An Alabama Scenario: Hurricane Florence Raises Questions About Coal Ash and Mobile Bay

High water shown on the Mobile River adjacent to Plant Barry after a period of heavy rain. Plant Barry’s generating towers are in the background, with the coal ash pond surrounded on multiple sides by water. (Source: Cade Kistler, Mobile Baykeeper)

Is Alabama ready for an environmental disaster worse than the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and more difficult to clean up?

If Hurricane Florence had hit Alabama instead of the Carolinas, that might well have occurred, according to leaders of Mobile Baykeeper, an organization intent on protecting the ecology of the bay.

The damage they see as a risk would come from flooding or collapse of an almost 600-acre pond that stores toxic residue of coal burned for power generation at Alabama Power Company’s 60-year-old Plant Barry, 25 miles from the mouth of the Mobile River.

Casi Callaway, the baykeeper’s executive director, and Cade Kistler, its program director, base their views on a report that Mobile Baykeeper issued earlier this year, “Mobile Baykeeper Pollution Report: Coal Ash at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry.”

The Waterkeeper Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center were also involved in preparing the report.

Callaway and Kistler said a slow-moving, rain-heavy hurricane such as the recent Hurricane Florence could produce flooding that breaches or overflows the earthen dam protecting what they call the state’s most vulnerable coal ash storage basin. Plant Barry’s 21 tons of coal ash containing toxic levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and other pollutants is 20 times greater in volume than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Baykeeper Report

The report includes an assessment from a dam engineer that Plant Barry’s ash storage has significant flaws, including use of dam inspectors from the power company’s parent Southern Company rather than independent experts. Models also show the ash pond rising to less than a quarter-inch from the top of the dam during a 21-inch rain – 15 inches less than Hurricane Florence brought to the Carolinas.

The report also questions the stability of the earthen embankments that protect the ash pond, while acknowledging it meets federal standards by a “narrow margin.”

The power company “did the bare minimum” assessment and did not address potential dam-integrity issues such as evidence of liquid seeping through the dam walls, said to be the cause of 40 percent of dam failures, according to the report.

It also predicted that the Mobile River will erode the walls of the dam unless significant protective measures are taken.

Callaway warned, “It’s not a matter of if it will happen, it’s a matter of when it will happen.”

Because a hurricane can’t be prevented, she said, “We think Alabama Power should do the right thing and move the coal ash away from the river into an upland, lined pit and cover it. Do this right the first time, now.”

Alabama Power Cites Inspections and Planning

Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said the company has never had an impoundment failure, and storage basins undergo annual inspections by licensed Southern Company engineers and at least weekly surveys by plant personnel. In addition, he said, the storage ponds received the highest rating available when the EPA inspected it in 2010.

Alabama Power has no plans to move the coal away from any of its power plants. Instead, the public utility is in the process of permanently closing its coal ash impoundments, treating and dewatering the slurry and covering them with a watertight barrier, according to its website.

Drying out coal ash from the almost 600-acre site at Plant Barry would reduce its bulk by more than one-third and allow Alabama Power to consolidate the coal ash within the pond basin with a greater margin between it and the river, Sznajderman said in an email.

In addition, he said, the project would capture rainwater runoff from the watertight covering and construct dikes to provide more protection from flooding.

The company also will monitor groundwater near the plant for the next 30 years as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier this year, the utility was fined $1.25 million for allowing unlined coal ash ponds to leach toxic substances into the groundwater at five of its power generating plants, including Plant Barry.

The Alabama Power plan meets current EPA and state regulations, but Callaway and Kistler say it wouldn’t likely prevent a breach of the dam. “Our team is looking at satellite images of a plant on Cape Fear River that is similar to Plant Barry. We are 100 percent vulnerable. It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Kistler said.

Rainfall Records in Recent Years

Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain around Houston last year, and Florence has produced 30-plus inches. Scientists believe climate change likely raised the total for both storms. “It’s not surprising, but still terrifying, that the two top-ranked soakers happened over the past two years,” Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann told Fox News recently.

Flooding from the swollen Cape Fear River tops an earthen dike at Sutton Lake at the L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington, North Carolina. (Source: Duke Energy)

He could have added 2016’s Hurricane Matthew to his statement. That storm’s total rainfall ranks third in the nation’s 70-year history of recording rain levels, so the past three years have produced the top three drenchings in recorded U.S. history. Harvey is 30th on the global list of rainfall from hurricanes and cyclones.

The Baykeepers said that a much smaller rainfall could have significant effects. A downpour of about 4 inches in February 2017 sent water levels 12 feet up a levee on the outside of the Plant Barry coal ash dam, turning the site into an island. Callaway said the swift-flowing river scours and weakens the earthen dam during flooding events.

Kistler added, “We’re really fortunate so far – if we have a Harvey or Florence, then it’s extremely unlikely we’re going to get away unscathed.”

Would a hurricane cause storm surge through the bay? That’s not the highest concern, Callaway said, “But if you have a major hurricane coming up Mobile Bay like Hurricane Frederick in 1979, we’re in for a world of hurt.”

As currently is happening in the Carolinas, the danger of flooding wouldn’t necessarily come from a deluge just in the Mobile area, but from rain over much of the state that is swept downstream through the state’s rivers that eventually flow into the bay – principally the Black Warrior, Cahaba, Coosa, and Alabama rivers.

Coal ash contains dozens of substances, some which carry a high risk of cancer and other health effects as well as danger to the environment, according to the EPA. An Obama administration rule would have mandated coal ash ponds built in or near water to be closed by April 2019, but the Trump administration has extended the deadline by 18 months with the possibility of pushing it further.

Some utilities around the country, including in Georgia, are excavating coal ash pits and moving them to landfills in safer locations. North Carolina’s Duke Energy was in the middle of that process when Florence came ashore. The utilities that have chosen to cover and “cap in place” their dangerous ponds say they have done so because of the high cost of safely moving them.

If Plant Barry were to lose its ash into the river and delta, Callaway said, the impact would affect not just the at least 30-square-mile area that Alabama Power lays out in the emergency inundation plan, but the highly biodiverse wetlands of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Plant Barry’s ash pond is more than five times larger than a TVA site in Tennessee, where cleaning-up the 2008 Kingston spill cost beyond $1 billion. Economic and human costs are not included in the figure.

“And, (Kingston) did not have a major port south of that facility that was endangered, or an economy of tourism, shipping and coastal development,” Callaway said.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a billion-dollar hit to the beaches and Gulf but did not greatly affect Mobile Bay. A breach of the pollutants at Plant Barry would be disastrous for the bay and life around it, Callaway said.

Alabama Power’s inundation map in its emergency plan shows what would happen in the area if the coal ash were to be released in a weather event, Kistler said. “The delta would be hit with a tidal wave of ash. If you were in your boat or camp house, within an hour or two you would need emergency evacuation from ash a few feet deep. It would go into the bay and even the Gulf and be much more difficult to clean up.”

Cleanup would be harder than at either the Kingston disaster or the BP Deepwater Horizon spill because the delta is a labyrinth of nooks, crannies, and bayous. Kistler said the open Gulf made it easier to maneuver to find the oil, and the Kingston plant was on a single lane of the Clinch River, not a wetland.

“Cleanup would be unbelievably costly and really insurmountable to do effectively,” he added.

Who would pay to clean up after a major coal ash disaster, ratepayers or investors? Duke Energy, the utility responsible for a relatively small 2014 coal ash spill on the Dan River in North Carolina, said the company, not its customers, would be on the hook for the disaster’s costs. However, to pay to clean up all its coal ash basins, the state’s regulatory body this year authorized the company to increase its fixed monthly charges by 25 percent and gave it a utility rate increase of $232 million.

Alabama Power’s Sznajderman said it would be speculative to say who would pay for a future clean-up here.

Callaway said, “We don’t want to be planning to recover from a spill. It’s a whole lot easier and cheaper to protect than to restore. If you don’t care about the diversity of life in the delta, you still like to fish and hunt and eat the fish, shrimp and crawfish and enjoy the coastal living.”

“Why not just do the right thing in the first place and move the ash away from the river?”

(Correction:  This article has been corrected to reflect that  Alabama Power Company’s Plant Barry is 25 miles from the mouth of the Mobile River, not Mobile Bay.)