Toxic ticking time bomb on Mobile River

(IMG:WPMI) Toxic ticking time bomb on Mobile River

This story was updated 3/29/18

There's a toxic time bomb ticking in our delta, and it's likely you have no idea it's there. Alabama Power stores 21 million tons of hazardous coal ash precariously close to Mobile River, a vital water body our Port City cannot afford to endanger. And tonight only on NBC 15 News, Andrea Ramey shows you the troubling test results that will leave you wondering why that coal ash is still there.

It's a chilly Spring morning as we head out to see for ourselves the massive coal ash pond located upstream from the Port City. Almost immediately we spot what we first suspect is actual coal ash floating in the river. A sample is collected for later testing.

Mobile Baykeeper has been collecting water and soil samples near the pond for two and half years, and for the first time it's releasing the eye-opening results publicly to NBC 15 News.

"We know that there's coal ash coming out of that plant into the river," said Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway.

Two water samples, one taken in 2016, the other this year, confirm water flowing into Mobile River from the coal ash pond contains fly ash, a material in coal ash. A clear violation of the Clean Water Act says Mobile Baykeeper. Other water samples taken near the pond showed elevated levels of material found in coals ash, like arsenic. One sample exceeded the amount allowed by 680%.

Alabama Power declined our request for an interview and questioned the veracity of the testing performed. It also has not reviewed the findings.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) slapped Alabama Power with a $1.25 million fine for contaminating groundwater at its five power plant locations. Each location was fined $250,000, the maximum civil penalty that can be assessed. In Mobile County, Alabama Power collected its own samples and reported to ADEM it allowed arsenic levels to exceed the EPA limit 94 times in two years.

"It's an unlined pond," said Mobile Baykeeper Program Director Cade Kistler.

Mobile Baykeeper is also extremely concerned about the dam that is keeping all this coal ash back. A dam safety expert it consulted found "significant stability concerns" and found the area near the dam and foundation "potentially unstable."

Again, Alabama Power declined our request for an interview but said its inspections show the dam is safe.

"That dam will some day break. Do I think it's going to happen tomorrow? I hope and pray not," said Callaway. "A strong weather event could cause a breach."

And if that's not enough cause for concern, consider this: the pond is next to Mobile's backup drinking water supply.

"This would be the source of drinking water we would have to go to," said Kistler.

"Right by the coal ash pond," said Ramey.

"Exactly, right by a toxic coal ash pond," replied Kistler.

Catastrophic failure can happen. Ten years ago in Tennessee, one billion gallons of coal ash poured into nearby rivers after a levied failed. That coal ash pond was 80 acres.

"This is 600 acres," said Ramey.

"And it's the same thing, it's an earthen dam," replied Kistler.

In response to that disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency put a stop to the wet storage of coal ash, a byproduct from coal-fired plants. Utilities now have the option of either closing and capping their ponds in place or remove the coal ash all together. Alabama Power has elected to keep the coal ash here and says it’s in the process of dewatering, closing and consolidating materials at the site, a process allowed by the EPA.

"Why not just dig it up and remove it?" said Callaway.

Cost of removal cited as a major reason why.

"Alabama Power will respond to its customers. They will respond to their shareholders. If the shareholders and public at large say move it, protect public health, protect our environment, protect our economy, we believe Alabama Power will do it," said Callaway.

Read the full pollution report.

Mobile Baykeeper is urging the community to get involved in this issue. To learn how click here

What Alabama Power is saying about capping coal ash in place

Alabama Power Company’s response regarding the upcoming Mobile Baykeeper report:

- We are aware that Mobile Baykeeper is about to release a lengthy report regarding Plant Barry. We will be reviewing it.

Regarding operations at Plant Barry, and water quality:

- We have always met the standards set under our state water discharge permit for Plant Barry.

- In addition, tests of river water taken above and below Plant Barry did not indicate any effect to water quality when comparing the upstream and downstream samples.

Regarding the structural integrity of the ash facility:

- Alabama Power has operated ash facilities for decades as part of environmental controls. The company has maintained a rigorous ash facility inspection program for more than 40 years, including detailed dam safety inspections following the same standards applied to the dams at the company’s hydroelectric reservoirs.

- Every one of the company’s ash facilities has received a thorough structural inspection through EPA and received the highest rating available for safe and reliable operation.

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