Coal ash: To move it or not to move it? That is the question that even environmentalists can’t agree on as Alabama Power announces its plan for handling existing coal ash in the state.
In April 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a national rule governing how coal ash is managed and stored. The Obama-era rule provides two options for closing basins: either manage coal ash by storing it in place (closed-in-place) or excavate and move the coal ash to a new location. The EPA rule, which has been preserved by the Trump Administration, recognizes that both storing in place and removing and transporting coal ash options are viable options that provide environmental benefits.
When faced with the decision of securing ash in its five ponds, Alabama Power considered both options. Ultimately, the company decided to move forward with plans to secure its coal ash using guidance from the closed-in-place standard approved in 2015 but to go further than the required guidelines.
As Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman told Al.com, “the new plans show the company is going “above and beyond” what is required by state and federal coal ash rules, in some cases using redundant dike systems and subterranean retaining walls that extend 30 feet below the ground to prevent contaminants in the ash from reaching rivers or groundwater.”
Even so, this solution drew condemnation from Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Birmingham office who in the same article told Al.com, “Alabama Power refuses to do what other utilities are doing in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia (including Georgia Power): excavating and removing these contaminants to modern, dry-lined landfills away from our waters.”
A look at what utilities are doing in the aforementioned states, however, shows that Johnston is not comparing apples to apples. As EPA has acknowledged, each coal ash site is unique, meaning utilities in different states are dealing with a number of mitigating factors. Those include different environmental and political circumstances that influence how they are responding to pond closures.
Rather than the one-size-fits-all solution that Johnston, Mobile Baykeepers, and others are suggesting, Alabama Power’s proposal cites location-specific plans for each of its ponds. Those are outlined here for public postings.
Meanwhile, demonstrating the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” decision-making process that power companies face in an age of never-ending environmental backlash, environmental activists in Central Florida have rallied to end a state-of-the-art storage deal involving coal ash from Puerto Rico. Florida activists criticized the same closed-by-removal option being advocated by critics in Alabama, citing the risk of transportation and local storage. Coal ash from Plant Barry north of Mobile, for example, would be transported across the Mobile Bay watershed to some other location, were the removal of coal ash to occur.
“If Puerto Rico is generating coal ash, it shouldn’t be taken and dumped in someone else’s backyard,” Osvaldo Rosario, a doctorate professor in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico with a specialization in EPA Environmental Chemistry and more than 35 years of research experience, told a local news outlet.
Rosario, who also serves as a consultant to the Federal Food and Drug Administration. “It’s something I’ve always criticized.”
Luis Martinez, a director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean energy and climate program, who speaking to Mother Jones about ash being transported from Puerto Rico to Florida was more direct in stating the problem facing those attempting to close ash ponds saying, “Nobody wants [coal ash] in their backyard. That’s a very human reaction.”
Paul Griffin, Executive Director of Energy Fairness, a not-for-profit that has testified regularly on energy issues on behalf of power customers and which has supported the closed-in-place approach to coal ash storage addressed critics of the plan saying, “On one hand you have Alabama Power’s proposal to responsibly store coal ash, which goes above and beyond rules written by the Obama Administration to ensure safety for the public and the environment. On the other hand, the vision of Mobile Baykeeper is to spend years digging up coal ash and transporting it through south Alabama communities to some undisclosed place, costing power customers more money and offering zero net environmental benefits.”
Griffin went on to say, “Any level-headed person can see that is a terrible bargain not just for power customers, but for the environment too.
With coal ash storage a topic of increasingly heated political debate, one thing seems clear. Decisions about which option is best for the environment and for power customers should be based on the best available science, not rhetoric.”