale of the BP spill. At the March 30 Saraland hearing, Williams and others urged the state to reject a proposal to “cap in place” at the pit.

“I say all of this because I will have a child one day,” Williams testified, “and if they ask me, ‘Dad, why can’t we swim in the river?’ I want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that I did what I could to try and make sure that they could do that.” 

Plant Barry, an electric generating plant also known as Barry Steam Plant, is just a mile from the system which supplies reserved drinking water for more than 300,000 citizens. 

The state in 2018 fined Alabama Power $1.25 million for their groundwater violation, but according to Mobile Baykeeper, that was less than 0.1 % of Alabama Powers’ net income. Opponents of the “cap-in-place” plan point out that utilities such as Georgia Power have been required to excavate and remove coal ash.

Capping in place, in contrast, means that Alabama Power will remove the water from the ponds, consolidate them, and cover the top of the pond with a synthetic liner. That plan violates environmental safeguards because the coal ash would be below the water table. 

Other southeastern states have determined that moving the coal ash is the most beneficial to the environment, economy and community, but removal then creates the issue of landfill locations, many located in vulnerable communities.

According to Sierra Club, America’s largest environmental organization, residents can still submit online comments about the cap-in-place proposal before the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). The deadline to comment submissions is April 6 at 5 p.m., and according to Mobile Baykeeper, submitting a comment at the address below takes only 30 seconds.

If enough comments are made from the public, the state could ask Alabama Power to remove the coal ash.

Want to comment?