Alabama’s Ashes Enlarge On Flint’s Lead

Photograph Source: Antony-22 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Coal is mostly carbon. When burned it turns into carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that merely heats the planet and sends the climate into a gradual, though accelerating, death spiral. But the parts that don’t burn can attack you quicker.

Mercury: can poison you in numerous ways including effects on your nervous system and brain that leave you stupider than you were born to be. Arsenic: can kill you outright so it doesn’t matter if you’ve become stupid. Radiation: low levels of “background” radiation occur everywhere, and burning away the carbon in coal concentrates any radiation it contains in the ash left behind. Also arsenic, also mercury, also other unhealthy whatevers.

The output of coal mines goes mainly to power plants, which burn it to boil water into steam, to turn turbines, to generate electricity. These plants usually mix the residue of ash with water and pump the slurry into an adjoining pond. Because water can absorb the stray heat from all this burning, the plants like to perch along shorelines and suck in cooling water. That means the ash ponds are normally near shorelines too.

This has two consequences. First: If the ashy pits are leaky—as they frequently are—the toxins in the ash seep into the neighboring waterbody or into ground water, then into the waterbody and into wells drilled for domestic uses. Second: If an ash pond breaches, its noxious contents are going into the bordering waterbody and then wherever the abiding currents care to take it.

These ash dumps generally began decades ago at a handy nearby swamp or slough that received the gunk without complaint and without much regulatory concern. As the ash accumulated and threatened to overflow, the power plant operators erected retaining walls or dams to contain the slurry. They were often not rigorously engineered structures and were sometimes built of coal ash itself. As they rose higher and higher the ashy concoction contained by the dubious dams expanded to apocalyptic volumes.

Coal Ash Tsunamis

The prophecy came true ten years ago at Kingston, Tennessee, where a power plant’s ash impoundment broke and sent  1.1 billion gallons of slurry into communities downstream. Similar ruptures have since happened elsewhere.

This threat has prompted the waterkeeper orgs in Alabama to issue joint alarms about the state’s coal ash lagoons. All of them are leaking various toxins in various amounts. The ones upstate are at risk from inundation and overtopping or from erosive breaches during floods on their adjacent streams.

The one just upriver from Mobile has the additional hazard of hurricanes. Two years ago Harvey drowned Houston with several feet of rain over a couple weeks. Drop that much rain on the Mobile area, and the runoff torrent gathering in the river will almost  certainly liberate the ash from its confines.

Depending on where currents and winds might steer the sodden ash, some speculations foresee coal ash knee deep or more in downtown Mobile. Or it might surge into the swampy Mobile river delta—sometimes called America’s Amazon for its dense, flamboyant array of plant and animal species—and create a suffocating geologic deposit that can never be removed.

Flint Writ Large

These ugly scenarios make Alabama look like Flint, Michigan writ large: an entire state contaminated and imperiled, with little or nothing being done about it.

To forestall such disasters the waterkeeper orgs want to move the dumps to less precarious locations. The ashes scraped up in Kingston have come by train to the depleted community of Uniontown, Alabama. Some residents and officials welcome the cargo—jobs!!!!! tipping fees!!! business!!! progress!!! Other locals have persisted for years with an organized resistance to the imported pollution.

The waterkeepers are attentive to this and say they do not want their ash transfer plans to heap the nasty goop on already beleaguered places. Instead they urge trucking the stuff from the power plant lagoons to nearby upland disposal pits lined with thick plastic or other supposedly impermeable substances. If these sites perform as advertised, they would prevent leakage of toxins into groundwater and would be secure against flooding.

Assigning Blame and Cost

But the removal would be expensive. Who pays for it?

Virginia presents one answer. The state recently enacted a law mandating closure of risky ash ponds and removal of their contents to more secure sites or recycling of the ash into cement and other useful products (assuming the contaminants permit that to be done safely). This law allows power company customers to be billed for the expenses involved—the justification being that creation of the ponds was legal when the company started them.

That is like saying a No Burn order was not officially in effect on a breezy day when I recklessly ignited a big trash pile in my yard, and sparks wafted away and burned down my neighbor’s house. But my fire was legal so I can’t be liable.

That also ignores the awareness of peril by insider deciders. They knew enough long ago to keep power plants and ash reservoirs away from their own homes and communities. Those spewing, poisoning facilities belonged in somebody else’s backyard.

Yet this Virginia law is cited as an example for Alabama to adopt. The guess is that it would add only five or six dollars a month to a typical family’s electric bill, a trifle to pay for protection from the lurking coal ash. But it’s trifling to suggest that this would be no burden for households teetering across a budgetary tightrope from one month to the next.

Green Taxes and Yellow Vests

And it’s politically foolish for enviro types to advocate such additions to power bills. To discourage petroleum use France added a “modest” green tax to vehicular fuels last year.

The ongoing riotous reaction by the Yellow Vest contingents has made all enviro causes suspect as elite impositions on the commoners. Increase Alabama electric bills to pay for coal ash removal, and maybe riots won’t follow but an elitist tarnish will spread to every enviro issue.

To avoid that and perhaps to win over a batch of regular folks who would otherwise scorn enviro enthusiasms, try attaching the costs of coal ash removal to the actual perps and beneficiaries of the problem. The giant ashy open sores festering across the state are mainly the legacy of Alabama Power. This company and its shareholders have long enjoyed dumping the nasty byproduct of their operations in pits that endanger the public, which means they have long evaded paying the actual costs of their operations.

This evasion has been protected by the legislature, governor and public service commission. They routinely set electric rates at levels guaranteeing generous profits for  investors and never demand effective measures to sequester the ash lagoons, among other hazards.

Revelations of the Trumpified

None of this neglect will be corrected except by organized demand. An initial step toward a fair and adequate remedy would be to extract the corrective costs from the company and its shareholders, not from the rate paying public. But any such step would meet with ferocious organized resistance.

The captive public service commission would likely take the lead. It, along with the legislature and the governor’s administrative bureaucracy, form a united front of Trumpified Republicans. Under his guidance Republicans have forgotten that they used to believe (or profess anyhow) in balanced budgets, free trade, honoring treaties and allies, family values, moral rectitude, strict virtuous behavior and personal responsibility.  Trump’s conduct has withered or reversed all these standards. But the coal ash battles in Alabama may allow personal responsibility at least to be rescued from abandonment.

The Trumpified might receive a revelation and suddenly realize that those who caused and who profited from the ash pits must be held responsible, legally and financially, for correcting the offense. Then that revelation might expand to cover all kindred instances.

Yes, these things will surely happen—probably around the same time as the Second Coming.

DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at