WILSONVILLE, Ala. (WIAT) — The Coosa Riverkeeper and Wilsonville mayor are sounding off about contaminated groundwater reported near Alabama Power’s Gaston Steam Plant.
Coal plants burn coal to generate power. The waste, called coal ash, has long been dumped in on-site ponds.
It is a process that has been utilized by other power companies across the country.
Data from groundwater monitoring wells was released this month now that testing is required under federal guidelines.
Coosa Riverkeeper Frank Chitwood told CBS 42 that results revealed elevated levels of potentially dangerous chemicals like radium and arsenic.
“When you look at radium, which is a radioactive compound, they’re finding that in levels 3 to 4 times greater than what we call the maximum contaminant level that’s safe for drinking water. When we see those numbers, that’s very concerning,” said Chitwood.
Wilsonville Mayor Lee McCarty isn’t holding back his feelings about the recently released data.
“They are poisoning the water,” said McCarty.
According to Chitwood, the waste in coal ash ponds should sink to the bottom so water on top can be safely discharged. He’s concerned about the groundwater.
“Those who have ground water wells, they’re afraid to even wash their clothes in it. I’d imagine they need to bathe themselves and drink the water. They’re looking into their own ways of testing well water and that costs a lot of money,” said Chitwood.
Through a statement, Michael Sznajderman with Alabama Power told CBS 42 that the “safety of our customers and the communities we serve is Alabama Power’s highest priority as we continue to make measurable progress towards closing ash facilities at our plants, in compliance with the regulations.”
While the power company states based on evaluations, none of the results detected pose a risk to neighbors, nearby waterways, or water sources.
Chitwood, however, worries that contaminants from groundwater could reach surface water like the Coosa River or nearby Lay Lake.
“The surface water of Lay Lake is connected to that groundwater,” said Chitwood.
Mayor McCarty thinks Alabama Power should remove the coal ash completely.
“They are not doing what’s doing what’s best the safety is not top priority. The main thing that’s their top priority is money,” said McCarty.
Removing the coal ash could take much more time and would come at a higher cost, one that could be passed onto customers.
Alabama Power is phasing out coal ash ponds with plans to stop receiving ash within a year. The company plans to move materials away from the river to reduce the footprint.
“The procedure being used to close the ash facilities is called close in place, which EPA recognizes as safe and effective,” said Sznajderman.
The process includes dewatering the ponds, capping them, and implementing flood control measures.
According to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Alabama Power faces proposed fines of $1.25 million for pollution at several plants across the state including, the Miller plant in Jefferson County, the Gorgas plant in Walker County, and the Greene County plant.
Sznajderman said the company is still reviewing orders from ADEM. As for proposed fines, Sznajderman said “Alabama Power has taken responsible and reasonable actions at every step of the way and do not believe the amount of the penalty is warranted.”
Fines and penalties will not be passed onto customers, Sznajderman said.
The Coosa Riverkeeper wants to see continued testing and oversight.
“The people that live in Wilsonville, certainly a loss to their property values and a loss to their mental well being. They are very concerned about what this means for their health,” said Chitwood.
As a part of the closure process, Alabama Power is installing dry ash handling and wastewater treatment facilities designed “to meet or do better than all environmental standards and replace the function of the existing ash facilities,” according to Sznajderman’s statement.
The company is also working the third-part engineers to evaluate and identify the safest and most effective closure plans.