Something is very wrong in the Land of Cotton



Dr. Robert Bullard
Environmental Justice Movement Founder

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Earthjustice August 2011 Report on Coal Ash Toxicity--"State of Failure"

Despite the Alabama legislature's attempts to appear like they were doing something beneficial for the citizens of Alabama's health and environment, with the passage of SB80, a bill designed to regulate dry coal ash disposal, it's a 'dam' shame the wet coal ash storage ponds, maintained at APCO utility plants around the state, remain unregulated. Was the exclusion of these dams that by accident or by design?

APCO registered twenty-six lobbyists for 2011, according to figures with the Ethics Commission, and they all worked hard on our lawmakers to pass the coal ash bill despite the impassioned outcries from the citizens of Perry County, Alabama. Those citizens have served as a test case of what SB80 will do to our communities, but no one on Goat Hill listened to their pleas--choosing instead to do what they were told to do on behalf of the small army of APCO lobbyists.

Landfills are a toxic soup in and of themselves. Adding coal ash to our landfills and promising that regulations from SB80 will safeguard our communities and groundwater from any untoward effects of that action is hubris personified, with a stench of possible payoffs and corruption wafting from the inception and process of that bill that's hard to ignore.

Our laws and regulations in Alabama were woefully lax on landfill monitoring, inspections and enforcement before this bill, and passing SB80 won't change what's inherently wrong with ADEM--their utter failure to protect the citizens of this state from big polluters and their waste products. Particularly the low income and minority communities where most of these industries and waste dumps are located.

Conspicuously absent from this legislation was any language to tighten controls on the existing wet coal ash ponds, and the problematic dams that surround them, located around Alabama and almost exclusively at the state's electric utility sites.

Wet coal ash storage remains unaffected and practically unmonitored and regulated, with the exception of the Rattlesnake Dam at the APCO Gorgas Plant. The EPA has that site on its radar, and APCO is employing its usual stance of we-would-rather-fight-than-comply to back them off of any future scrutiny, in addition to blocking the release of more detailed data by claiming CBI--confidential business information.

According to the EPA's website the final decision on whether to allow APCO's CBI request  is still in process. 

We noted at last count, the Southern Company, (SOCO) had spent at least *26,670,000 for the combined years of 2009-2010 on lobbying in Washington. Tracking their expenditures in Alabama is made more difficult by the unlimited contributions corporations can inject into Alabama's political system, combined with a non-requirement of lobbyists expenditure reporting.
*page 20 "Leadership We can Live Without" The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for Southern Company--May 2011, Green America

It boggles the mind that SOCO and APCO spend so much on lobbying and corporate legal attack dogs, but when they are asked to spend some of their enormous profits to upgrade their plants and reduce the overall risk *(est. to be $9 billion in increased health care costs) to hundreds of thousands of people from their toxic emissions, they complain 'if you make us improve we'll have stick it to the ratepayers' and "compliance costs jobs."
*pg 16 of Green America Report

It's a scare tactic argument that's successful on the masses who simply don't know any better and blindly accept the well-honed propaganda machine messages of these corporate behemoths.

Our state regulatory agency, ADEM, functions more as enabler than regulator by their refusal to enforce strict guidelines on APCO. They have grown dependent on the money they take in from the numerous fees they levy against APCO to operate. On smokestack emissions, ADEM charges APCO between $33-$37.00 per ton. The typical emission total per year is in the range of 180,000 tons, and frequently higher. More emissions equals more money. It's a diabolical arrangement in the best of circumstances.

ADEM also does not require any groundwater monitoring (GWM) at APCO's sites despite the enormity of their coal ash storage ponds and their close proximity to our rivers and groundwater supplies.

Dry coal ash is also stored at their sites in quantities that can only be estimated through aerial satellite photos because no records of any actual measurable amounts are available for public examination. It is entirely possible that no one but APCO really knows.

Alabama Power's Gaston Plant Wilsonville, Alabama. The Coosa River is on the right, one of the two wet coal ash ponds is wider than the river. Additional dry coal ash waste areas are in the immediate foreground.
 The state of Alabama set up ADEM in this manner with huge involvement from the utility giant in writing the rules. They hold onto this archaic arrangement in the same way aided and abetted by like-minded politicians eager to sweep the only thing green about APCO, their monetary influence, into their campaign coffers. This too is a diabolical arrangement that ends in predictable outcomes.

We suspect the utility companies, anticipating future problems from the EPA, sought the passage of SB80 to allow them to clean out their nearing capacity wet storage ponds, dry the waste, and ship it to landfills statewide, in addition to recycling the product for everything from road building to kitchen counter tops:
"This is a classic leap-before-you-look EPA initiative, where health and safety questions get asked only after the fact." Through Freedom of Information Act requests, PEER also recently found that the EPA had allowed the coal industry to edit information regarding coal ash use in products, including promoting "beneficial uses" while downplaying or completely eliminating mention of possible risks.
Burning coal for electricity generates more than 100 million tons of coal waste a year, but about half of that winds its ways back into consumer products, on food crops, or in structure- or road-building materials. Coal ash is routinely mixed into cement, drywall, kitchen counters, and carpet backing, and used in retaining walls and as ground fill. Because it is often laced with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals, many toxicologists say more research is needed about what we're putting in the ground (and potentially the water supply) and in our homes. But as of now, industry is running wild—and making a pretty penny—possibly at the expense of our health. "We cannot and should not view agricultural lands as suitable waste-disposal sites for industrial or societal pollutants, just because it's cost-effective in the short term."
Earthjustice lays out the existing problems in their latest report appropriately entitled "State of Failure." Tables 2 & 3 (ppgs. 10 & 11) contain data detailing the failure of strict supervision and safeguards that should be required by our state regulatory agencies on coal ash disposal.

Page 14, in the report, labels Alabama the "worst of the worst" when it comes to coal ash disposal:
Alabama represents the worst of the worst when it comes to coal-ash disposal. 
First, Alabama has no laws or regulations on the books to specifically ensure the safety of the state’s coal ash dams.
It is the only state in the country without such laws. 
Because there are no federal laws to ensure dam safety, this essentially means that Alabama dams are completely unregulated. Until 2011, Alabama also completely exempted coal ash disposal in landfills. Consequently, coal ash from its ten coal-fired plants has been dumped mostly in unlined, unregulated, and unmonitored ponds and landfills. Given the historical absence of controls on coal ash disposal, it is outrageous that more than 5 million tons of ash from the Kingston TVA spill was shipped to Alabama for disposal.

State oversight of Alabama’s dangerous dams is also totally missing.

None of the state’s 15 coal ash dams have been subject to state regulatory inspections in the past five years. After inspections by the EPA and TVA contractors in 2009-2010, five of the dams were given poor ratings and two had to make immediate repairs to improve stability. Alabama dams are, on average, the tallest and largest coal ash dams in the 12 most dangerous states. The average height is nearly 7 stories tall (over 66 feet), and the average surface area is greater than 192 acres (about 151 football fields) more than twice the average of coal ash ponds in the other nine states. These large ponds pose high threats—two of Alabama’s dams are high hazard, and 11 are significant hazard dams. Lastly, these ponds are old-the average age of an Alabama coal ash pond is 40 years. According to the EPA, that’s the estimated lifespan, but Alabama utilities have announced no retirement plans.
Alabama’s coal ash ponds disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color. The EPA statistics show that more than 40 percent of the citizen’s living near coal ash ponds in Alabama is non-white. Also, about 25 percent of nearby residents are below the poverty line, which is more than twice the national average poverty rate of 11.9 percent.
The facts and statistics are a sobering eye-opener into the serious risks that Alabama's governmental agencies and lawmakers stubbornly continue to ignore in favor of big business wants. A grim picture emerges of a system completely devoid of stringent accountability coupled with a total lack of consistent oversight. We, as citizens, have no choice but to live in a "state of failure" when it comes to the protection of our communities from corporate and political Alabama, and it's a risk we should not be forced to accept.
State of Failure

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  1. Great article Max!
    Alabama Power spends enormous sums on getting their way in Washington and Alabama.
    With money comes pervasive influence that our politicians are easily corrupted by.

  2. Southern also went against their shareholders on coal ash despite the shareholder's voting for more stringent regulations.
    This company has been dirty for years and they aim to keep it that way no matter what.

  3. When something goes wrong with this horrible legislation, and it will, the blame needs to land squarely on the yellow streaked backs of Greg Canfield and Del Marsh!

  4. What no smack down to the PSC?
    Don't you think they are just as corrupt as the legislature and shills for Alabama Power?

  5. KNOXVILLE — Lawsuits seeking damages from the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal ash spill will go to trial in 2011.

    Court records show the bench trial has been set for Sept. 13, 2011, before U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan in Knoxville.

    The court's schedule includes numerous pre-trial hearings and deadlines.

    A breach in an earthen dam in December 2008 sent 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic muck into the Emory River and onto surrounding landscape at TVA's' Kingston Plant in Roane County.

    Varlan has thrown out lawsuits seeking punitive damages.

    Court records also show attorneys have not agreed how long TVA's top executive, Tom Kilgore, should have to answer questions in an Aug. 31 deposition. The judge refused to extend the questioning beyond one day.

    Is it just me or does it sound like the fix is in?

  6. According to the lobbying expenditures in Washington Representative Bonner from AL-District 1 is getting a nice steady stream of SOCO's green stash.

    His congressional record isn't so hot:



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