A federal fight over coal ash contamination has environmental groups raising concerns about toxic materials from Alabama Power plants ending up in the ground and waterways.

Alabama is home to nine coal-fired power plants that create coal ash. Millions of tons of ash are produced yearly, containing heavy metals such as arsenic, boron, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury and radium.

Earth Justice ranked Alabama as one of the top U.S. generators of coal ash. While utilities nationwide are working to relocate coal ash away from groundwater, they must also ensure their processes are up to state and federal standards. Alabama Power must be permitted by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to remove coal ash.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering ADEM’s permit process. The EPA stated in a proposed draft that Alabama’s permit program is “significantly less protective of people and waterways than the federal regulations require.”

ADEM was asked to prove their permitting process was as good as the federal process. If they could not do that, state facilities would be required to comply with federal standards determined by the Biden administration. The EPA could also determine “immediate threats to human health or the environment” and have the authority to use enforcement provided under federal law.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance, a network of water protection groups, has been working to educate the public about the coal ash issue. Cade Kistler, with the Mobile Baykeeper, said when power plants were initially built, utilities didn’t realize how dangerous coal ash was. However, a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 caused Congress to take notice.

“The Coal Combustion Residuals Act was finally completed, and so they started regulating these coal ash pits,” Kistler told 1819 News. “Basically, if you had coal ash and it was in the groundwater, which it was in a whole bunch of sites and causing pollution, then you were going to have to close that coal ash pit and do it in a way that didn’t allow it to keep polluting.”

Kistler said all utilities had to monitor levels of toxins in their coal ash. Many other states decided to move coal ash to sites away from bodies of water. Alabama Power planned to close ash ponds permanently by capping them.

“If it’s good enough for our neighbors across the southeast to move coal ash out of their ash ponds, that’s what is good enough for Alabamians,” Kristler said. “We deserve to be protected just like our neighbors across the southeast. People are more critical of Georgia Power, and people know what they are doing. But in Alabama, we kind of get away with a different option. I think that’s short-sighted and not fair for Alabamians.”

Mobile Baykeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against Alabama Power, claiming the power company is polluting water in the Mobile River.

According to compliance records, the James Barry Plant in Bucks, Alabama, has one unlined pond and one lined pond. Boron and cobalt were detected at the plant, along with arsenic, at levels seven times higher than federal health-based guidelines.

State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne) has been monitoring the situation in north Mobile County. He told 1819 News there were reasons the coal ash hadn’t been moved out of the area.

“If you move it, you have to move it somewhere,” Simpson said. “You also have to transport it.”

Experts say moving the toxic chemicals can also pose a risk.

However, the Energy Institute of Alabama (EIA) released a statement supporting Alabama’s process.

“It’s important for the public and policymakers to understand that closing in place is a legal and safe approach for dealing with coal ash,” EIA executive director Blake Hardwich said in a statement. “As independent studies show, the technology and engineering capabilities exist to seal this material where it is now in a way that is environmentally responsible. In fact, roughly half of all coal ash in the South is being sealed safely in place.”

Kistler said the real problem is that while ADEM’s permitting mirrors the federal process, the rules are not being followed.

“The difference is that they’ve been permitting sites that don’t actually meet that rule,” Kistler claimed. “So, that’s like saying your local police put up a speed limit that says 45 in an area that should be 45, but if they’re going 100, they’re not going to bother them about it so they’re not enforcing the speed limit. So, that would be a problem, and it’s the same here.”

Some environmentalists want the coal ash removed and believe Alabama Power is getting away with “covering up” the issue due to its influence in the state.

“They’ve got a lot of power in this state,” Kistler said. “Obviously, they’re a big player in everything that happens … Obviously, they spend a lot of money on influence and make a lot of money, too.”

Alabama Power spends nearly $20 million each year on civic and political activities to gain more influence, Kistler said. He said he hopes that money isn’t the driving factor behind energy policy.

“It is our sincere hope that Alabama Power’s outsized budget for ‘Certain Civic, Political & Related Activities’ will have no bearing on our state’s regulators or our political leaders that we have entrusted with making sound policies and decisions for the benefit of all Alabamians,” he explained.

In the meantime, Alabama Power customers are paying an average of $4.49 a month to clean up coal ash. Kistler said Alabama Power charges the most per customer compared to other utilities that clean up coal ash.

Coal ash pond excavations are underway in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, but not in Alabama.

In Virginia, Dominion Energy, Inc. charges about $3.23 a month per customer for coal ash removal. The state has to remove around 27 million tons of ash and has put some recycling options into play. Compared to what is happening in Alabama, considering Alabama Power is one of the most profitable utilities in the nation, Kistler said things don’t add up.

“Again, Alabama Power is making much more in profit by any measure than Dominion,” he said. “It stands to reason that if they didn’t have one of the highest rates of return in the nation then they could potentially clean up coal ash more effectively and without increasing customer rates like utilities in neighboring states.”

Alabama Power declined to comment due to pending litigation.

ADEM says closing and remediation rules establish corrective action and must be followed. The department said, “Permits issued by ADEM for the closure of coal ash impoundments and the remediation of groundwater around the impoundments meet all state and federal requirements and are protective of human health and the environment.”

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email erica.thomas@1819news.com.

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