In a landmark settlement on Wednesday, Gulf Power Company agreed to protect North Florida’s Apalachicola River by moving toxic coal ash waste stored at the company’s Scholz Generating Plant.
The retired 62-year-old plant, located near Sneads, Fla., still contains hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash in holding lagoons overlooking the river. According to three environmental groups bringing the federal lawsuit in the Tallahassee U.S. District Court, the waste contains an array of toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead, and the unlined lagoons are beginning to leak.
Water samples taken by Waterkeeper Alliance and Apalachicola Riverkeeper found pollutants seeping into the river. The results led environmental law activists Earthjustice to sue Gulf Power in 2014 on behalf of the Waterkeeper groups under the Clean Water Act.
Waterkeeper was soon joined in legal action by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
In the suit, the groups argued that the earthen berms surrounding the coal ash could suddenly give way, resulting in a massive coal ash spill, which would devastate the river and its downstream estuary.
Under the settlement, Gulf Power will develop plans to dry out and remove coal ash from unlined ponds, transferring it to a new onsite landfill located out of the river’s flood zone. The company will also install an impermeable cover over the landfill, as well as a subterranean “cutoff wall,” which prevents groundwater from flowing and cause contaminants to leak out of the ash.
Once construction is complete, Gulf Power agreed to continue monitoring groundwater in the area, to ensure pollutants do not escape into the environment.
Although the final plan is subject to approval by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, neither side expects objections from regulators. Gulf Power will also consult with the conservation groups during the process.
Environmentalists, encouraged by the ruling, say coal ash poses a threat to the Apalachicola River and Bay, which support a multibillion-dollar seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
“When a pipe broke and sent 140,000 tons of toxic coal ash and wastewater into the Dan River in North Carolina last year, it coated the river bottom for 70 miles downstream,” said Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall. “We don’t want that to happen to the Apalachicola.”
Apalachicola Riverkeeper spokesperson Dan Tonsmeire emphasized the Apalachicola River as one of the most biologically diverse waterways in the country.
“We are pleased that Gulf Power is recognizing its importance with this agreement,” Tonsmeire said of the accord. “By moving quickly to resolve these concerns, Gulf Power is demonstrating the type of industry leadership needed to protect and preserve our valuable, natural resources for our future generations.”
Forty percent of all U.S. coal ash dumps are located in the Southeast, said Amelia Shenstone of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Most of the dumps require immediate attention to prevent large-scale environmental disasters such as a 2008 spill in Kingston, Tenn. She added that Southern Company, Gulf Power’s $40 billion parent company, owns more coal ash ponds than any other utility in the country, second only to Duke Energy.
“This settlement is a step in the right direction,” added Shenstone, who leads the group’s High-Risk Energy Program. “We’re encouraged to see Gulf Power working with us on a solution that protects the Apalachicola River and the communities that depend on it from a major catastrophe.”
Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Peter Harrison said that despite federal Environmental Protection Agency adopting new regulations for coal ash dumps in 2014, those rules did not apply to plants like Scholz, which has been permanently shuttered since April.
“While we would always prefer to see coal ash stored in fully lined landfills far away from water, Harrison explained, we believe our settlement today will eliminate the risk of a major spill along the Apalachicola.” Harrison said. “Gulf Power may have to take additional measures to contain the ash if post-closure monitoring indicates continuing groundwater contamination.”