Alabama Residents Fear Disaster If Coal Ash Pond Gives Way
About 400 miles southwest of Kingston, Tennessee, where 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash blanketed 400 acres in December 2008 and its clean-up cost $1-billion, a coal ash lagoon — which holds almost four times as much sludge as what spilled in Tennessee — is sitting in the Mobile–Tensaw Delta, one of the most biodiverse areas of the United States, with flora and fauna not known to exist anywhere else on Earth, Isabelle Chapman reported for CNN.
Photo Insert: Mobile–Tensaw River Delta
Environmentalists, community members, and scientists fear the pond could someday unleash a Kingston-like catastrophe on southern Alabama and say leaving the coal ash in the delta is shortsighted and dangerous.
“We’ve got an A-bomb up the river,” John Howard, who lives in Mobile County and said he has been fishing in southern Alabama for decades, said. “It’s just waiting to happen.”
Coal ash contains metals — such as lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium, and arsenic — that never biodegrade. Studies have shown these contaminants are dangerous to humans and have linked some to cancer, lung disease, and birth defects.
In response to the Kingston disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set out to review the condition of more than 500 coal ash ponds across the US. “(Kingston) was almost a tipping point,” Mathy Stanislaus, who served as assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response from 2009 to 2017, said.
“The reaction (at the EPA) was, ‘We need to do something about this.’” In 2015, the agency implemented its first-ever regulations on coal ash disposal, forcing utilities across the country to begin closure and remediation of ponds that were unlined and contaminating groundwater above permitted levels.
There are an estimated 511 coal ash ponds in the US, according to a CNN analysis of the data compiled by Earthjustice. Nearly half — about 46% — are unlined and have been or will be closed in place.
The utilities’ self-reported data shows around 160 are known to be contaminating groundwater, but groundwater data gathered by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog that advocates for better environmental law enforcement, places that number at closer to 200. It’s unclear how many of those ponds sit below the water table or have direct contact with groundwater, but around 60 sit in a flood zone.