More than once in my life I’ve been reminded there is no such thing as a free lunch. I first learned that lesson from my parents and you probably did, too. Everything has a cost to someone. Whether you’re handing money to a cashier directly or paying a higher utility rate because of government regulations, you will pay. That’s never been truer than in the current push to force the removal of coal ash from one location to another in Alabama.
Coal ash is an energy byproduct produced by burning coal to generate electricity. In Alabama, the use of coal-fired electricity generation is decreasing, but for many years it was the primary source of fuel for our power plants. Over the years, coal ash has either been reused or disposed of according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and individual state permits, which comply with EPA regulations. In Alabama, coal ash is reused to produce the concrete used to build our roads, bridges, sidewalks and in building materials such as wallboard and concrete blocks. One type of coal ash benefits agriculture as a soil additive used in growing turf grass, peanuts, cotton and vegetables.
Unusable coal ash is stored in specific landfills and waste storage ponds that are permitted under state rules and subject to monitoring and inspection by both electricity producers and the state. All coal ash storage ponds in Alabama have monitoring wells that allow regular sampling of water quality in nearby rivers and streams.
Since 2008, the EPA has been assessing coal ash deposits. In Alabama, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), following the lead of the EPA, recently enacted rules leading the producers of coal ash to discontinue disposal in storage ponds and to remediate and cap the existing ponds to prevent any potential groundwater contamination. PowerSouth has submitted to ADEM its plan for closing its Lowman Plant coal ash storage pond in accordance with the rules that have been established.
Capping storage ponds, following extensive remediation of the water contained in them, is both environmentally and economically sound. Remember the same people who are responsible for treating and closing coal ash ponds are your neighbors. They drink the same water and enjoy boating, fishing, and wildlife just like you. Your interest in a clean environment is also their interest.
Now, some environmental extremists are lobbying lawmakers and ADEM to require a more costly plan that would force the excavation of our coal ash ponds and removal of the material to a lined landfill. There are a couple of serious issues with going that route.
For one, this option is more dangerous. The number of trucks and time it will take to transport coal ash to a lined land fill is astronomical. I question if the few people advocating for removal have asked residents in local communities how they feel about the dangers associated with thousands of 18-wheelers passing through their community for years. Also, undoubtedly that kind of heavy traffic will have a significant negative impact on the road infrastructure in these areas as well.
This movement of coal ash from Point A to Point B is substantially more expensive – with numbers ending in the billions. That’s the difference between a country club lunch and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Both accomplish the goal of nourishment but at significantly different costs – and for this lunch our members’ customers would have to pay the tab.
Seth Hammett is a native of Covington County, Ala., and serves as Chairman of the Energy Institute of Alabama. He is also Vice President of Business Development for PowerSouth Energy and was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives for 32 years, including 12 years as Speaker of the House. Upon his retirement from the Alabama Legislature in 2010, Hammett was named Speaker Emeritus. A graduate of Auburn University, Hammett earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration. He holds honorary doctorates from Troy University and the University of West Alabama.