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Gov. Kay Ivey declares state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Delta

Delta is the 25th named storm and the ninth hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

Satellite images of Hurricane Delta nearing the Gulf of Mexico. (VIA NOAA/NHC)
Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday signed a state of emergency declaration as Hurricane Delta grew into a category four storm, threatening to strike the U.S. Gulf Coast just weeks after Hurricane Sally devastated Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

“As our coastal areas are still recovering from Hurricane Sally, another system, Hurricane Delta, is making its way toward the Gulf Coast and could potentially have a significant impact on Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement. “Therefore, I signed a State of Emergency to begin Alabama’s preparation process and position us to be able to declare a pre-landfall disaster declaration with FEMA.  As residents along the Gulf Coast know all too well, these storms are unpredictable, and I strongly encourage everyone to take Hurricane Delta seriously. We are keeping a close eye on this approaching storm and we will continue providing all necessary updates.”

The National Hurricane Center is forecasting that Hurricane Delta could make landfall along Louisiana’s coast sometime Saturday with the hurricane’s sustained winds covering large swaths of lower Alabama. It is likely move further into Alabama as it continues.

Delta is the 25th named storm and the ninth hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, making this year one of the most active seasons in recent history. Delta is the earliest 25th named storm on record and the third major hurricane in the Atlantic this year.

The Hurricane Center on Tuesday morning warned of an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds from Hurricane Delta beginning Friday, especially along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, though its track could change.

The National Weather Service’s Mobile office on Tuesday forecasted that Hurricane Delta will turn north over the central Gulf and then northeast before making landfall late this week.

“However, even if Delta makes landfall well to our west, the local area will still see a threat for storm surge, dangerous surf/rip currents, heavy rain, strong winds, and isolated tornadoes. Please continue to check back for forecast updates,” the NWS office in Mobile said.

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Homeowners and businesses are still piecing back together their properties and lives after Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores on Sept. 16.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures

APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

Bill Britt

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ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.

While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.

“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”

LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”

According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”

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EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.

“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”

He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.

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Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.

Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.

“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.

According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.

“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.

Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.

Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.

Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.

“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”

The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.

Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.

“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”

While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.

ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.

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Environment

Bow season begins today

Archery deer season opens in most of the state — zones A, B and C — on Oct. 15, 2020.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

On Thursday, bow hunting season for deer opens across the state of Alabama, though it has already begun in some areas of the state.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has divided the state into five separate hunting zones for whitetail deer. Be aware of where in the state you are at all times because different rules can and do apply. Some counties have as many as three of the state’s five hunting zones.

Hunters in the newly created zones D and E began bow hunting back on Oct. 1.

Zone D includes parts of Cullman, Franklin, Lawrence and Winston counties. Zone D allows for bow hunting for either sex from Oct. 1 to Jan. 15. Hunters can take antlered bucks from Oct. 1 to Jan. 27. Gun deer season for antlered bucks will open in zone D on Nov. 7, 2020.

Zone E includes areas in Barbour, Calhoun, Cleburne and Russell counties. Zone D allows for bow hunting for either sex from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15. Hunters can take antlered bucks from Oct. 1 to Jan. 27. Gun deer season for antlered bucks will open in zone E on Nov. 7, 2020.

Archery deer season opens in most of the state — zones A, B and C — on Oct. 15, 2020.

Archery season for both sexes in Zone A, the largest of the hunting zones, lasts from Oct. 15 to Feb. 10, 2021. Gun season in zone A for either sex runs from Nov. 21 to Feb. 10, 2021.

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Archery season in zone B goes from Oct. 15 to Feb. 10 for antlered bucks. For either sex from Oct. 25 to Feb. 10. Gun season in zone B is from Nov. 21 to Feb. 10.

Zone C consists of parts of St. Clair, Jefferson, Blount, Cullman, Etowah, Morgan, Winston, Marshall, Dekalb, Jackson, Lawrence, Franklin and Marion Counties.

Bow season in zone C for either sex runs from Oct. 15 to Feb. 10, 2021. Gun season in zone C for antlered bucks only is from Nov. 21 to Feb. 10, 2021. Hunters may take either sex with a gun in zone C from Nov. 21 to Nov. 29 and Dec. 19 to Jan. 1, 2021.

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You must purchase a license to hunt in the state of Alabama and you must report any and all deer taken to the state. Wildlife biologists use the data to set future hunting zones and harvest limits. For complete deer season dates and zone information, visit the Outdoor Alabama website.

“The creation of these new deer zones highlights the hard work of our wildlife managers and the importance of harvest data provided by Alabama’s hunters,” said Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “The Department strives to offer the best hunting opportunities available.”

Whitetail deer are the largest game species in the state with a harvestable population. Hunting for whitetail deer is the most popular of the hunting sports in Alabama. Hunting and fishing are a fun activity the whole family can enjoy, while social distancing due to the coronavirus global pandemic.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

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Environment

October Snapper extension is still on

Red Snapper season rarely extends this late in the year but MRD determined that Alabama’s recreational anglers did not harvest their quota of the popular saltwater fish.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reports that despite Hurricane Sally hitting the Alabama Gulf Coast in September, the Oct. 10 to 12 red snapper season is still on for Alabama’s private recreational anglers.

A lot of boats were damaged in the storm, which could pose a challenge for some anglers.

“Our intention is to keep the three-day season in October open,” said Scott Bannon, the director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resource Division. “If people have the opportunity to participate, they will. We’ll get the numbers through Snapper Check and our surveys after that. Our promise is that we want to use all of the quota we have. If the weather is bad or participation is extremely low, we could look at additional days.”

“I think there will be enough people,” Bannon continued. “Our concern is the south Baldwin folks who were on or near the water suffered an extreme amount of damage. The number of boats that are damaged is possibly in the thousands. That could have an impact on all fisheries. From a fish stock standpoint, we’re going to see the pressure off for a few weeks and that can have some benefits. For the anglers, it’s some lost opportunities.”

The reefs could be damaged due to the storm and many artificial reefs may have even moved.

“The impact of a storm like this goes surprisingly deep,” said Bob Shipp, professor emeritus at the University of South Alabama’s marine sciences department. “Several studies have been done, and with a major hurricane like this, the impact is well over 100 feet deep. For fisheries, what we have is the ones really impacted are the reef species. We’ve been tagging red snapper and triggerfish for years. What we found is they stay put year after year. They don’t leave the reef until there’s a storm. Then they may show up 50 miles away to another reef. The (fish) movement is usually west to east, but I don’t know if that is something we can count on.”

Shipp said that some reef structures in the 1,060-square-mile artificial reef zones were likely moved or covered with sand.

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“The pyramids that David Walter (Reefmaker) puts down seem to be pretty stable, but the smaller reefs, like the chicken coops, get blown all over the place,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting when things settle down. There’s going to be lots and lots of reefs in different locations and nobody will have the numbers. People are going to be out running over these reefs and building new sets of numbers.”

“I saw some reports of wave heights of 30 feet,” Bannon said. “That’s a lot of energy dispersed in the nearshore zones. But the pyramids have proven to be pretty resilient. The shape helps keep them in place. If they have been there for any amount of time, they have subsided, or sunk into the bottom, and that helps keep them from rolling. We have seen them turn over before, but they stay in that area. They don’t disappear.”

Shipp warned that boaters should be aware of potential hazards to navigation in displaced piers, pilings and other debris.

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“There’s going to be an awful lot of floating debris for a while,” Shipp said. “It always concerns me that these boats with twins or triples (outboards) can go 50 knots. If you hit something going that fast, one can only guess the results. If you’re going to be extra careful, this is the time to do it.”

“Anytime we have a storm event or high-water event, all kinds of debris ends up in the water,” Bannon warned. “You have material blown into the water from the hurricane, and the rain dumped on the rest of the state will cause all sorts of material to come down the high rivers. Boaters definitely need to be aware of this. This is going to be an ongoing concern, potentially for the next couple of years.”

Bannon said that MRD personnel are checking the in shore reefs to make sure the pilings and lighting remain. Sonar surveys are also planned to check that the reef material is intact.

“Our current major concern is for the oyster reefs,” Bannon said. “We are going to try to open in October. Our surveys prior to the storm showed we were going to have a productive season, more than we did last season.”

12,000 sacks of prime oysters came out of Alabama waters last year. Bannon said that before Sally, MRD was predicting an increase in harvest of about two-thirds.

“But with three days of heavy northeast winds and a lot of wave action, we have concerns about the oysters at Cedar Point East and each side of the Dauphin Island Bridge,” Bannon said. “Those oysters may have been moved or potentially covered up. We will be conducting surveys over the next couple of weeks to evaluate that. We are still planning to open up. Additionally, 100 boats of harvesters will also let us know what they are finding after we open up.”

Remember that hunting and fishing licenses had to be renewed on Sept. 1. It is easy to have forgotten to renew last month given the hurricane impact.

Red Snapper season rarely extends this late in the year but MRD determined that Alabama’s recreational anglers did not harvest their quota of the popular saltwater fish so the state granted the extra fishing days.

Fishing is an enormously economically important sport in Alabama that whole families can enjoy together.

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Opinion | Capping Alabama Power’s ash pond might be the best bad option

When you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one. 

Josh Moon

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It would be wonderful if coal ash didn’t exist. Had humans never figured out that you could blast the top off a mountain or send desperate men deep into the earth to find coal to be burned to produce power, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be substantially better off. Just think of the environmental damage and human deaths that we could prevent. 

But that’s not real life. 

In real life, we live by the kilowatt. And as a result, we’re left with tons and tons and tons of coal ash — the leftover, toxic remnants of all that coal we’ve burned to keep all those lights on. And something has to be done with all of it. 

Exactly what we want to do with it is the dilemma facing Alabama Power and state and federal regulators. And there seems to be no answer that doesn’t tick off somebody. 

You can’t just leave it in wet ash ponds anymore, because the EPA has essentially — and very appropriately — made that illegal. 

You can’t cap it in place — a process by which the water is sucked out and cleaned and the remaining coal ash is covered with a synthetic liner and then with synthetic turf — because environmental groups say that still leaves a risk that some contaminants will leach into the groundwater. 

You can’t haul it away to a landfill — where it would be dumped into a lined pit and later covered — because nearby residents hate it and environmental groups say the dumping can lead to airborne contamination that sickens nearby residents. 

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So, what do you do? 

No, really, I’m asking. What should we do with an ash pond like the one at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry? 

Plant Barry has been a major point of contention between the power giant and environmental groups, particularly the Mobile Baykeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, for years now. But the conflict, in this particular instance, isn’t quite as simple as the usual cost-v-environment arguments that usually dominate these situations. 

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Barry’s ash pond currently holds 21 million tons of coal ash. That’s a big ash pond. 

It is located just feet from the Mobile River, separated by a 21-foot dike. For years, environmentalists have predicted that the pond is one good hurricane away from a major environmental disaster. (That has proven to be mostly hyperbole. Hurricane Sally pushed the Mobile River level up 3 feet. That’s 18 feet below the top of the existing dike, and the water has never been within 15 feet of the top.)

Alabama Power has maintained that the coal ash is as safe as a big, arsenic-laden baby and that no weather event in 55 years has disturbed the material stored at the site. But the company, after recent EPA law changes, is moving to cap in place the pond — a process it says will virtually eliminate the potential for contamination. 

Not good enough, the environmental groups have said. They want the coal ash moved to some other location. 

What location? The moon, preferably. Or some other place where humans will never come in contact with it.

However, when you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one. 

Look, I know that several heads just exploded, but hold off on the emails and angry tweets for a minute or two and let me explain. 

First, coal ash is a problem no matter where it’s stored or how it’s stored. Is placing it in a lined landfill at another location safer than capping it in place at Plant Barry? Possibly, but several people — people who are experts in the field — disagree about the overall danger and about the types of dangers related to each option. 

For example, capping the ash in place poses a higher risk that toxins could, at some point in the future, leach into the groundwater. APCO officials, and their hired engineers and third-party experts, insist that the new engineering improvements made to the site will significantly reduce that likelihood, making it almost equally as safe as a lined site. 

The plan APCO has presented has been approved by the EPA and is being monitored by ADEM.

But let’s say that APCO decided to go with the approach that some environmental groups want — trucking all 21 million tons of coal ash, after it’s been dried out, to a lined landfill site somewhere else. (And no one has a good thought on where that somewhere else is, by the way.)

That would mean, according to APCO’s estimates, more than 30 years of moving this stuff, with semi-trucks leaving out of the site every six minutes and traveling to wherever. Along county and state roads. And then dumping this stuff in another community that I can guarantee you does not want it. 

Pardon me, but sending diesel trucks up and down the roads for three decades (or two decades, if we go by most optimistic projections) doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly either. Nor does it sound like a solution that will prevent complaints. It also sounds like a blown tire or missed turn away from being an environmental disaster somewhere else. 

Capping this ash in place at Barry will move it another 750 yards away from the Mobile River. It will result in the dike being raised another three feet, eliminating the risk of a flood-caused disaster by anything other than a 1,000-year storm. The site will feature new engineering to cut off groundwater leaching and it will be monitored continuously for leaking. 

That all sounds pretty reasonable. 

Look, I’m not recommending that APCO get an environmental award or anything here, but at the same time, I think it’s OK to say that they’ve chosen the best of several bad options.

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