Southeast River Runs Part 6: Coal ash in the ACT River Basin

This is the sixth blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Frank Chitwood, Coosa Riverkeeper who contributed to this post.

Starting in Georgia's Appalachian mountains, the Tallapoosa River flows to Montgomery, where it joins the Coosa River to form the Alabama River. Source: Rhett Farrior

The Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin, or ACT, encompasses 20,746 square miles in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee and occupies at least six different physiographic regions. This river system provides communities in and beyond the basin with drinking water, power generation, transportation, and tourism revenue. While each of the three rivers comprising the ACT are unique, the Coosa exemplifies the uniqueness and value of these rivers and the challenges they face.

The Upper Coosa River Basin has more endemic species than any river basin in North America with 30 different species of fish, mussels, snails and crayfish found no where else in the world. Like the Alabama and Tallapoosa River, the Coosa is a major drinking water source for the 925,000 people living within its subbasin. The Coosa is Alabama’s most developed river, with dams along its length built for electricity generation. These lakes and reservoirs are also economically important, as thousands of people visit them each year to enjoy boating, swimming and fishing their waters. Lake Allatoona, for example, brings $93 million a year to local economies while Weiss Lake, famous for its Crappie fishery, generates $181 million per year in economic value. According to Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper:

“While the benefits provided by the lakes of the Coosa River are certainly immense, the complete damming of the river erased much our natural heritage in what was the largest man-made extinction event in modern North American history. Other sources of pollution, resulting in 15 fish consumption advisories on the Coosa currently, disrespect the rights of Alabamians to clean, fishable waters and to celebrate their natural heritage”

The three coal fired power plants in the ACT river basin are all located along the Coosa river. Power plants negatively impact rivers in a multitude of ways such as toxic coal ash, air and water pollution, demanding large amounts of water for operations, and returning heated water to rivers. These impacts combined threaten the ACT as a source for clean drinking water, make it unsafe to eat fish caught in some areas, and endanger other wildlife.  

The Etowah Darter, found only in the ACT basin, depends upon flowing, silt-free habitat and high water quality. Source: Coosa River Basin Initiative

Two Alabama Power Company plants (Gaston and Gadsden) and one operated by Georgia Power (Plant Hammond) are located along the Coosa. At last official count, their eight coal ash impoundments contained 7.5 billion gallons of coal combustion waste dumped in impoundments near the river’s banks. That’s enough ash to cover 17,300 football fields one foot deep in toxic waste. Alabama ranks as one of the worst states in the nation for preventing coal ash pollution, and the Gaston plant ranks second in the nation for arsenic dumped on-site. The pipe discharging coal ash wastewater from the Gadsden Power Station is only a half mile up stream from the drinking water intake for the city of Gadsden, Alabama.

Electricity generation impacts the ACT in other ways. Coal and nuclear plants withdraw and consume massive amounts of water from rivers and discharge heated water back to the river. Other factors like rising global temperatures, more frequent and longer periods of heat and drought, and rapid population growth compound power plant impacts. A new report released July 16, 2013 by the Union of Concerned Scientists takes a look at these multiple stressors and what they mean for the ACT (and ACF), since this basin could be one of the hardest hit by energy impacts in the coming years. The report focused on water quantity and quality (in terms of thermal pollution) and the analysis shows that:

If current power generation and climate trends continue, the Coosa River will exceed a 90° threshold for thermal pollution 18 days a year from 2040 to 2049, which would significantly impact the health of the river. Basin wide, the annual average stream flow in the ACT is expected to fall 24% below the historical average for the same time period. These impacts, combined with existing coal ash issues on the ACT could be disastrous for the communities and wildlife of the basin.

The good news is that we can make different decisions, choosing energy sources that reverse these trends and protect the ACT. Alternate scenarios in the report show the positive effects of replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy and energy efficiency. “The reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists are important to Coosa Riverkeeper as a data-driven organization,” says Frank Chitwood. He goes on to say:

“Considering the economic, political and social impacts of coal burning on the Coosa River makes it clear we should be having an open dialog about cleaning up our energy sources. By planning ahead, my generation can save more of our natural heritage than what was left to us.”

Right now we all have an opportunity to put stronger protections from power plant water pollution in place. Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution to the ACT, and all rivers nationwide.

Meanwhile, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today asking that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The Coosa Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization working towards the vision of a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Coosa River by actively addressing the issues that threaten it. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at www.coosariver.org

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