PowerSouth CEO Blames ‘Extremist Environmental Ideology’ for Shuttering a Coal-Fired Plant in South Alabama

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By Hank Black

One of Alabama’s oldest coal-fired power plants will close next year. PowerSouth Energy Cooperative’s chief executive blamed the closure on “extremist environmental ideologies” and “environmental activists” in announcing that the Charles R. Lowman electrical generation plant on the Tombigbee River would be shuttered.

In an emailed newsletter on New Year’s Eve, PowerSouth CEO Gary Smith told Plant Lowman’s 150 employees that coal ash regulations, among others, are forcing the plant to end the use of coal to generate power at the Washington County facility.

“Good people will soon be looking for new jobs because of extremist environmental ideologies,” he said.

Environmentalists disagree, saying PowerSouth created its own problems by continuing to use outdated technologies and dumping coal ash near the water.

Last year, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management fined PowerSouth $250,000 for violation of the state’s Water Pollution Control Act. The cooperative also failed an EPA requirement to keep its coal ash at least five feet above groundwater, which led to the pits’ mandated closing by Oct. 31, 2020.

Coal ash, or coal combustion residue, is washed out of coal-fired facilities with water into open pits, where it settles to the bottom. The waste product can be dried, treated and used commercially in concrete and other products, but tons of the material remains in the basins. Coal ash contains several highly toxic substances, including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.

The electrical cooperative plans to permanently close its ash holding ponds and cover them in-place. It also will demolish the plant and construct a natural gas combined cycle unit on the site to generate electricity. The natural gas replacement will only require 35 employees. Some employees will be able to retire, but others will have to find other jobs, Smith said.

“It is sad and disheartening that environmental activists, politicians, bureaucrats and others have allowed environmental and climate change movements to close coal-fired units and cost good, hardworking people their jobs and livelihoods,” Smith wrote to employees. ”It is difficult for me to end on a happy note knowing that good people will soon be looking for new jobs because of extremist environmental ideologies.”

Au Contraire, Environmentalists Say

But more to blame is the cooperative’s own mismanagement of coal ash, according to representatives of the Southern Environmental Law Center and others.

“They blame closures on government regulations, but they created this problem by digging pits beside our rivers and reservoirs and dumping millions of tons of left-over contaminants, combined with water, into them over decades and decades,” the law center’s Keith Johnston said.

Johnston, who is managing attorney of the law center’s Birmingham office, also highlighted coal ash pits’ vulnerability to hurricanes, flooding and structural failure that has led to release of pollutants into the water system as recently as the 2008 Kingston, Tennessee, and 2014 Dan River, North Carolina, catastrophes and the Hurricane Florence flooding in the Carolinas last year.

The PowerSouth cooperative supplies wholesale electricity to 16 distribution cooperatives and four municipal utilities in Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Environmental activist Stephen Stetson hailed the Plant Lowman closure, which he blamed on its “obsolete technology.” The oldest of the three units is 50 years old.

Stetson, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign senior representative for Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, said, “PowerSouth is doing the right thing by closing the coal units. … For too long, they’ve been a dirty source of energy and leave behind a toxic legacy of coal ash threatening the beautiful Tombigbee River. Alabama’s economic future simply doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels for electricity.”

In another negative development for PowerSouth, $97 million in its bonds recently were downgraded by Fitch Ratings. The action was prompted by an “anticipated increase in financial leverage” related in part to its contract to buy power from the Vogtle nuclear project in Georgia, which has been bedeviled by delays, cost overruns and other challenges, according to S&P Global’s Market Intelligence newsletter of Feb. 1.

 

Editor Note: The Southern Environmental Law Center is a sponsor of WBHM, but our business department works separately from the news department.

 

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