What if Harvey Happened Here?

What if Harvey Happened Here?

By Cindy Lowry, Alabama Rivers Alliance executive director

Click here to read this op-ed on al.com or in the Montgomery Advertiser. 

As I watch the devastating floods in Texas and see desperate people standing in water, swimming to their rescuers, or carrying their children through the water to get them to a safe place, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if this happened in Alabama.

We are certainly not strangers to flooding or hurricanes.  Most recently, in December 2015, our state experienced some of the deadliest floods in history and throughout this summer we have seen record rainfalls causing flash floods across the state.  These floods are nothing compared to what is happening in Texas, but as a state that lies in a hurricane prone area, I want to know what we are doing to prepare.

As someone who works in the area of protecting water, I think not only about the amount of water inundating the state during floods, but what might be in that water.   All kinds of pollutants, from raw sewage to the chemicals that are on our roads and yards, end up in water all around us when floods happen.  Then there are the toxic pollutants we cannot always see.

Alabama has long relied on coal fired power plants for energy generation.  At each of these plants there are giant unlined ponds of coal ash sludge that are held back by large earthen dams right along the edge of our rivers, including two that lie in the coastal plain area prone to flooding.  Last week, Mobile Baykeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper and Black Warrior Riverkeeper published press releases sharing the power company’s public maps that show what areas would be impacted if those coal ash dams were breached in a flood or failed like at TVA’s massive 2008 spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Tons of coal ash sludge containing toxic contaminants , such as arsenic and mercury, could go crashing into the rivers and across the land around them impacting acres of land and miles of waterways.  A catastrophe of this nature could potentially impact drinking water supplies, public spaces, and even our homes. You can view Alabama Power’s maps of potentially affected areas here:

Mobile Baykeeper press release

Black Warrior Riverkeeper press release

Coosa Riverkeeper press release

What are our leaders doing to protect us from hazards like this?  Alabama is the only state in the nation without dam safety regulations or a dam inspection program.  Responsible dam owners might be conducting their own inspections, but without state level oversight and requirements, the public will not know if we are safe from potential dam breaches, which can cause damage to our homes from flooding and to our health from dangerous pollutants.

In 2015, the federal government finalized important regulations to address the storage of toxic coal ash.  The regulations called for the dry storage of all future coal ash and provided the option of excavation and removal of the existing coal ash into dry, properly lined landfills away from rivers and drinking water.  These regulations are currently being challenged by utilities and the new EPA administration is passing responsibility back to the states.

As Alabamians, we need to make sure our state elected officials and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management know that coal ash is a threat to clean water and public health.  We need a dam safety law and we need strong state level coal ash storage rules put in place to protect us in case of a catastrophic event.

I hope we never have to experience what the people of Texas are going through right now, or what the people of Tennessee went through in 2008, but I want Alabamians to be prepared and protected if we do.