RAINBOW CITY — Residents of Steele and the surrounding area gathered at the Rainbow City Community Center Monday night to voice their concerns and strong opposition to a proposed plan by Alabama Power to construct a new hydroelectric facility on Chandler Mountain in St. Clair County.
Alabama Power is still early in the planning stages of its pumped storage project that would create two lake reservoirs — one on top of the mountain covering 526 acres and one at its base — hemmed in by a series of five dams.
Alan Peeples with Alabama Power said the pump station would have a 1,600-megawatt capacity, enough to power 400,000 homes annually. However, those living on and around the mountain worry it will force them from their homes and significantly impact the area.
“Alabama Power Company knows that you’re concerned,” Peeples said to the packed crowd. “...We know that you’re concerned because your property may be impacted. We know that you’re concerned because maybe it’s about the environment or a number of other issues. We recognize those are very real concerns. Families could be displaced. Businesses could be disrupted… What I would ask you to do is make sure that you’re plugged into the process.”
Several people, including a 99-year-old man whose family lived in the area for over 100 years, spoke during the meeting, raising issues of eminent domain, dam safety and declining property values.
Katelyn Morrow’s home sits where the proposed “Dam B” would be constructed. She accused Alabama Power of lacking “humanity” and of not considering the project's impact on people who have lived on the mountain their entire lives.
“I am a resident of Steele. I have lived here my entire life,” she said. “This is the only home that I have ever known. I am a fifth-generation resident… That is not Dam B; that is my home. That is the land I have grown up on since I was a child… We are people just like you, and we have homes just like you. I’m here to say that we do not support this project that you propose and we never will.”
Fran Summerlin, who spoke on behalf of Save Chandler Mountain, said the project would have “devastating effects” on the area. She recommended the power company try using modular nuclear reactors as an alternate energy source.
“The gentleman from Alabama Power was saying that Chandler Mountain was the perfect place for this project," Summerlin said. "Well, you know what else it’s perfect for? Tomatoes and wildlife and caves and archeological finds.”
Roland St. John doesn’t live in Steele, but he spoke on behalf of the St. Clair County Farmer’s Federation and of the farmers who would not only lose their homes but their livelihoods as well.
“We don’t need to lose another farm,” he said. “You want to go hungry?... We ought to know whether the Biden infrastructure money is what’s really alive here. Alabama Power is probably getting a pile of that money to build this project.”
Mark Smith, who lives in Steele, said he couldn't sell his house now if he wanted to since his property value dropped the moment the project plans became public. Peeples said it wouldn't be until the early 2030s before a final decision on the project is made, so in the meantime, Smith said he and the other property owners are "stuck."
"I think we may need a lawyer because of what you've done to us," concerned citizen Darrel Dweese said. "Our property values are already affected. You can't unring that bell. But you guys can correct it."
Justin Overton with Coosa River Keepers and Jerry Brasher, a professor at Birmingham-Southern College, spoke for the rare and endangered species of animals — Brasher identified at least 28 endangered species so far — that could be lost if the project moves forward.
"Where this project is proposed is one of the most biologically significant hot spots for fish, snail and muscle diversity," Overton said. "... Our state motto is we dare defend our rights, and I look forward to defending the rights of this river and these people."
The back and forth between the Alabama Power staff and representatives from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was limited. Peeples emphasized that he didn't have all the answers and that the purpose of the meeting was to hear concerns to better craft studies and research moving forward. He said some questions and answers would be added to the project website.
Sarah Salazar with FERC explained how people could submit comments and questions online and even request a certain study be done. She also said there would be more opportunities for in-person comments during future meetings.
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