An accident away: Recent chemical spills raise safety questions for Alabama drinking water
by Cindy Lowry, executive director
If the recent chemical spill in West Virginia made you wonder about the safety of your drinking water supply, I don’t blame you. Over half of Alabamians get their drinking water from rivers, streams, and reservoirs. Alabama has not historically placed a priority on protecting drinking water, meaning contamination is just an accident away.
For example, there are nine coal-fired power plants located on seven of Alabama’s rivers: the Tennessee, Black Warrior, Locust Fork, Mulberry Fork, Coosa, Tombigbee, and Mobile Rivers. Adjacent to each of these plants are massive coal ash storage ponds containing a total of 24.1 billion gallons of coal ash, the waste left behind when coal is burned. Coal ash contains many toxic metals like mercury, lead, and selenium. According to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, Alabama’s coal ash ponds receive more toxic metals than any other coal ash dumps in the nation. The majority of coal ash dump sites in the state are old, unlined, and only separated from our drinking water sources by earthen dams.
Just this Monday, a storm water pipe broke in Eden, North Carolina, spilling a reported 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash along with 27 million gallons of water into the Dan River. The ash was stored at one of Duke Energy’s retired coal plants in an unlined ash pond, similar to many of the coal ash ponds we have in Alabama.
Coal ash is not regulated as hazardous waste, so utilities can dump it in wet, unlined ponds right next to our rivers. After the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster, the EPA ranked coal ash impoundments across the nation based on the amount of damage that could happen if they collapsed. In Alabama, they rated two dams as likely to cause loss of human life and five dams as likely to cause damage to the economy, the environment, and local infrastructure. Despite this threat, Alabama lacks laws to prevent a spill here, or to stop coal ash from polluting our waters.
Chances are you live downstream from one of these coal ash dumps. Birmingham, Huntsville, Guntersville, Florence, Mobile and many cities are downstream, as well as the drinking water intakes for several cities, like Huntsville and Gadsden, plus many of our most popular lakes like Lake Guntersville, Lake Neely Henry, and Lay Lake. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, recently featured in the documentary “America’s Amazon” for its globally significant ecological importance and biodiversity, is also downstream from a coal ash site. (Visit to learn more about coal ash in your area.)
Meanwhile, state agencies have issued pollution permits for coal mining as close as 800 feet from one of Birmingham’s largest drinking water intakes.Contamination from this site would impact 200,000 people in the Birmingham area. There is an oil pipeline proposed to be built directly across the drinking water supply for the city of Mobile. Citizens recently filed a lawsuit over this pipeline as their last resort for protecting their drinking water.
Local water utilities work hard every day to provide clean, safe drinking water, but as West Virginia’s disaster made us keenly aware, we need to do a better job of keeping our water sources safe from hazardous threats.
Alabama is currently one of the worst states in the nation for funding environmental protection. That includes the protection of our drinking water sources. Source after source reported the lack of oversight as the primary reason for the West Virginia disaster. Yet our state and federal governments are continually trying to cut funding for agencies charged with that oversight and short cut important processes that ensure oversight is thorough and accurate.
There’s a lot that needs to change in Alabama to protect our drinking water. These changes might not be easy but they are vital if we want to ensure our water is clean and safe. It may mean not allowing pollution permits in certain areas upstream from or adjacent to drinking water sources. It may mean working together to move our state away from outdated facilities and outdated energy sources that we now know pose threats to drinking water quality and quantity. It may mean conserving energy and water in our homes and making sure that we improve energy and water efficiency at all levels of our society. These changes won’t happen overnight and they may require some growing pains, but if we work together and envision a better, cleaner future for our state, we can get there. Other states are way ahead of us on this road, so we know the path. We just have to have the courage, patience, and political will to go down it.
About Cindy Lowry
Cindy Lowry is the executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Alabama’s statewide, nonprofit river protection organization. She received her BS degree in Wildlife Science from Auburn University in and her Masters of Public Administration from UAB. She has over a decade of experience in the environmental sector and countless volunteer hours. She currently serves on the boards of directors for locally and Clean Water Network nationally.
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