New map pinpoints over forty sites in Alabama where coal ash waste threatens Alabama waterways
Conservation groups urge EPA to enact strict safeguards to protect waterways and communities from disposal of toxic waste
regulations governing toxic coal ash waste, groups in Alabama are releasing new data depicting the problems and threats facing Alabama’s rivers from this massive stream of industrial waste.
"When you consider Arrowhead landfill in Uniontown, AL, it is clear that Alabama has not taken the problem of coal ash seriously," said Mitch Reid, program director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. "We need clear guidance and strong enforcement to ensure the protection of public health and the waters of the state."
There are nine coal-burning power plants in Alabama that generate a staggering amount of coal ash waste – 3.2 million tons a year. This waste contains high levels of toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic, selenium, lead and other heavy metals and is typically dumped into giant sludge lagoons for disposal. Few, if any, of these waste dumps have protective liners that would keep contamination from seeping into surrounding groundwater and nearby streams and rivers.
As documented in the Map of Alabama Drinking Water Supplies Downstream from Coal Ash Impoundments, which depicts data compiled jointly by concerned conservation groups, there are many places in Alabama that face the threat of water being contaminated by coal ash.
The Gadsden Steam Plant's coal ash pond is a prime example. It discharges waste water less than a mile upstream of the Gadsden Water Works drinking water intake for the Greater Gadsden area. Similarly, the Gaston Steam Plant in Wilsonville discharges waste water from its coal ash pond approximately 5 miles upstream of a major drinking water intake for Shelby County Water Services.
“Having such a toxic waste source so close to surface waters truly is a threat to safe public drinking water supplies,” said Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper.
Despite its documented toxicity, coal ash waste is currently unregulated at the federal level. That will change on Dec. 19, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scheduled to unveil the first-ever federal protocols on how coal ash must be handled and treated.
Because of the high levels of dangerous chemicals in coal-ash waste and the risk of water contamination, conservation groups are urging the EPA to adopt strict guidelines that would treat coal ash as a hazardous waste and require wet surface ponds, where contamination risks are substantial, to be replaced with safer dry storage in lined landfills that are located away from water bodies and adequately monitored to protect against groundwater contamination.
“Alabama is home to at 44 coal ash dumps across the state and most of them sit adjacent to rivers and creeks, a number of which serve as drinking water sources for communities,” stated Ulla Reeves, high risk program director for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “As the clock counts down the final days for EPA to issue a coal ash rule, we are ever mindful that Alabama is one of the states in the nation that will benefit most from strong national protections.”
In the Southeast, there is a history of coal ash spilling from impoundments and contaminating our waterways. Nearly six years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash dam failed, causing the biggest toxic coal ash waste catastrophe in U.S. history, spilling 1.1 billion gallons of sludge into the Emory River. Around the same time, a wet storage coal ash pond spilled approximately 10,000 gallons of coal ash waste into Widows Creek, which feeds into the Tennessee River, near Stevenson, AL.
These spills and the more recent spill of more than 24 million gallons of wastewater into North Carolina’s Dan River in January 2014 show just how susceptible coal ash lagoons are to leaks and spills and the immediate threat to both public health and the environment.
“Storing coal ash waste in unlined waste lagoons that sit right next to rivers makes absolutely no sense,” said Nelson Brooke, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “People shouldn’t have to worry about pollutants like lead and arsenic seeping into streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers that provide our water.”