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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

It's Not Enough but, IT'S ABOUT TIME!

Kingston Tenn., The Emory river 01/09/09 Flight by SouthWings
Dec. 2008,  Harriman Tenn. in a community known as Swan Pond, an antiquated coal ash pond collapsed sending more material debris into the river than all of the World Trade Towers debris in NYC as well as unsafe levels of heavy metals. Since then however, there have been other major issued discovered at many other facilities. This first major coal ash pond failure caused millions of dollars in damage to the environment, the local economy, and the peace of mind for millions of Americans living close to these ticking time bombs. (All aerial photos, courtesy of SouthWings)

Widow Creek power plant coal waste in the Tennessee. River
On the same day the photo above was taken I got a call from SouthWings saying that another pond had blown out farther downstream in Stevens Alabama, at the Widows Creek plant on the Tennessee River. I immediately jumped in another plane and was over the site before ADEM inspectors could get there. The owners, TVA claimed they had a leak in one of the drain pipes. That turned out to be false as most corporate notices about these events are. In Alabama ADEM seems to be intent in apologizing for and protecting the industry more than protecting the environment.

Widow Creek power plant
The "pipe" turned out to be a large overflow tube that had become clogged many years ago. Instead of properly sealing it, they simply covered it up and diverted the flow to another pipe. That also allowed them to raise the level in the pond. Unfortunately the clogged pipe let go after a heavy rain causing the other holding ponds to over top, flooding the tributary to the Tennessee River with Gypsum, also a byproduct of burning coal for energy. 
Widow Creek power plant coal waste in the river

After the Widows Creek blowout I decided to survey all of the coal fired power plants in Alabama and their coal ash ponds. What I found opened my eyes forever to the potential for major issues here in our state as well. Not only the potential for failure in the dikes and dams but a serious threat from chronic discharges of heavy metals such as Mercury from these ponds into Waterways of the US in large volumes. ADEM claimed there was no environmental impact to the ecosystem! Due to time restraints and fuel we were not able to survey all of the sites but what we found was alarming to say the least.

Miller and Gorgas steam plants are very close together in Walker Co.

Miller Power Plant
Miller is the newest and hasn't shown any visible signs of problems but many of the issues associated with coal ash are not visible but are just as serious a threat to our health. "Miller Steam Plant, on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior, emitted more mercury in 2007 than any other coal-burning power plant in the country, according to EPA data compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project. Gorgas Steam Plant ranked 28th in this category (Total Mercury Pounds Emitted: 2007)." (Black Warrior Riverkeeper) 

Gorgas power plant
At the Gorgas plant I did find a black water discharge but it seemed to be coming directly from the plant and or the coal pile. The ash is stored across from the plant where it has to be pumped under the river into the pond. The ash laden water then flows back through the pond to the river in a "sub-surface diffuser". That is a pipe placed under the surface making it almost impossible to get accurate samples. Gorgas is one of the oldest plants left and has dumped literally tons of Mercury into the community over time.

Green County power plant
In Green Co. I saw what looked like a very similar scenario as in Swan Pond Tn. The ash pond is directly adjacent to the river bank with berms or dikes built up to hold more ash than the initial design. In the event of a catastrophic failure such as we saw in the Emory River (top photo) There is no hope for keeping the toxic soup out of the river. 

In this photo you can see the haphazard dikes constructed out of material that would not be approved in normal dam construction in all probability. In Kingston as well as Widow Creek the dikes or berms were constructed out of what's called "bottom ash". At the older plants like this one, that would contain some of the most toxic coal ash since it's been there well before the Clean Air Act. That was the law which brought in sophisticated "scrubbers" on the smoke stacks. 
On closer examination I saw the tell-tail streak of black water leaving the ash pond discharge

Leroy is not an APCO facility.
Traveling South We flew over the Leroy Plant along the Tombigbee River. It too is a fairly new facility and I saw no immediate issues there but once again there was the same scenario of coal ash storage too close to the river. Hopefully nothing ever does happen but if it does there's no stopping it from causing severe damage to the waterway, aquatic life as well as an economic disaster for commercial fishermen who use this stretch of river for their livelihoods. 

Barry Power plant discharges to Mobile River
The next stop was a real eye opener. Barry Steam Plant was, by far the worst discharges I saw all day from any power plant in the state. There was a long black tail of water coming out into the river and curling downstream. It was visible from a mile out and at about 2,000 feet elevation. 

The dark plume entering the river was mixing with the river water and flowing for a long distance downstream. In 2009, I reported this to ADEM (Alabama Department of Environmental Management), EPA and local environmental groups in the area but nothing was done. The power company mouthpieces claimed it was nothing and wasn't even coming from their facility. As usual ADEM accepted the company line and never took action. Recently they did fine the company 1.25 Million for 6 plants found to be in violation.  What about the last 10 years since it was first documented? Will they be held accountable for the true chronic nature of these discharges? No samples were taken, no report filed and no accountability since.

Shame on you Trey
If we are waiting for EPA or ADEM to hold them fully accountable it is a waste of time. When I first reported Barry it was under Trey Glenn's administration at ADEM. Trey was the past director but was under constant scrutiny and accusations for being far too friendly with APCO (Alabama Power Co.) He was even photographed at a baseball game sitting with APCO officials in the APCO private box seats. He was Trumps first pick for EPA region 4 director. We can expect no help from them. I am afraid it will take legal action in the form of Clean Water Act suits if we are ever going to see a serious effort to keep these polluters in line. $1.25 Million seems like a lot to some of us but to a company as large as Southern Co. (APCO) that is less than they make they a single day in all probability. Fines for such seemingly careless and chronic discharges should be high enough to cause real deterrent. 1.25 Million was for 6 plants. I truly believe it should have been doubled at least for each plant.

The reason for my post here is to point out the flawed and falling system for holding major polluters accountable. ADEM is funded, primarily by fees collected for permits. Most of any funds collected through fines is directed into the state "General Fund" and is not distributed back to ADEM for operating expenses needed to adequately patrol the thousands of pollution sites in the state. That is by design so that polluters who also contribute millions of dollars to corrupt politicians also hold the purse strings for our state agency who is here to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Mr. Glenn and other directors, including the current director, Lance LeFleur have stated publicly that it's not ADEM's job to enforce the Clean Water Act. ADEM's job is to issue permits. It is the exact definition of "The fox guarding the henhouse" in Alabama politics. That must change. We need to either change politics or change politicians soon!

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