The battle over storing coal ash on the banks of the Mobile River, in one of Alabama’s most ecologically sensitive and unique areas, is heading to federal court.
Environmental group Mobile Baykeeper filed a lawsuit Monday against Alabama Power Company, arguing the utility’s plans to cover in place coal ash ponds at the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant, about 25 miles north of Mobile, would “leach pollutants into public waters of the United States and of Alabama indefinitely,” and would be in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and federal coal rules enacted in 2015.
The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is an area of largely undeveloped swamp and river delta that feeds into Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s been called “America’s Amazon” for its biodiversity and the huge number of wildlife species found in the bayous, swamps and streams. National conservation group American Rivers named the Mobile River as the third most endangered river in the country earlier this year, citing the coal ash at Plant Barry as the primary threat.
Mobile Baykeeper argues that keeping coal ash laden with pollutants so close to one of the state’s most valuable natural resources is not only a bad idea but is also in violation of environmental laws.
“The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and Mobile Bay are of incalculable value to Coastal Alabama,” Cade Kistler, Baykeeper at Mobile Baykeeper, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “These waters are the bedrock of the economy, quality of life, and environment in the region. Alabama Power’s plan to leave its 21 million tons of coal ash on the banks of the Mobile River, delta, and just upstream of Mobile Bay allows groundwater pollution to continue indefinitely and puts Coastal Alabama at risk of a catastrophic spill like those that have happened in Tennessee and North Carolina.”
Mobile Baykeeper is represented in the case by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Richard Moore, a Trump-appointed former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, who has called Alabama Power’s coal ash plan “a travesty.”
Alabama Power spokesperson Alyson Tucker said the company does not comment on pending legal matters as a matter of practice.
In the past, Alabama Power has defended its decision to cover in place the coal ash at Plant Barry and elsewhere, saying that method of storing coal ash is much cheaper than the other option — digging the coal ash out and moving it to a lined landfill, farther from the river.
“After extensive study and third-party analysis, Alabama Power has chosen the option to safely and securely seal its coal ash sites, including Plant Barry,” the company said last year. “To choose the best plan, we employed the experience of multiple independent firms with deep expertise in civil engineering projects that protect the environment and natural resources. These firms concluded that sealing our coal ash sites in place is a safe and effective option that our engineering plans go beyond their requirements of the law.”
Alabama Power got approval from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management last year to cover its coal ponds at Plant Barry in place, as it plans to do with all of its old coal ash lagoons. The cost of that cleanup is expected to be $3.3 billion for cover-in-place, and the company says excavation and removal would be much more costly.
The current plan is for the ash at Barry to be dewatered, compacted into a smaller area, with a larger buffer between the ash material and the river, and covering it with a synthetic liner similar to those used at modern landfills. However, the ash will not be lined from the bottom, and the Baykeeper argues that pollutants from the coal ash, including arsenic, lead, selenium and other toxins, will continue to leech into the groundwater
Alabama Power has already paid hefty fines in the past from coal ash pollutants entering groundwater.
The group provided a formal notice of intent to sue in July, as required by the Act, and filed the lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.
Barry Brock, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Alabama office, said that while utilities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have announced plans to excavate coal ash ponds in low-lying or coastal areas, Alabama Power has stuck to its initial determination to cover the ash in place.
“Plant Barry is the only coal ash lagoon of a major utility left in a low-lying coastal area of the Southeast that is not already cleaned up or on track to be recycled or removed to safe storage, away from waterways,” Brock said in a news release. “It is past time that Alabama Power faced up to the fact that leaving wet, polluting coal ash on the banks of the Mobile River is not a long-term solution — it’s a disaster.”