Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Where will all the coal ash go? Billions of dollars are at stake as Alabama waits for the EPA to make its decision

A coal ash lagoon at one of Alabama Power's electrical
plants. (Alabama Power courtesy photo via
Alabama's dynamic waterways support an array of animal life, including a whopping 433 bird species. The state boasts 15 rivers and ranks fifth in the country – and first among states east of the Mississippi – for biodiversity. But alongside its teeming rivers is a giant problem -- approximately 100 million tons of coal ash abandoned by utility companies in "unlined ditches along the rivers across the state," reports Dennis Pillion of "The concerns are huge: Will coal ash continue to seep into and contaminate the groundwater? Will the holding areas one day give way and plug the river with the discarded waste of powerplants as once happened in Tennessee?"

The state is in a "showdown" with the Environmental Protection Agency over how the coal ash will be contained, removed or restored. Pillion asks: "Can Alabama leave its coal ash where the utilities dumped it? Or do they have to dig it up and haul it away to be buried in lined landfills, as is happening in many other states? Or maybe dig it out, line the ponds, and dump it all back in?"

The state's cheapest option, "cover in place," is not cheap and does not include "digging out the ash out and putting a liner underneath it," Pillion reports. "Alabama Power estimated [that] would cost $3.3 billion. . . . The estimate also does not include ash ponds managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and PowerSouth."

"Alabama state officials, utilities, and environmental groups can only wait now as the EPA decides Alabama's fate," Pillion explains. "Utilities were once allowed to choose between covering the ash in place or moving it to a lined landfill. But they could only leave it in place if the federal rules were met. . . .The rules may vary by presidential administration." The Biden administration has a stricter interpretation of the rules and rejected Alabama's cover-in-place plans.

"At a public hearing on EPA's decision on Sept. 20, Alabama Power Vice President of Environmental Affairs Susan Comensky argued that removal of coal ash presents challenges aside from cost." Comensky said that not only would the removal take decades to complete, but "there is not enough available landfill capacity to accept the approximately 100 million cubic yards of ash in our ponds."

"Not everyone buys that argument," Pillion writes. John Kinney, a staff scientist at Black Warrior Riverkeeper, "argued that the power companies could create landfills on-site to hold the ash waste without having to truck it across the state. . . . Utilities in other states have built lined landfills on site."

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