Southeast River Runs Part 3: Coal Ash on the Black Warrior River

Guest Blog | July 2, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the third blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, who contributed to this post. 

Canoeing on Valley Creek, a tributary of the Black Warrior River. Source: Nelson Brooke

With more miles of navigable rivers than any other state, it’s no wonder that Alabama is called “the River State”. Running for 300 miles through the heart of Alabama, the Black Warrior River is navigable by barge for 200 miles. Its watershed is home to over one million people, and provides drinking water for many cities including Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Bessemer, Cullman, Oneonta, and Jasper.

The Black Warrior River is home to an astounding array of species including 127 freshwater fish, 36 mussels, 15 turtles, and numerous other aquatic animals including several species listed as federally threatened or endangered including the Black Warrior Waterdog (click Read More for a picture!).  Eight hundred years ago the largest population center in North America-Moundville- was along the banks of the Black Warrior. Today, people flock to the Black Warrior to fish, hunt, swim, boat, and sight-see as it runs from the Appalachian Mountains at its headwaters to cypress and tupelo gum swamps throughout its floodwater lowlands in the East Gulf Coastal Plain.

However, the river that that supplies drinking water to 200,000 people in Birmingham faces threats from toxic coal ash pollution, in addition to coal mining and many other issues

The Black Warrior Waterdog (Necturus alabamensis) is considered one of the most endangered salamander species in North America. Source: Cincinatti Zoo

There are over 90 active coal mines in the Black Warrior basin, with several massive strip mines, the largest of which will be over 7,000 acres when complete. Three Alabama Power Co. power plants (Gorgas, Miller, and Greene County) are located near or on and use the waters of the Black Warrior River for cooling and other operations. At last official count their seven coal ash impoundments contained almost 3.8 billion gallons of coal ash dumped in impoundments near the river’s banks. That’s enough to cover 23,000 football fields one foot deep. The coal ash impoundments at the Miller Steam Plant, along the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior, received the most toxic metals of any power plant in the U.S. in 2010.

According to Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke, coal ash and the threat it poses to the river are largely “out of sight, out of mind”.

A fisherman casts his line near the coal ash discharge pipe from the Gorgas Power Station to the Black Warrior River. Source: Amelia Shenstone.

“The power plants are in very rural areas,” says Brooke,  “and most of the ash ponds are uphill from the river where people can’t see them.” Often times the only evidence of a coal ash dump are multi-million gallons-per-day wastewater discharges from the coal ash impoundments to the river. Fish congregate around these discharges, drawing anglers unaware of the potential dangers of toxic coal ash polluting the water.

Unfortunately, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has not taken steps to protect this valuable resource from toxic coal ash pollution. In Brooke’s opinion, ADEM has actually gotten more savvy at permitting pollution and protecting polluters, instead of enforcing environmental laws. The agency does not require Alabama Power Co. to monitor for groundwater contamination near their coal ash ponds, leaving the public in the dark about potential pollution. Currently, Alabama Power’s three power plants are allowed to operate under expired Clean Water Act Permits. These outdated permits fall woefully short of adequate regulation. This is a perfect example of how states are failing to regulate coal ash pollution and the need for federal regulations to protect communities and precious waterways like the Black Warrior from this toxic threat.

Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution to the Black Warrior, and all rivers nationwide. Currently, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today asking that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization working to protect and restore the Black Warrior River and its tributaries. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at

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