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Alabama seniors spearhead efforts to protect Mobile Bay from toxic ash

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In coastal Alabama, a small group of seniors is taking on a powerful utility. They say Alabama Power's plan for a toxic coal waste site along the banks of the Mobile River could lead to an environmental catastrophe. Cori Yonge with Alabama Public Radio has the story.

CORI YONGE, BYLINE: As morning commuters whiz by and a flock of brown pelicans soars overhead, Frankie Boatman casts his fishing line into Mobile Bay. The retiree spends much of his time out and about these waters.

FRANKIE BOATMAN: I fished around Alabama Power up in the canal that goes to the power plant.

YONGE: He's talking about Plant Barry. That's where Alabama Power has an unlined coal ash pit that opened in 1965. Coal ash is what's left after coal is burned.

BOATMAN: I've never heard of a coal - I mean, a - what is it? - ash pond - no, never heard of it.

YONGE: That lack of awareness has 80-year-old Sallie Smith fired up. Despite her age and a recent cancer diagnosis, Smith co-founded the Coal Ash Action Group, a grassroots environmental effort.

SALLIE SMITH: We want that coal ash moved. We are educating people so people know how big the issue is.

YONGE: Coal ash contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead. Plant Barry's massive coal ash pond borders an ecologically diverse tangle of rivers and streams that feed Mobile Bay. The company has a state permit to cap the ash pond in place. That worries 75-year-old Diane Thomas, another senior in the group.

DIANE THOMAS: This pond contains 21 million tons of toxic sludge, covers an area of about 451 football fields. The only thing holding it back from the bank of the river is a dirt dike.

YONGE: Their biggest concern is that keeping the ash next to the river puts the bay one hurricane away from an environmental catastrophe. These women will talk to anyone who wants to listen, from church groups to this book club.

THOMAS: If not many people comment and not many people show up at the hearing, I would say it looks like that this part of Alabama really doesn't care very much.

YONGE: But the group also spreads its message online. That's the job of 79-year-old Savan Wilson.

SAVAN WILSON: We also now have an Instagram, and we even have a Thread account because they're tied together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my (ph).

YONGE: These seniors hope their work will persuade Alabama Power to follow the lead of companies in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, where they're moving coal ash to lined landfills. Even Alabama Power's sister company, Georgia Power, is moving some but not all of its ash. Smith is actually a longtime shareholder of Southern Company, which owns Alabama Power.

SMITH: I want Alabama Power to do right and do right now.

YONGE: Smith convinced fellow shareholder and retired environmental attorney Ron Allen to join the fight. He's 80.

RON ALLEN: To me, there's no doubt that the right legal move is to take the ash out. There's no question about that under EPA regulations.

YONGE: In an email, Alabama Power declined to comment, citing potential legal matters. The seniors' Coal Ash Action Group might get a lift from the Environmental Protection Agency. In August, the EPA proposed denying Alabama's plan for handling coal ash, saying it fails to meet federal guidelines. The agency will hold public hearings later this month.

For NPR News, I'm Cori Yonge in Mobile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Cori Yonge