New Interactive Maps of Groundwater Pollution Reveal Threat Posed by
Alabama Power and Power South Coal Ash Pits
BIRMINGHAM, AL: Four Alabama environmental organizations have released new interactive maps highlighting groundwater pollution reported by Alabama Power and Power South at coal ash pits throughout the state. Alabama Power’s federally required monitoring shows significant pollution of groundwater with arsenic, radium, and more. Pollution has persisted even after Alabama Power closed their leaking Gadsden pit using cap-in-place – the same method it plans for millions of tons of coal ash in their dumps statewide.
The environmental organizations – Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, and Mobile Baykeeper – developed these maps to show the threat coal ash poses to our groundwater, rivers, wildlife, economies, and health. Across the state, six coal ash dumps are slated to be capped-in-place. Cap-in-place covers the ash pit on top but still leaves it unlined on the bottom, allowing groundwater pollution to continue.
“These maps clearly illustrate why we can’t leave coal ash in unlined pits next to our waterways,” said Casi Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper’s Executive Director & Baykeeper. “It is obvious from Alabama Power’s and Power South’s own groundwater monitoring data that toxic pollution in every unlined coal ash pit in Alabama is seeping into nearby groundwater and rivers.”
The maps come directly after the release of a new report showing that Alabama Power’s only capped-in-place pit at Plant Gadsden is still leaking arsenic and radium into groundwater above national limits. The utility plans to use the same method at every unlined ash dump in the state. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) recently fined Alabama Power $250,000 (less than 0.03% of the utility’s 2017 net profit) for the Gadsden violations. Meanwhile, utilities across the Southeast like Georgia Power, Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, Dominion Energy, and TVA are collectively moving nearly 250 million tons of coal ash to upland, lined landfills to protect citizens in their states.
The data underlying these maps comes from Alabama Power’s and Power South’s own groundwater monitoring reports. The reports show that groundwater violations have occurred at every one of Alabama Power’s six pits slated for closure. In the reports the utilities take samples from multiple wells along the edges of the ash pit. The samples at each well are then statistically manipulated to come up with a confidence interval (or range) of how much of a pollutant is in the groundwater at that site. Only when the upper AND lower value for that range are above the regulatory limit the utility is determined to be in violation. These maps show the average value from that range only where both the lower and upper end of the range are above regulatory limits. These violations have resulted in $1,750,000 in fines for the utilities, but they have simply paid the fines and have not yet taken action to stop the pollution.
At Plant Barry, arsenic – 973% the national limit – and cobalt are currently leaking into our groundwater. The utility’s own reports also show groundwater levels are frequently higher than the level of the ash in the pit and flowing towards the Mobile River. In addition, cap-in-place does not protect against flooding.
At Plant Miller, monitoring well sample results show Alabama Power’s unlined coal ash pit leaked cobalt at 2.5 times the national groundwater limit. The Miller coal ash pit is also leaking arsenic and lithium in violation of national groundwater limits.
At Plant Gorgas, monitoring well sample results show Alabama Power’s unlined coal ash lake leaked arsenic at 18 times the national groundwater limit. The Gorgas coal ash lake is also leaking lithium and molybdenum in violation of national groundwater limits.
At Plant Greene County, monitoring well sample results show Alabama Power’s unlined coal ash pit leaked arsenic at 38 times the national groundwater limit. The Greene coal ash pit is also leaking cobalt and lithium in violation of national groundwater limits.
Gadsden Steam Plant’s coal ash pond is currently leaking arsenic – 10,000% higher than the limit – and radium into our groundwater.
At the Gaston Steam Plant site Radium, Molybdenum, Lithium, and Arsenic were all above the national limit at times during the utilities monitoring.
Charles R. Lowman’s coal ash pit is leaking pollution into surrounding groundwater. Monitoring results show exceedances of lithium, molybdenum, cobalt, and arsenic–some upwards of 5000% of the safe limit.
ALL ABOUT COAL ASH
Coal ash is the toxic waste that remains after coal is burned. It contains high concentrations of heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, selenium, and chromium, which are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and waterways. The EPA has found that individuals who live next to an unlined wet ash pond and get drinking water from a well can have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic. Having these toxins permeating our waterways could damage our way of life, preventing us from swimming, fishing, working, and playing on the water.
At Plant Barry, located 25 miles north of Mobile Bay in Bucks, AL, more than 16 million tons of coal ash sits in a 600-acre pit directly adjacent to the Mobile River and Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The Delta is one of the nation’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, often called “North America’s Amazon”. After the utility burns their coal, they dump the ash in the pit, where it essentially dissolves into the water. This toxin-filled water sits behind an earthen dam where it is already leaking into groundwater. In the event of a flood or hurricane, it can potentially cause a catastrophic spill 20 times larger than Deepwater Horizon. Similar spills have already happened at coal ash pits in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Additionally, Plant Barry sits less than a mile from the potential backup drinking water source for the more than 300,000 citizens who get their drinking water from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS). The MAWSS pumping station lies within Plant Barry’s inundation zone, meaning that it would be covered by coal ash in the event of a failure of the dam.
Mobile Baykeeper released their own pollution report on Plant Barry in 2018.
In November 2016, to comply with federal regulations, Alabama Power announced its preliminary closure plans to “cap-in-place” the coal ash at Plant Barry. This was not their original plan; their original plan was to dig it up and move it. The decision contrasts with those of other Southeastern utilities who are removing their coal ash to lined storage or recycling it for beneficial reuse.
At Plant Miller, located on the banks of the Black Warrior River’s Locust Fork, more than 29 million tons of coal ash sits in a 321-acre unlined pit, behind an earthen dam approximately 170 feet tall. On average during 2018, the maximum daily discharge of coal ash wastewater from Miller’s ash pit into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River was approximately 11.51 million gallons. Alabama Power plans to begin de-watering the facility in 2019, with a final closure date estimated for 2029.
At Plant Gorgas, more than 40 million tons of coal ash has been dumped into Rattlesnake Lake, a 420-acre unlined impoundment formed by damming Rattlesnake Creek in 1953. On average during 2018, the maximum daily discharge of coal ash wastewater from Rattlesnake Lake into the Mulberry Fork of the Black WarriorRiver was approximately 28.49 million gallons. Alabama Power has announced its intent to begin closure of the Rattlesnake Lake coal ash dump in 2019, with final closure anticipated in 2028.
At Plant Greene County, more than 16 million tons of coal ash has been placed in a 489-acre unlined storage pit, located within a large bend on the Black Warrior River, on top of what once was Big Slough and associated wetlands, which fed into Backbone Creek, a tributary to the Black Warrior River. On average during 2018, the maximum daily discharge of coal ash wastewater from Greene County ash pit into the Black Warrior River was approximately 1.5 million gallons. Closure of the pit has already begun, with the facility initiating the de-watering process in April of 2019. Alabama Power anticipates that the cap-in-place procedure will be finished by 2024.
The coal ash waste sites at both Plants Miller (approximately 18 miles) and Gorgas (less than 15 miles) are upstream of the drinking water source for the City of Bessemer and the Warrior River Water Authority. Their drinking water intakes, as well as the intake for the Birmingham Water Works Board on the Mulberry Fork (which serves 200,000 customers) are within the potential inundation zone of a catastrophic breach of the dam at Plant Gorgas, meaning they would be covered in coal ash in the event of a failure of the dam at Rattlesnake Lake. Similar spills have already happened at coal ash pits in North Carolina and Tennessee.
There are two coal ash ponds on the banks of the Coosa River that are a danger to fishing, swimming, and drinking water. The Gadsden Coal Ash Pond is on Lake Neely Henry upstream 3,420 feet (0.6miles) from a drinking water intake. The Gadsden Coal Ash Pond is one of the smallest coal ash ponds in the state and has been capped and covered. The Gaston Steam Plant on Lay Lake is 4 miles upstream from the drinking water intake for Shelby County.
Lowman Power Station is owned and operated by PowerSouth Energy Cooperative. Located in Washington County about an hour north of Mobile, the Lowman facility is near the Tombigbee River. PowerSouth plans to close the plant in 2020; the cooperative will demolish the plant, permanently close the coal ash holding ponds, and cover them in-place in perpetuity.
In November 2016, to comply with federal regulations, Alabama Power announced its preliminary closure plans to “cap-in-place” the coal ash at Plants Miller, Gorgas, and Greene County. This decision contrasts with the decisions made by many other utilities in the southeast, which instead chose to excavate their coal ash and move it to lined landfills away from waterways.