On Monday June 29, 2020 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, Alabama Power Company held an informational meeting and exhibition on its plans to close and seal a 474 acre coal ash pond, located on its Greene County Steamplant site, near the Town of Forkland in the southern portion of Greene County. The plant which used to burn coal to generate electricity now uses natural gas for this purpose. The Greene County Steamplant is also the largest property tax payer in Greene County and contributes significantly to education and public service in the county. Coal ash is a residue of burning coal which contains heavy metals and other pollutants that can wash or leach into the river and groundwater sources of public drinking water for people in Greene, Marengo and surrounding counties. Under Federal environmental regulations , Alabama Power Company must go through a public meetings and comment process to explain its plans to close and contain the coal ash plants at each of its electrical generating plants in the state. The public meeting in Greene County was one of several scheduled in the next two weeks around the state dealing with closing coal ash ponds at company facilities. The meeting was set up an an exhibition with five stations where portions of the coal ash closure process were explained and illustrated. There were explanatory panels, maps. charts and actual models of the plans to deal with the coal ash pond closure. Alabama Power engineering, environmental and management staff were available at each station to answer questions. There was no formal meeting where all attendees sat down for a question and answer session with officials of the company. This reporter is used to attending meetings of that kind where all the participants can learn from the questions and concerns of others. There is an official comment process through the Alabama Power website and the sites of the state and Federal agencies charged with permitting and overseeing the process. The current 474 acre coal ash pond at the Greene County Steamplant abuts the Black Warrior River and the closure process is designed to prevent runoff and leakage of untreated water into the river and possibly into underground acquirers that provide drinking water for people in the area. The current pond is surrounded by more than twenty wells monitoring water quality. These wells will remain in place after the closure process and monitor for water seepage and runoff. The plan calls for treating and removing all the existing water from the coal ash pond. As the water is removed the size of the pond will be decreased to 268 acres, almost half the original size. The coal ash will be exacted and moved further from the river to leave a 400 yard buffer from the river waterway. Then the plan calls for constructing a 2.5 mile subsurface wall around the pond. This wall will be two feet thick and 30 feet below the ground. The wall will be tied into the underground natural chalk layer in the area, providing a natural way to seal the materials in place. The pond will be covered with a specially engineered plastic layer, plastic grass and sand which will help with storm water runoff. Water that does run off will be treated again before release into the river. The sealed pond is rated to withstand a 1,000 year flood, earthquakes and other natural threats. The coal ash pond closing process is already underway at the Greene County Steamplant and will take five to seven years to complete. There are a number of permits and environmental approvals to secure moving forward. Alabama Power seems very confident in the value and safety of its design and plans. It was difficult to make an independent judgement on the effectiveness and safety of the Alabama Power plans without extensive engineering and environmental knowledge. The newspaper will seek out these points of view in future articles on this important project impacting the health and economic development of Greene County. For more information on the project and to make comments go online to: AlabamaPower.com/environmentalmeetings.
The Eutaw City Council met twice in the past two weeks on January 10 and January 14, to resolve differences, pay pressing bills and deal with problems with the City’s water system. The City Council members and Mayor Steele were at an impasse at the Friday, January 10th special called meeting to find a way to pay critical outstanding bills before vendors, like Alabama Power Company, A.T. &T, water chemical companies, and other essential providers, cut off supplies and services. Council members: Latasha Johnson, Sheila Smith, LaJeffrey Carpenter and Joe Lee Powell were concerned about authorizing the use of bingo funds to pay bills until they received assurance from Mayor Steele that the roads in King Village would be resurfaced; other policies passed by the Council, such as the “no acceptance of cash as payment for city services” were implemented; and the Water Department operations and billing were corrected. Mayor Steele said the special street repair funds were for Branch Heights and that the streets in King Village “were not in as bad a shape as other streets in the City and did not need repair at this time.” No agreement or consensus was reached and the January 10 meeting was adjourned without progress. The Mayor and the Council agreed to a work session on January 14 with technical support from Ralph Banks, President of Merchants and Farmers Bank and a former city council member, to try to work toward a compromise. The January 14 meeting included a work session and a regular meeting. The Mayor and Council adopted a resolution indicating that up to $300,000 in bingo funds could be withdrawn from the dedicated account for street repairs to be transferred to the General Fund for the payment of pressing outstanding bills, provided that the City would proceed to advertise and take bids for resurfacing the streets and roads in King Village, to be paid for with gasoline tax fund accounts. The City established a special street repair fund, with funds from bingo, provided through the Sheriff’s Department for street repairs in Branch Heights and King Village. The City then used gasoline tax funds to resurface the roads in Branch Heights, which is a permissible and legal use of gas tax funds. The Mayor then received approval from the City Council to transfer funds from the special street repair fund to the General Fund to pay bills. The resolution passed in the January 14th meeting made a similar budgetary adjustment to pay critical bills and still move forward with paving the roads in King Village. The Mayor and several council members indicated that they had discussed these steps with Sheriff Joe Benison and he was supportive. The Council also asked about problems with operations and billing in the Water Department. The Mayor insisted that all problems with digital water meters had been resolved and that the billing problems were being corrected. There was a disagreement over the extent of revenue shortfall from the Water Department. The Mayor said the shortfall was in the range of $40,000 for the past year while council members set the shortfall at significantly higher – above $300,000 by their estimates. The Council agreed to have a working session on February 18 with Kathy Horne from the Alabama Rural Water Association to discuss improvements to the water system. Mayor Steele said he was “reluctant to turn the water system over to someone outside the city”. Council members pointed out that there suggestions and solutions were never implemented by the Mayor. Many in the audience said they received the same water bills each month even though their usage was different at different times of the year. Ralph Banks pointed out that the garbage charge on the monthly water bills was $15 but that Waste Management was charging the city $17 a month for each garbage bin they were servicing. “The City should not continue to subsidize garbage collection for its residents,” said Banks. In other actions, the City Council: • tabled action to purchase new computers for the Water Department, until after the meeting with Kathy Horne in February; • approved a contract for Alabama Power to store power poles at the parking lot of the National Guard Armory, for which it will receive $1,000 a month compensation. • approved a Severe Weather Preparedness Sales Tax holiday for February 21-23, 2020.
At its regular meeting on Monday, November 14, 2016, the Greene County Commission met and approved a twenty year tax abatement for the NextEra Energy Inc. This company proposes to invest $93 million in the construction of a solar energy farm on a thousand acres on Highway 43 south of Eutaw in Greene County.
NextEra Energy Inc is competing with several other companies to respond to a request for proposals from Alabama Power Company for this project. Alabama Power Company will purchase the energy generated by the plant.
Trey Hill of Bradley Arrant of Birmingham an attorney representing the company presented the request to the Commission and indicated that NextEra Energy was looking at several locations in Alabama to locate the project and was securing this property tax abatement from each potential county. There is no certainty that NextEra or Greene County will be chosen for this project. The tax abatement is an incentive to attract this potential project.
The lawyer for NextEra indicated that he was not seeking an abatement in the sales tax on the manufactured items to be used in building the project because that tax goes to support the schools and the hospital. These sales tax receipts would come at the front end of the project and are estimated at $510,000, which is ¾% of the $70 million in solar panels and other equipment proposed to be purchased to build the solar farm.
The property tax abatement would save the company $4.4 million in taxes over the twenty year period but still provide $ 3.7 million in taxes for Greene County Schools, which cannot be abated. Currently the 1020 acres generates $2,108 annually in taxes for the county.
The solar farm will only require about two high paid employees when completed but will provide many more jobs during the construction period.
The Commission reviewed the request in the meeting and asked a number of questions about the project. All of the Commissioners expressed concern that the request was made at the last minute and not enough time was given to study the project. Commissioner Cockrell indicated that the company should have come earlier and tried to use land owned by the county, which would have produced more benefits for Greene County. It was pointed out that the County Commission does not own land that is suitable for this project.
The Commission voted 3 to 1, with one abstention to approve the project. Commissioners Michael Williams, Lester Brown and Tennyson Smith voted in favor; Corey Cockrell voted against and Allen Turner abstained (probably because he works for Alabama Power Company, at the steam plant).
The Commission also agreed to seek Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for two other perspective projects that the Greene County Industrial Authority is working to bring to Greene County. These projects are seeking state financial incentive support through the CDBG program.
The Commission heard a financial report from Paula Bird, Chief Financial Officer, who indicated that finances were generally meeting the budgetary limits of 8% funding for October, the first month of a new fiscal year. She reported that the County had $ 3.6 million in local bank accounts and another $1 in sinking funds to address bonds that had been issued in previous years to fund projects.
Bird reported that the County had paid $1,345,072 in claims for the month of October, which included some large matching payments to the state for road and bridge repairs.
In other actions, the Greene County Commission:
• Approved Southwest Alabama Regional Highway Safety Grant to pay overtime and additional costs for traffic control and enforcement, during the current fiscal year.
• Approved Mutual Aid Agreement between American Red Cross and Greene County EMA to deal with disasters.
• Approved $13,153 grant from ADECA Energy Division for energy efficient lighting at the Eutaw Activity Center.
• Ratified a $9,000 grant for safety vests for the Sheriff’s Department.
• Approved County Engineer to employ an Assistant Engineer and $5,874 for a computer design softwear.
• Approved changes in the County’s Personnel Policies required by changes in Department of Labor regulations.
• Approved travel for staff to attend training conferences.
• Appointed Rosemary Edwards and reappointed Lucy Spann to the Greene County Hospital Board.