Destroying Alabama’s Environment, One Power Plant at a Time

To conclude our blog series on Alabama Power’s unnecessary gas expansion, we want to discuss the long-lasting damage Alabama Power has wrought on the ecosystems of Alabama, and the climate of the planet. Despite that, it's not too late for Alabamians to take action to achieve a win-win-win for the economy, the environment, and public health.

By Sari Amiel, Legal Fellow with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program

By buying and burning dirty fuels like coal and gas, Alabama Power is damaging the people and the environment right in its own backyard. Our last post discussed the pollution, including dangerous groundwater contamination, from Alabama Power’s three active coal plants. At the same time, Alabama Power is embarking on a new pollution path by building and buying three gas-burning plants that will harm the environment, both locally and globally. 

First, the process of extracting gas, which will power the company’s new plants, is destructive. Fracking begins with drilling deep underground to reach shale rock, then injecting a toxic cocktail of fluids that requires millions of gallons of fresh water, mixed with hundreds of chemicals. This fracking releases methane, which (aside from the numerous leaks along the way) is then collected and transported to Alabama Power’s plants using pipelines that can destroy habitats and spill toxic chemicals in the water, soil, and air.

Flaring, which occurs at drilling and refinery sites when not all of the fracked gas can be collected, has been linked to premature births and under-developed infants. Often, these issues fall disproportionately on the communities living near flaring sites. For example, a recent study found that flaring sites posed health risks to expectant mothers. At the sites studied, those health risks “fell entirely on Hispanic women.”

Not only is the process of fracking dangerous for the environment, but burning fracked gas— also called “methane”—to produce electricity pollutes the planet. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, which traps heat close to the Earth’s surface, causing climate change. This extra heat is already causing severe changes in the Earth’s climate: rising global sea levels that contribute to devastating habitat loss, an increased frequency of extreme storms, species extinctions, and faster spread of diseases. The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how unpredictable, global, and devastating diseases can be, as well as how unprepared our society is to stop them.

Alabama’s position on the coast means that it is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and worsening storms. 

“I am concerned that my children, and future generations in general, will not be able to live in Mobile anymore because of extreme temperatures and the flooding caused by more intense storms, more frequent storms, and higher sea levels,” said Sierra Club member and Alabama resident Lella Lowe.

Southern Company, Alabama Power’s parent company, knows the risks of climate change. The company announced its goal of achieving “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, this is a corporate goal that has yet to line up with the operating company’s actual planning decisions. Alabama Power’s addition of three gas-burning plants with 20- to 40-year lifespans is the exact opposite of moving toward “net zero” carbon emissions.

“Burning, transporting, and extracting gas—including fracking and pipeline construction—will worsen climate change,” said Sierra Club member Riva Fralick, who lives near Mobile Bay. “It is well known that the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay has a ‘cancer cluster,’ and I am afraid that more fossil fuel burning will make that worse… [And] Alabama has [recently] had record flooding, record heat, and record droughts.”

These environmental harms only scratch the surface. The lasting effects of Alabama Power’s disregard for the land, air, and water are only beginning; unless we drastically change course, the future looks bleak. 

But there is cause for hope. Sierra Club has challenged Alabama Power’s use of long-expired air and water permits to operate two coal-fired units, Barry 4 and 5, at the site of the new gas plant construction near Mobile. Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s failure to act on long-languishing permit renewal applications has allowed these coal units to avoid installing updated pollution-reduction technology needed to protect public health and the environment. Sierra Club is litigating to attempt to compel ADEM to issue new air and water permits. This summer, not long after Sierra Club brought this lawsuit, ADEM issued new draft permits for these two coal units, enabling Sierra Club and members of the public to comment on their adequacy, endeavoring to ensure they meet legal standards meant to protect public health and the environment.

On top of that, a coalition of environmental nonprofits in Alabama has launched, a website dedicated to holding utilities accountable for their coal ash pollution. This website tracks the location of coal ash ponds, groundwater contamination, and relevant laws, and hosts many resources on how to become involved in the fight to protect Alabama’s environment. For example, you can sign a petition today that demands coal ash cleanup in Alabama. 

It will take decisive action, but with public pressure and continued advocacy, we can change the future of Alabama’s energy landscape to better protect our planet and future generations.