Coal Ash Ponds Leach Toxins into Alabama Groundwater, Waterways, Analysis Finds. ADEM Fines Power Companies, but Route to Remedy Uncertain.

Gaston Steam Plant in Shelby County (Source: Alabama Power Co.)

Significant levels of toxic materials are leaching into the state’s groundwater and waterways from the millions of cubic yards of coal ash stored in massive, unlined storage ponds adjacent to six electrical power generating plants, including plants in Shelby, Jefferson and Walker counties.

On Friday, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management proposed fines of $250,000 for each case. Five of the plants are owned by Alabama Power Company.

Groundwater tests were required of utilities by the Environmental Protection Agency last year, and the utilities’ analyses of results were announced Friday. A “statistically significant increase” over background levels of pollutants was found seeping into groundwater at each plant, the analyses found. The utilities were cited by ADEM for causing or allowing the unpermitted discharge of pollutants from the power plants to “waters of the state.”

Alabama Power spokeswoman Amoi Geter said, “We have taken reasonable and responsible actions at every step of the way and do not believe the amount of the penalty is warranted.” Any fines paid would be absorbed by the company, not its customers, she added.

How Will Utilities Clean Up?

Alabama Power’s plan is to cover and close its still active coal ash ponds by the end of the year, Geter said. Environmentalists have said that leaving the ash impoundments in place is unadvisable because of their proximity to rivers. They propose drying any wet ash and moving it to landfills that have an impermeable bottom liner to prevent pollutants from leaching into groundwater.

Mayor Lee McCarty of Wilsonville, whose town is near Plant Gaston on the Coosa River, said he “could care less about the fine – it’s a slap on the wrist for them, anyway.” McCarty said, “I’d like them to keep the money and spend it on fixing the problems. We need the groundwater protected.”

He said drinking water for much of Shelby County comes from an intake pipe close to the power plant, “so it’s not just Wilsonville that’s facing a threat.”

A joint statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Alabama Rivers Alliance accused Alabama Power of “withholding this information from the public.” Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the law center’s Birmingham office said, “There is nothing in ADEM’s orders that requires any meaningful clean-up of these sources of pollution. We are anxious to hear how the utilities will clean up this mess and protect our water.”

Mobile Baykeeper program director Cade Kistler said the results of the groundwater testing “confirm our suspicion – toxic material is seeping out of the unlined coal ash pits and threatening to contaminate the Mobile River and the Mobile-Tensaw delta. This compromises our ability to swim, fish, work and play in these treasured waterways of coastal Alabama.”

Black Warrior Riverkeeper said in a statement:   “The three Alabama Power Company power plants with unlined coal ash storage facilities in the Black Warrior River basin have wet coal ash storage ponds which have been illegally discharging polluted wastewater into groundwater for years. This was not confirmed until today when Alabama Power was required to make public groundwater monitoring results from testing done around these coal ash storage sites. ADEM’s fine of $250,000 per power plant for these violations is a small price to pay considering the severity of the coal ash problems at these plants.  While this federal requirement and the release of monitoring data today is a win for the public, it should be noted that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a rollback of the CCR Rule just yesterday, which may jeopardize important aspects of this critical groundwater monitoring and protection program.”

ADEM said the violations of its administrative code and the state’s Water Pollution Control Act are “ongoing.” The agency may issue additional enforcement actions if the utilities do not submit plans to mitigate and monitor the pollution.

Arsenic, Lead among Pollutants Found

Alabama Power, facing a total of $1,250,000 in fines, said it would comply with the orders, which cited unallowable levels of arsenic, lead, radium, selenium, and beryllium, among other substances in groundwater testing conducted last year by utilities with results required to be posted by Friday.

Levels of arsenic were notably high in all ash ponds. Plant Barry on the Tensaw River near Mobile, for example, recorded arsenic levels 873 percent above the maximum contaminant level allowable.

Utilities have until April 15 to complete testing at additional sites within the coal ash ponds to ensure the monitoring data are correct and not due to sampling or statistical error. If the initial pollution levels are confirmed, utilities must establish ground water protection limits and conduct more sampling, with results due by Oct. 12. Those facilities that cannot achieve groundwater protection standards must select and implement corrective measures by April 10, 2019.

Alabama Power facilities named in the order, and their coal ash pond levels are:

James M. Barry Plant in Mobile County
  • James M. Barry Plant in Mobile County, 16,00,000 cubic yards on 597 acres
  • C. Gaston plant in Shelby County, 23,600,000 CY on 269 acres
  • William C. Gorgas plant in Walker County, 17,375,000 CY on 420 acres
  • Plant Greene County near Forkland, 8,700,000 CY on 489 acres
  • James H. Miller plant in Jefferson County, 17,700,000 CY on 321 acres.

Its Gadsden plant in Etowah County was not cited, as it was not active when since the Coal Combustion Rule went into effect in 2015.

PowerSouth Energy Cooperative’s Charles R. Lowman Power Plant in Washington County was the sixth plant cited by ADEM.

Coal ash waste is watered and impounded as a slurry. Alabama Power announced a plan in 2016 to remove the water, cover the storage area and close it in place.

Curt Chaffin, policy director for the Rivers Alliance, said he is encouraged by ADEM’s actions, but “we now need (the agency) to develop strong state regulations that prevent future chronic contamination from the storage of coal ash.”


EPA Weakening National Coal Ash Rule

On Thursday, the EPA announced plans to weaken the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule governing coal ash that requires utilities to stop pollution and restore water quality, the environmental law center said.

Johnston of the Environmental Law Center said, “This appears to be a carefully orchestrated timing between (utilities’) requirement to release groundwater monitoring data today, EPA’s announcement to roll back coal ash rules, and ADEM’s decision to file enforcement actions now. It begs the question – who is actually protecting the citizens of the state and our environment from industrial polluters?”

Alabama is on the way to developing its own standards for managing the millions of tons of toxic coal residue stored in ponds adjacent to steam plants around the state.

ADEM is taking comments until March 21 on the establishment of a state permitting program for the handling of coal ash, often called coal combustion residues. It will be submitted to the EPA for approval.

The agency projected that the changes could save companies as much as $100 million in annual compliance costs if implemented.

Other states are also jumping on the opportunity under the Trump Administration that gives more power to states to define and enforce rules to manage coal ash impoundments. Oklahoma’s permitting program was the first to gain EPA approval earlier this year.

State permit regulations must be at least as stringent as federal rules but allow states to set up several alternative performance standards, including those for responding to and cleaning up spills of the residue.

(Editor’s Note: Mobile Baykeeper program director Cade Kistler said the results of the groundwater testing “confirm our suspicion – toxic material is seeping out of the unlined coal ash pits and threatening to contaminate the Mobile River and the Mobile-Tensaw delta.”  An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Kistler as referring to the Tensaw River.)