Opinion | On an Endangered River, Another Toxic Disaster Is Waiting to Happen – The New York Times

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Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
NASHVILLE — Almost four years ago, spurred by my decades-long fascination with Homer’s story of the lotus-eaters, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama to see American lotuses in full bloom. Jimbo Meador, our guide, was happy to take us on his boat to see the extravagant flowers.
A certified master naturalist, he was also happy to take birders to see the more than 300 species of birds that have been identified in that magnificent delta and to talk with history buffs about the original peoples who lived in the area or the fort where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought or the spot in the river where a ghost fleet of World War II Liberty ships was once anchored. Mr. Meador has spent his whole life talking about the crucial role the Mobile-Tensaw Delta plays in the human and ecological life of the region.
The biologist E.O. Wilson called this delta “arguably the biologically richest place” Americans have.
It’s also one of the most beautiful, an ecosystem that includes not just open water but also marsh, swamp and hardwood forest. From Mr. Meador’s flat-bottom boat, the delta feels entirely separate, a quiet world of sunshine and drifting clouds and lapping water and birdsong. Self-contained. Untouched.
But the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is far from untouched. Nine rivers feed into it, and rivers carry more than just water. They also carry microplastics; fertilizer, pesticides and animal waste from factory-farming operations; silt from storm water runoff; and heavy metals from mines and factories — and that’s on top of the devastations wrought by damming or wetland development or the granddaddy of all environmental threats: climate change.
These are the kinds of human-made perils that cause a waterway to be included on America’s Most Endangered Rivers, an annual list published by the nonprofit American Rivers. In this year’s report, the Mobile River, for which the delta is partly named, came in at No. 3, threatened by a coal ash storage pond at the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant.
Alabama Power has dumped 21.7 million tons of coal ash in a storage pond on land that lies within a hairpin crook of the Mobile River. Open to the elements, surrounded on three sides by water, separated from the river by only an earthen dam, the unlined storage pond is leaking heavy metals into the groundwater, which then makes its way to the river.
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for power. It contains high levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium and selenium. Utility companies have historically disposed of the ash by mixing it with water and storing it in pits or ponds constructed for that purpose. Because coal plants require massive amounts of water to generate energy — burning coal to boil water to create the steam that turns the turbines — they and their storage ponds are most often located on bodies of water.
“For decades, utilities have disposed of coal ash dangerously, dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills where the toxins leak into groundwater,” according to a report last year by the nonprofit legal organization Earthjustice. There are hundreds of these coal ash storage facilities across 43 states and Puerto Rico, and almost all of them are leaking toxins into groundwater.
The leaking storage pond at the Barry plant on the Mobile River was built in 1965, when storing coal ash in holding ponds was the norm. But as Carly Berlin of the nonprofit news organization Southerly pointed out in 2020, that strategy is no longer standard: “A considerable industry shift is underway,” she wrote. “Many Southern utilities are moving to excavate the material and relocate it to dry, lined landfills away from rivers or recycling it into building materials like concrete.”
Not Alabama Power, though. It plans to pump the water out of its Barry plant pond and cap the ash in place on the banks of the Mobile River. Even if it weren’t already leaking into the groundwater, that strategy would still leave the toxic storage pond vulnerable to extreme weather events, like the catastrophic flooding that swamped Duke Energy’s coal ash storage ponds at the Sutton power plant near Wilmington, N.C., in 2018. A hurricane’s storm surge or rising water in extreme rain events could destroy the earthen dam and spill coal ash directly into the river. Once there, it would threaten the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Mobile Bay and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’ve got an A-bomb up the river,” John Howard, a resident of Mobile County, told the CNN producer Isabelle Chapman. “It’s just waiting to happen.”
We know what happens — to a river’s ecosystem, to human communities — when the dam on a coal ash pond finally breaks. In 2008 the collapse of a retaining wall at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond near Kingston in East Tennessee spilled more than a billion gallons of coal ash into the nearby river system, covering some 300 acres of Roane County with toxic sludge. It remains the worst industrial spill in U.S. history.
What followed that toxic spill was a yearslong cleanup operation that sickened workers by the hundreds. Dozens have since died, the majority from diseases linked to heavy metal contamination — “respiratory, cardiac, neurological and blood disorders, as well as cancers,” according to the nonprofit news site The Daily Yonder. “The jury in a 2018 court case determined that many of these ailments could have been caused by long-term coal ash exposure.” In that case, the U.S. District Court found in favor of 200 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the T.V.A. contractors who supervised the cleanup. (In “Tip of the Ashberg,” an episode in its podcast, “Broken Ground,” the Southern Environmental Law Center gives a full and heartbreaking account of the spill and its aftermath.)
The heavy metals in coal ash do not biodegrade, and the environmental cost of releasing so many toxins into flowing water is impossible to calculate. The coal ash holding pond on the Mobile River contains almost four times as much toxic material as the sludge that spilled in Kingston. And it is leaking.
In better news, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this year that it was finally getting serious about protecting groundwater from coal ash contamination — a move that was greeted with cautious optimism by environmental groups. “That was great to see,” said Cade Kistler, a full-time advocate for the nonprofit Mobile Baykeeper, in a phone interview last week. “It makes it crystal clear that Alabama Power’s plan is illegal under the E.P.A.’s rule because it will leave coal ash in groundwater. And that pollution is going to continue for generations if they move forward with this plan to cap it in place.”
Nevertheless, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management — which has a long history of siding with industry over the environment — has already approved the cap-in-place plan, according to Mr. Kistler. “This clarification from the E.P.A. should force them to move the coal ash. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take the E.P.A. to push back on Alabama.”
The fact that the Mobile River has just made American Rivers’ most-endangered list may bring even more scrutiny to the A-bomb on the riverbank, Mr. Kistler said. “We’re hopeful that the list will make more people aware of the extreme danger and shortsightedness of Alabama Power’s plan. Across the Southeast, utilities are moving 250 million tons of coal ash away from their coastal sites, where hurricanes and sea-level rise pose such a threat. The citizens and environment of Alabama deserve the same protection.”
I have never been on an oyster boat in Mobile Bay, where generations of families have made their livelihoods. I have never visited nearby Africatown, a community founded by some of the people who were smuggled into Alabama on the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans into this country, a ship that now lies at the bottom of the Mobile River. I don’t belong to any of the human communities that would be devastated if the earthen dam keeping Alabama Power’s coal ash out of the Mobile River ever collapses.
But I have been in the American Amazon, as the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is known. I have heard the songbirds calling, and I have seen the ospreys fishing. I have fallen under the spell of the intoxicating American lotus in full bloom, and I can hardly bear to think that any of these treasures, human and environmental, could be in such danger.
I called up Mr. Meador, who is no longer giving public tours of the delta. I wanted to ask how he feels about seeing the Mobile River on a top-10 list of America’s endangered rivers. “You know, I grew up on Mobile Bay when the water was so clear, and now the water is never clear,” he said. “The whole thing is just really sad to me. We’ve already lost so much.”
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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