Upstream from one of the United States’ most biologically diverse wetlands sits a coal ash pond leaking toxic metals into the groundwater, imperiling ecosystems and threatening drinking water supplies as climate change increases flood risks.
Alabama’s J.M. Barry Power Plant is “a case study in the continuing risks posed by coal ash disposal,” reports Energy News Network. The news report describes the coal- and natural gas-fired power plant’s ash disposal impoundment as “600 acres of wet coal ash that’s already leaching toxic metals like arsenic and cobalt into groundwater, sitting in an open pit, on a riverbank, in one of the rainiest places in the U.S.”
Located in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta wetland ecosystem, just 40 kilometres from the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico, the impoundment has become a “flashpoint” between environmental advocates and state utility Alabama Power, Energy News Network adds.
“All of these environmental aspects put it in a really concerning location,” said Cassie Bates, program coordinator for local advocacy group Mobile Baykeepers. “Flooding of the river can be a great concern given we’re in coastal Alabama,” she added, with persistent threats from hurricanes and tropical storms.
“The combination of these things makes it not a really viable place to leave that much waste sitting on the side of the river.”
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal to create electricity. Coal-fired power plants usually dispose ash by mixing it with water and storing it in unlined pits or ponds that often allow contaminants to leach out and into groundwater—even while the ash stays in place, the news story states.
As of last April, 172 coal ash impoundments across the U.S. were located on land deemed vulnerable to floodwater, according to Earthjustice’s Coal Ash Rule Compliance data. These ash ponds sit on “100-year floodplains” where, in any given year, there is a one-in-100 chance of flooding. Some 54 impoundments, including J.M. Barry, have “significant” hazard ratings, meaning their failure will cause economic loss and damage to infrastructure and the environment. A dozen are rated “high” hazard, indicating that their failure would probably kill people.
Scientists warn that floods and extreme weather will occur more frequently because of climate change, raising the chance that impoundments will overflow or breach the dams containing them and spill ash into waterways. Flooding can also raise water table levels and expose groundwater to contamination, even if the impoundments withstand flooding.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated the closure of most unlined coal ash impoundments, utilities can decide the timeline, and choose whether the ash will be “excavated”—meaning removed to a safer, lined landfill. Many utilities choose a “cap-in-place” method, which involves dewatering the ash and covering it with an impermeable cover. But critics say that strategy fails to prevent contamination, pointing out that surging floodwater and torrential rains—like when Hurricane Florence flooded North Carolina in 2018—can cause ash to spill out from a landfill under construction.
Such incidents are a warning that utilities are “setting up disasters waiting to happen” when they leave sites uncapped, unexcavated, or capped in place, said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
Legal and public pressure has succeeded in reducing risk at some Southern U.S. impoundments: a settlement in 2019 pushed North Carolina utility Duke Energy to move its coal ash into lined storage. In South Carolina, three coal-fired utilities excavated their impoundments ahead of a 2015 deadline, helping prevent disaster in 2018, says Holleman.
But Alabama state regulators have allowed the J.M. Barry impoundment to be closed in place, despite advocates’ urging that the permitting program was “considerably weaker” than federal regulations and had not been approved by the EPA. Plus, the ash stored at the site is already saturated with groundwater, and the impoundment does not meet the federal requirement of being at least five feet above the uppermost level of the uppermost aquifer, according to a report by geologist Mark Hutson, an expert consultant to the SELC.
Even if the plant adhered to the rule, it wouldn’t resolve the groundwater contamination issue, Hutson added. The utility can comply by simply closing the impoundment, and they “tend to want to close it by leaving it there,” he added.
Hutson’s report also noted another issue with the J.M. Barry impoundment: that the dams holding the waste in place are threatened by erosion from the Mobile River. It is increasingly likely that the berms could fail, releasing some of the 19 million tonnes of coal ash from the dam into the river, Energy News Network says.
The EPA has started to take a stricter position this year, and now rejects requests for extensions on closing ash ponds where there is contact with groundwater, Energy News Network writes. Several have challenged the EPA’s decisions.