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For coal ash pond closures, disagreement between energy leaders and environmentalists over methods

This story was updated on Oct. 29, 2020 at 3:01 p.m. to reflect the delay of the Gadsden plant public hearing due to hazardous conditions created by Hurricane Zeta.

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

The pending closure of three coal ash ponds, with more to come, have energy industry leaders and environmentalists arguing over the best and safest way to dispose of the dangerous substance.

Under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule passed in 2015, all of Alabama’s coal ash ponds must be closed and can’t receive any more coal ash starting in April 2021.

The three proposed permits released by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management are the result of many months of work between the department and Alabama Power, ADEM Director Lance LaFleur told Alabama Daily News.

The EPA and ADEM have said two options for closing the ponds are legal: cap-in-place or excavation. ADEM does not have the authority to require one method over the other, LaFleur said, but they do set the standards of what level of contamination is unacceptable and Alabama utilities are meant to report to them regularly on contamination levels.

“We tell them that their discharges have to meet a certain standard and it’s up to them on how they achieve that standard,” LaFleur said.

Alabama Power owns and operates six of the state’s coal-burning electricity plants that have ash ponds on site. The three plans currently out for review are for plants in Jefferson County, Greene County and Gadsden, and LaFleur said the permits for other plants will be released in the coming months.

The cap-in-place option requires the pond to be dewatered, all ash materials be moved to the farthest points away from water sources, re-enforcing the impoundment with dike systems and other structures that redirect water and then covering it with a synthetic liner.

The excavation plan would also require dewatering of the pond but then all remaining ash material would be dug up and taken to a lined landfill upland, away from any major water resource.

Opponents of excavation plans, including Alabama Power, say they are much more costly than caping in place and can pose environmental risks from driving hundreds of truckloads of ash through local communities.

A spokesperson from Alabama Power told ADN that they could not give an estimated cost for their current cap-in-place plans for the three proposed permits, nor could they give an estimate on how much excavation plans would be.

“Until the company receives a final permit from ADEM, the final cost at each site would vary based on compliance requirements,” Isaac Pigott, a communication strategist from Alabama Power said. “The cost of closure by removal is typically three to five times more expensive than closure in place.”

Alabama Power has listed on their website that the approximate cost to close the Jefferson County Miller plant ash pond is $415 million with an additional $127 million for all post-closure care, maintenance and correction action costs. The approximated cost to close the Greene County plant ash pond is listed at $330 million with an additional $32 million for post-closure costs. There is no estimated cost listed for the Gadsden plant ash pond closure.

Pigott said ash currently being produced by the plants is now being recycled into materials like concrete or drywall, or is taken to an approved landfill. The utility told ADN that, so far in 2020, it has recycled all of its ash byproducts.

The permits also mention continuous monitoring of water quality from wells surrounding the closed ponds for 30 years and ADEM is requiring a clean up of all contaminated groundwater.

These ash ponds have shown groundwater contamination in the past and ADEM fined the company $1.25 million in 2018 when it found contaminants like arsenic, lead, selenium, and beryllium, reported.

But LaFleur said no one’s drinking water is unsafe.

“Right now, there is no indication that any groundwater drinking water source has been contaminated by the groundwater contamination of these coal ash ponds,” LaFleur said.

The EPA doesn’t label coal ash as a “hazardous waste” but it is made up of various heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, selenium and chromium, which are hazardous to human health.

These contaminants and the risk to Alabama’s groundwater resources are why people like Nelson Brooke with the Black Warrior Riverkeepers disagree with the cap in place plan and think complete excavation is the only safe option.

“There is no reason to believe that by leaving the contaminants in place, is somehow going to magically make the pollution go away,” Nelson told ADN. “In fact, it’s going to allow the coal ash contaminants to continue to mingle with groundwater resources and to continue contamination to leave the site.”

What has been said so far

So far, two public hearings have been held where people have voiced their support and concern for the plans.

A third public hearing was planned for Thursday night but due to the widespread hazardous road conditions and power outages across the state caused by Hurricane Zeta that hearing has been postponed. ADEM said in a press release on Thursday that a new hearing date has not been set yet.

LaFleur said the public comment period is a way to hear any concerns from the community ADEM might have missed.

“Our professional staff has been working on this for many months,” LaFleur said. “They would not issue a draft permit that would not meet all the technical and regulatory requirements of a permit meeting the standards that are set. Any human endeavor can be improved upon and that is what the public comment period will do. All of those comments will be considered and every issue will be addressed in a written response comment.”

LaFleur said permits have changed in the past due to public comments for things like not enough monitoring wells around sites, but minor changes suggested wouldn’t cause an entire permit to be rewritten.

During the Greene County plant public hearing, one of the speakers supporting the plan was Seth Hammett, former Alabama House Speaker and current chairman of the Energy Institute of Alabama, of which Alabama Power is a member.

Hammett said the listed construction measures that would take place detailed in the permit would ensure safety for the community.

“Those of us who work in this industry live here, our families live here, our children, our grandchildren, and we want to follow the science and we’re certainly not going to do anything that would endanger our own families, particularly our children and grandchildren,” Hammett said.

A representative from the Greene County Industrial Development Authority said during the hearing that Alabama Power has been a good community ally over the years and has been open and willing to hear the community’s concerns with regards to the pond closing plans.

One citizen from Forkland, Alabama said at the Greene County hearing that she is concerned about the contamination of their water system because she and various family members have underlying health conditions and urged ADEM to dispose of all the waste appropriately.

Keith Johnson, Alabama Director for the Southern Environmental Law Center, spoke at both of last week’s hearings and advocated for complete excavation of the coal ash.

“The draft permit does not satisfy the current requirements of federal rules or the state’s CCR rules,” Johnson said at the Miller plant public hearing.  “ADEM should go back and require that Alabama Power provide information that truly shows the extent of the contamination and they should compare the evidence of what extraction removal would take versus the closure-in-place plans. Alabama is now becoming the outlier in all the southern states as far as what they’re doing with this coal ash waste. ADEM should consider that and the public should know.”

Johnson also noted that other states, including multiple southern states, are requiring complete excavation of their ponds.

According to data gathered by Earth Justice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, out of the 738 facilities in the U.S. closing their coal ash ponds, around 34% are through an excavation and removal method.

Some states have passed legislation preventing caping in place or otherwise regulating what is done with coal ash ponds. Virginia passed a law in 2019 that requires coal ash to be moved to landfills with liners. North Carolina won a settlement in 2019 against Duke Energy that requires them to cleanup all of its 80 million tons of coal ash and excavate all sites.

Alabama Power has already finished capping in place the coal ash pond at the Gadsden plant and the proposed permit up for public comment is in regards to ongoing monitoring and mitigation plans for the site, the company said.

LaFleur says it is still too early to know if there is further groundwater contamination happening at the Gadsden pond.

“These will take 10-20 years maybe longer for the groundwater contamination to be cleaned up,” LaFleur said.

Brooke thinks that is too long of a time to risk continuous contamination of Alabama’s water sources.

“We don’t want to wait and see if arsenic and other contaminants in coal ash are continuing to contaminate this area in 10 years,” Brooke said. “We already know that is the case. We think now is the time to do the more progressive and aggressive thing although it will cost more. Ultimately it will cost a lot less for the economy, the people and the environment.”

Alabama Power could not say exactly when the Greene and Miller ponds will be caped but said the process with additional protections is expected to take around 6-14 years.

Those who wish to speak at the upcoming Gadsden public hearing can preregister with ADEM and anyone can mail or email comments directly to ADEM during the 35-day minimum comment period that runs one week past the date of public hearings.

Once all public comments are in ADEM will review them and respond to each. LaFleur said that process could take about a month to accomplish and he estimates that the permits could be finalized near the beginning of December.

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