Alabama’s not the only state with highly polluted groundwater from coal ash basins.
In December, electric utilities in Alabama confirmed that 100 percent of regulated coal ash storage pits were within five feet of groundwater, failing the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for protecting the water supply from a myriad of cancer-causing and otherwise toxic chemicals.
Since then, one state after another has found similar results from tests mandated by the EPA. Records released of 265 power plants around the United States show arsenic, lithium and other pollutants are in the groundwater at 91 percent of the sites where combusted coal residue is stored.
In Alabama, utility-provided statistics have shown, for example, pollution from arsenic at 37 times the safe level at Plant Greene County near Forkland and 19 times the safe level at Plant Gorgas near Birmingham. Molybdenum and lithium were measured at 53 and 15 times the safe level, respectively, at Plant Gaston near Wilsonville. And at Plant Lowman in Washington County, the heavy metal cobalt was found to be 165 times the safe level.
The national data was to be revealed today at a noon press conference by the nonprofit watchdog group Environmental Integrity Project with assistance from Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.
The Alabama Rivers Alliance seized on the report to emphasize the potential dangers from seven coal ash storage sites in the state. Five of the regulated sites belong to Alabama Power Company, and one each belongs to the Tennessee Valley Authority and PowerSouth Energy Cooperative.
“This national report reconfirms what we already know about coal ash – every facility in the state is leaching huge amounts of dangerous heavy metals and other pollutants into our groundwater,” the alliance’s policy director, Curt Chaffin, said in a prepared statement.
“To make matters worse, contamination is happening in communities that could be using groundwater for drinking water and private wells,” Chaffin said.
He urged state leaders to require the utility companies to excavate the coal ash and move it away from groundwater, which he said was “the only sure-fire way to stop contamination.”
Alabama Resists Moving Coal Ash; Some Other Companies Comply
Utility companies in Alabama have resisted all calls to move the tons of toxic material to bottom-lined landfills and instead plan to dry, consolidate, and maintain it in place with only a top liner to keep rainwater off while continuing to monitor pollutants in groundwater. This option is allowed under regulations of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
That differs from some other states in the Southeast. All power plants in South Carolina are removing ash from unlined basins, Virginia officials have called for the complete removal of ash ponds within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the TVA and Georgia Power Company are excavating and moving coal ash at some of their facilities.
Resisting utilities say the cost of moving the coal waste to landfills with impervious bottom liners would be prohibitive. Environmental and citizen groups counter by pointing to the expense of clean-ups required when massive coal ash spills have occurred.
Last spring, state regulators fined Alabama Power $1.25 million and PowerSouth $250,000 for polluting groundwater with coal ash toxins in violation of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management code.
At the time, Alabama Power stated its evaluations showed “no indication of any effect on any source of drinking water.”
The company added, “Alabama Power has operated our ash facilities in a safe and environmentally sound manner for decades and will monitor groundwater around the facility for at least 30 years to ensure ongoing protection of water quality.”
The first national regulations for combusted coal waste were put in place in 2015 following devastating failures of coal ash containment in Tennessee and North Carolina. Rules require power companies to monitor groundwater at storage ponds and landfills and close sites that are leaking. The utilities also are required to display results of monitoring on their websites.
The EPA under President Trump has moved to relax the rules. “But even if the Trump administration moves in to sweep away cleanup requirements, we now know the extent of the groundwater contamination, and it will be hard for them to leave communities with contaminated groundwater,” Earthjustice senior attorney Lisa Evans told Inside Climate News in January.
Alabama Power’s regulated coal ash impoundments in Alabama are at: E. C. Gaston Steam Plant in Shelby County, James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant in Jefferson County, James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant in Mobile County, Greene County Steam Plant in Greene County, William C. Gorgas Electric Generating Plant in Walker County.
The other sites are at TVA’s Colbert Fossil Plant in Colbert County and PowerSouth’s Charles R. Lowman Power Plant in Washington County.