Alabama Voices: Coal ash a threat to state’s waters

This guest post is written by Cindy Lowry, Executive Director of Alabama Rivers Alliance and was originally published in the Montgomery Adviser on February 18, 2014. It is reposted here with permission. 

The Black Warrior River supplies drinking water to 200,000 people in Birmingham and has 3.8 billion gallons of coal ash dumped along its banks. Photo Source: Nelson Brooke

If the recent chemical spill in West Virginia made you wonder about the safety of your drinking water supply, I don’t blame you. Over half of Alabamians get their drinking water from rivers, streams and reservoirs. Alabama has not historically placed a priority on protecting drinking water, meaning contamination is just an accident away.

For example, there are nine coal-fired power plants located on seven of Alabama’s rivers: the Tennessee, Black Warrior, Locust Fork, Mulberry Fork, Coosa, Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers. Adjacent to each of these plants are massive coal ash storage ponds containing a total of 24.1 billion gallons of coal ash, the waste left behind when coal is burned.

Coal ash contains many toxic metals like mercury, lead and selenium. According to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, Alabama’s coal ash ponds receive more toxic metals than any other coal ash dumps in the nation. The majority of coal ash dump sites in the state are old, unlined,and only separated from our drinking water sources by earthen dams.

Recently, a storm water pipe broke in Eden, N.C., spilling an estimated 140,000 tons of coal ash and contaminated wastewater into the Dan River. The ash was stored at one of Duke Energy’s retired coal plants in an unlined ash pond, similar to many of the coal ash ponds we have in Alabama.

Coal ash is not regulated as hazardous waste, so utilities can dump it in wet, unlined ponds right next to our rivers. After the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster, the EPA ranked coal ash impoundments across the nation based on the amount of damage that could happen if they collapsed.

In Alabama, they rated two dams as likely to cause loss of human life and five dams as likely to cause damage to the economy, the environment, and local infrastructure. Despite this threat, Alabama lacks laws to prevent a spill here, or to stop coal ash from polluting our waters.

Alabama Power's James H. Miller Power Station located on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River in Jefferson County. Photo source: Nelson Brooke

Chances are you live downstream from one of these coal ash dumps. Birmingham, Huntsville, Guntersville, Florence, Mobile and many cities are downstream, as well as the drinking water intakes for several cities, like Huntsville and Gadsden, plus many of our most popular lakes like Lake Guntersville, Lake Neely Henry, and Lay Lake. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, recently featured in the documentary “America’s Amazon” for its globally significant ecological importance and biodiversity, is also downstream from a coal ash site.

Meanwhile, state agencies have issued pollution permits for coal mining as close as 800 feet from one of Birmingham’s largest drinking water intakes. Contamination from this site would impact 200,000 people in the Birmingham area. There is an oil pipeline proposed to be built directly across the drinking water supply for the city of Mobile. Citizens recently filed a lawsuit over this pipeline as their last resort for protecting their drinking water.

Local water utilities work hard every day to provide clean, safe drinking water, but as West Virginia’s disaster made us keenly aware, we need to do a better job of keeping our water sources safe from hazardous threats.

Alabama is currently one of the worst states in the nation for funding environmental protection. That includes the protection of our drinking water sources. Source after source reported the lack of oversight as the primary reason for the West Virginia disaster. Yet our state and federal governments are continually trying to cut funding for agencies charged with that oversight and short cut important processes that ensure oversight is thorough and accurate.

Ruby Holmes lives near the landfill in Perry County, Alabama where coal ash from the 2008 Kingston disaster is dumped. Runoff and dust from the landfill has polluted the air, water and leaves neighbors worried about long term health effects. Photo source: Birmingham News/Joe Songer

There’s a lot that needs to change in Alabama to protect our drinking water. These changes might not be easy but they are vital if we want to ensure our water is clean and safe. It may mean not allowing pollution permits in certain areas upstream from or adjacent to drinking water sources. It may mean working together to move our state away from outdated facilities and outdated energy sources that we now know pose threats to drinking water quality and quantity. It may mean conserving energy and water in our homes and making sure that we improve energy and water efficiency at all levels of our society.

These changes won’t happen overnight and they may require some growing pains, but if we work together and envision a better, cleaner future for our state, we can get there. Other states are way ahead of us on this road, so we know the path. We just have to have the courage, patience and political will to go down it.

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