Environmentalists and members of the coal industry filed into West Jefferson Town Hall Tuesday evening to give feedback on a proposed permit to allow Alabama Power Company to cover a local coal ash pond and leave the pollutants in place.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management hosted Tuesday’s event as part of its efforts to gather public comments on the permit, which specifically concerns the Plant Miller Ash Pond near West Jefferson. The permit outlines requirements for managing the coal ash, including facility maintenance and groundwater monitoring.
Alabama Power is seeking to treat and remove water from the pond before covering the coal ash in place, according to its website. Material located within 450 yards of the river would be excavated and moved farther away. Alabama Power also would monitor groundwater around the facility for at least 30 years.
The company has filed similar permits for plants in Gadsden and Greene County.
But some environmentalists say these efforts are insufficient and would result in dangerous pollutants leaching into the groundwater. Coal ash — a byproduct of burning coal for power plants — typically contains hazardous chemicals and heavy metals including mercury, arsenic, radium and cobalt. Ponds built to store coal ash generally lack a lining to prevent these substances for polluting groundwater and waterways.
Critics of the “cap-in-place” system argue that Alabama Power should instead be required to undertake the more expensive option of fully excavating the coal ash and moving the material to a lined landfill.
“The draft permit as written essentially allows pollution in place,” Keith Johnston of the Southern Environmental Law Center told ADEM officials Tuesday.
Johnston and representatives from other groups, including the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, pointed out that other Southern states have required utility companies to excavate their coal ash. For example, Virginia and North Carolina have recently ordered individual utility companies to remove coal ash from unlined sites.
They also highlighted previous fines Alabama Power has received for contaminating groundwater. Last May, Alabama Power was fined $250,000 for groundwater pollution from coal ash at Plant Gadsden. In 2018, ADEM fined Alabama Power $1.25 million for violations at five of its plants.
These incidences, Alabama Power’s critics argue, show that coal ash cannot be safely stored in unlined ponds.
Advocates of the permit said they had faith in Alabama Power’s ability to prevent contamination and maintained that the cap-in-place strategy is supported by both science and the law. ADEM already has made the preliminary determination that Alabama Power’s proposal would comply with state and federal waste disposal requirements.
Bill Blackman, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 136, told ADEM representatives that excavating and transporting the coal ash would introduce risks for an accident or a spill. Instead, he argues, it is much safer to deal with the material in place.
“[Excavating] the entire ash pond seems to be a bad option that doesn’t make much sense. The more you have human interaction with it, the more likely it is to have human error,” Blackman said.
ADEM will continue to accept comments from the public until 5 p.m. on Oct. 27 before making a final decision on the permit for Plant Miller.
Public hearings on the permits for Plant Greene County and Plant Gadsden will be held Oct. 22 and Oct 29, respectively.