By: John Zippert,
On October 22, 2020, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) held a public hearing on permitting the closure, treatment and management of a coal ash pond, at the Alabama Power Company Steamplant in Forkland, which adjoins the Black Warrior River.
Alabama Power Company has submitted a plan to ADEM to treat the current open coal ash pond at its Steamplant, reduce its size from over 559 acres to 268 acres, by pulling out water and concentrating the ash residue, place a thirty foot deep, two foot wide wall, around the pond anchored to its chalk material base, place a plastic cap on the pond and continue to monitor 30 wells on the perimeter of the pond for contamination.
Alabama Power Company stopped using coal as a fuel at its Forkland electricity generating facility about five years ago. The facility now uses natural gas to fuel its turbines. The company has a residue of coal ash stored in a 500 acre pond near the Black Warrior River. The EPA has required plants like the Forkland Steamplant to come up with a plan to deal with its coal ash residues, to prevent contamination of the nearby river or subterrain water sources.
A permit to treat, concentrate and cap the coal ash residues has been presented to ADEM by Alabama Power Company. The company did not present an alternative plan of excavating the coal ash and moving it to an inland secure landfill. The ADEM Public Hearing in Eutaw, at Carver School gymnasium, last week, was to solicit public comment on the permit application.
Most of the witnesses testified in support of the Alabama Power Company’s plan and permit, including: Woody Collins, Mayor-elect of Demopolis, Jason Williams, Marengo County Commission, Seth Hammett, Energy Institute of Alabama, Chris Arnold, Alabama Coal Cooperative, Blake Hartwick, Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, Jo Ellen Martin, Marengo County Development Authority and Phillis Belcher, Greene County Industrial Development Authority.
These witnesses basically said they agreed with Alabama Power’s permitting application, which they felt to be economically and environmentally sound. Most extolled their positive “community relationship and communications” with the company.
Residents of the area testified and questioned the safety of the project. John Jay and his wife said they had a camphouse south of the plant and that the area frequent floods and materials are discharged into the river. They warned of earthquakes in the area and said that the plant was adversely affecting overflowing wells on their property. Ms. Shamicka Gray of Forkland worried that the project would contaminate the water system which was the only source of water for her and her elderly mother.
Keith Johnston, Director of the Alabama Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Birmingham opposed the permit saying it does not satisfy requirements in Federal and state requirements. He argued that Alabama Power Company created this problem itself by disposing of the coal ash wastes in the easiest possible place that allowed leakage and contamination of the adjacent river.
Johnston observed that electric generating companies in other Southern states: Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and coastal Carolinas were disposing of their similar coal ash wastes by excavating them and moving them to safer lined landfills away from wetlands, rivers and water sources.
He indicated that contaminants like arsenic, boron, calcium, chloride, cobalt, lithium and other substances were leaking from the ash pond into groundwater sources. He asked the ADEM officials, “Would you ever permit a permanent, unlined, waste disposal site on a wetland like this one, close to a river? So why are you going to permit one without a long-term maintenance plan for the Forkland, Alabama area.
Nelson Brooks with Black Warrior Waterkeepers, an environmental watch-dog group that monitors the river flowing by the plant site said he did not support the permit. He said the Forkland Steamplant was built in the 1950’s on a wetland in a bow of the Black Warrior River. The land under the coal ash pond has many streams and tributaries flowing under it.
Brooks argued that the site was not suitable for a coal ash containment pond and that the materials should be excavated and moved to a safer location. “It may cost more to do this now, than cap the pond, but there will be great costs in the future if the plan fails and contaminants leak into the river and adjacent steams.” Brooks concluded by saying,” It is improper to permit this coal ash pond because it is too close to the Black Warrior River. ADEM and Alabama Power Company should reconsider this plan.”
At the end of the public hearing, Collin Sibley, ADEM Hearing Officer said the official record on this permit would remain open, at ADEM’s Headquarters Office in Montgomery, until 5:00 PM on October 29, 2020, for additional oral or written comments.