SHELBY COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — If you spend a day out on the Coosa River, it’s easy to see why Alabama is called the River State. Open air, water views for miles, and homes that tempt you to open up Zillow. The river connects to popular Central Alabama summer destinations, like Lay Lake and Logan Martin Lake, and is enjoyed by thousands across the state each year.
Underneath the surface, the river has become a dumping ground for treated sewage, agricultural waste, and industrial waste from companies like Alabama Power.
Coosa Riverkeeper has spent more than a decade fighting the pollution. Riverkeeper Justinn Overton said the environmental group also acts as a watchdog, ensuring the companies permitted to discharge waste into the waterway are doing so legally.
“It’s unfortunate that we have heavy industry that’s directly discharging into our river system that think they are above the law when they are not,” Overton explained.
Just this year, the Coosa was named one of the top five most endangered rivers in the nation. Overton said that ranking primarily comes from the industrial agricultural waste in the water.
The Coosa Riverkeeper took part in a national sampling effort for PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals,’ with environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance. Earlier this month, the results came back with high levels out of Neely Henry Lake, a part of the Coosa River. According to the report, one of the chemicals, PFOA, was detected at 4,200 times the amount that is deemed safe.
The CDC describes PFAS as a group of more than 9,000 chemicals used in industry and consumer products. Forever chemicals can cause cancers and other damaging health effects.
We spoke with people fishing at Neely Henry Lake about the recent PFAS results. Carlton Lipscomb has been fishing by the Alabama Power plant on the lake for 35 years. He had no idea there were high levels of chemicals in the water until we told him.
“There’s deceit and betrayal in everything” Lipscomb said. “Since you tellin’ me now, I’m gonna be hesitant about eating the fish.”
Dwight Jennings was aware of the contaminated waters. He told us he doesn’t eat the fish anymore, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.
“They need to be held accountable,” Jennings said.
Overton took CBS 42’s Chloe Vincente and photojournalist Wil Raines for a tour on the Riverkeeper’s patrol boat to see some of the top environmental concerns. They witnessed a handful of waste discharge points along the river. Not one had a sign explaining what was being discharged.
For the majority of the ride, large industrial towers loomed in the distance. The chemicals at that plant have been an ongoing battle for the Coosa Riverkeeper.
“This coal ash needs to be in a lined landfill,” Overton explained. “It’s currently sitting on the bank of Lay Lake, vulnerable to all sorts of emergencies.”
At Alabama Power’s Plant Gaston, Overton said the Coosa Riverkeeper has been asking the company and the state to move the toxic coal ash pond.
According to Alabama Power’s own reports on the plant, arsenic and other dangerous contaminants pollute the groundwater at the plant. The 2022 semi-annual report shows arsenic levels exceed the groundwater protection standard. The report also shows how the groundwater at the plant flows, indicating it discharges into the Coosa River.
Alabama Power would not go on camera about the issue, but did email us this statement:
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency implemented regulations for closing coal ash ponds. The EPA offered utilities two approved methods: 1) seal the coal ash in place, or 2) remove the coal ash and transport it elsewhere. According to the EPA, both methods of closing ash ponds can equally protect the environment when executed properly. Our closure plan is designed to meet and exceed all federal and state requirements and has been closely studied by widely recognized independent experts as safe and effective.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has carefully reviewed and issued permits for the closure of our ash ponds, including at Plants Gadsden and Gaston. The ash pond at Plant Gadsden has been safely closed for nearly five years and we are in the process of closing the ash pond at Plant Gaston. Any impact to groundwater is localized to the plant site and poses no risk to any source of drinking water or the surrounding environment. Groundwater monitoring at Plant Gadsden continues to show the effectiveness of our closure as impact to groundwater at the plant site continues to decrease.
Plant Gadsden also sits on the Coosa River. Overton said there are similar concerns at that plant with it’s coal ash pond sitting near the bank of the river.
We reached out to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) about the contamination in the Coosa River. A spokesperson sent this statement in an email:
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is aware of the American Rivers designation of the Coosa River. ADEM is also aware that numerous rivers across the nation have received this designation from American Rivers since 2003 as shown in the attached document. ADEM has water quality standards and criteria that are protective of human health and the environment.
Assessing the State’s abundant surface water resources requires a major effort and sizeable resources. Alabama’s surface water is of generally high quality. Currently, only 4.2% of Alabama’s 132,000 river miles have been identified as being impaired and of those only 626 miles are impaired in the Coosa. Additional information is available in the Water Quality Report to Congress (2022 – 305(b) Report: https://adem.alabama.gov/programs/water/waterquality.cnt) submitted to the United States Environmental Protection Agency as part of the national water quality assessment required by the Clean Water Act. This report provides a summary of activities related to surface water quality and an assessment of surface water quality conditions in Alabama.