New Map Provides Comprehensive Graphic of Coal Ash’s Groundwater Pollution at State Power Plants

Click on map for interactive details of six coal ash sites.

While some electric utilities in some other southeastern U.S. states are moving millions of tons of toxic coal ash away from waterways and into lined landfills, those in Alabama are holding fast to plans to corral their toxic material in unlined pits at their present locations, an option labeled cap-in-place.

Four nonprofit environmental groups this week released a new ineractive map they say shows the potential danger of the cap-in-place strategy chosen in the state by Alabama Power Company, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The maps, based on results of the utilities’ federally required tests of groundwater pollution near the facilities, show where arsenic, molybdenum, and other chemicals persist at levels that exceed government-set standards.

While the information has been available on the utilities’ websites, it previously has not been aggregated graphically in map form.

Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, and Mobile Baykeeper said they jointly released the interactive map on June 5 to “show the threat coal ash poses to our groundwater, rivers, wildlife, economies, and health.”

Coal ash results from burning coal and is stored in huge basins adjacent to power plants. It typically contains heavy metals and chemicals hazardous to human health, wildlife and waterways. The pollutants can include mercury, arsenic, chromium, molybdenum and selenium.

All coal ash sites in Alabama are set to be closed this year to comply with guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency. But the river-protection nonprofits said the most recent mandated tests at Alabama Power’s Plant Gadsden, the single site that is already capped-in-place, buttress their belief that ash piles should be moved to upland sites with impermeable bottom and top linings.

In May, Alabama Power was fined $250,000 after tests showed coal ash was polluting the groundwater at Plant Gadsden on the Coosa River in Etowah County. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management proposed the fine in an administrative order issued May 17 in response to results showing high levels of arsenic and radium in groundwater wells adjoining the plant’s ash facility.

“Unlike these other utilities in the southeast, Alabama Power is still insisting upon leaving coal ash in vulnerable streams and wetlands where the pollution will continue to migrate into ground and surface water,” the environmental groups stated in their news release. Meanwhile, utilities in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas are moving nearly 250 million tons of their coal ash to lined landfills away from waterways, the groups said.

An Alabama Power statement acknowledged the test results at Plant Gadsden but said there was “no indication of any effect on any source of drinking water” and that the Gadsden Water Works also found no problem in its regular monitoring of water quality.

“Based on evaluations to date, none of the results detected pose a risk to neighbors, nearby waterways or water sources,” the statement said.

The power company said it obtained and analyzed multiple groundwater samples taken from 18 monitoring wells around the ash holding site “and detected arsenic above regulated levels at two locations and radium during one sampling at one location.” The results were proactively reported to the state environment management department, it added.

Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper said, “Alabama Power’s own groundwater monitoring data show we cannot leave coal ash waste from power plants in leaking, unlined pits next to our rivers. Groundwater monitoring by Alabama Power, PowerSouth and TVA shows toxic pollutants are leaking into groundwater from their nine unlined coal ash pits in Alabama.”


The interactive map issued by the clean-waterways advocates indicates groundwater violations have occurred at all coal ash pits slated for closure. The nonprofits said the map documents results from samples from multiple wells in close proximity to the pits.


Results are adjusted to show a confidence interval (or range) of how much of a pollutant is in the groundwater at that site. A violation of EPA’s coal ash rule occurs when both the upper and lower values for that range are above the regulatory limit. The new map shows the average value from that range only where both the lower and upper end of the range are above legal limits, the river advocates said.


As a result of initial testing last year, the state environmental management department issued its maximum allowable fines to Alabama Power and PowerSouth for groundwater pollution at their coal ash facilities. Under state and federal rules, companies are required to monitor multiple sites near their coal ash and post the results with the government and on their websites. Alabama Power was assessed $1,250,000 for violations at five power plants and PowerSouth was fined $250,000 for violating standards at its one power plant.




The Black Warrior Riverkeeper called attention to what it called the coal ash’s potential threats to drinking water sources in its basin. A major breach of the Rattlesnake Lake dam at Plant Gorgas in Walker County could cause coal ash pollution to inundate drinking water intakes for the City of Bessemer, the Warrior River Water Authority and the Birmingham Water Works Authority, according to emergency plans developed by Alabama Power. In recent years coal ash dam breaches occurred in North Carolina and Tennessee, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and clean-up costs.


Mobile Baykeeper’s Casi Callaway said in a separate news release June 5 that the new map shows why the power company’s Plant Barry coal ash pit on the Mobile River should not be capped-in-place.“Closing an unlined pit of toxic coal ash within several hundred feet of a major river is irresponsible when Alabama Power’s own data clearly shows that the ash is in groundwater. ADEM and Alabama Power must learn from their mistakes at Plant Gadsden,” Callaway said.


The Mobile group has warned repeatedly that Plant Barry’s location near Mobile Bay and the vast wetlands of the Mobile-Tensaw delta make the coal ash pit there particularly vulnerable to flooding from the high annual average rainfall in the area and from hurricanes coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.


“The only solution that will guarantee the health of our communities, environment and economy is to dig up and move the coal ash to an upland, lined landfill away from vulnerable waterways,” Callaway added.


Following announcement of the groundwater violations at Plant Gadsden, Justinn Overton, executive director of Coosa Riverkeeper, told the Gadsden Times, “We firmly believe that leaving the ash to sit in an unlined pit and pollute nearby groundwater for decades to come is irresponsible.”


Around the Southeast U.S.


In recent years several large utility companies in the region have chosen or been ordered to move their coal ash to lined landfills at higher elevations.


In January, Virginia’s governor signed a bipartisan bill [https://www.utilitydive.com/news/virginia-governor-passes-law-requiring-dominion-to-excavate-all-coal-ash/546815/]requiring its major electrical utility to excavate coal ash at all their power plants. Dominion Energy initially wanted to cap-in-place, but later decided it would be more cost effective to recycle part of its 27 million yards of ash.


In addition, Georgia PowerDuke Energy, Santee Cooperand TVA are choosing to  move nearly 250 million tons of coal ash to lined landfills. In some cases, utilities, regulatory agencies, legislative bodies and consumer groups are negotiating how much of the cost of removal would be borne by customers of the power companies.