Report claims Wilsonville plant produces high levels of toxic metals

A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project names Wilsonville’s Gaston Steam Plant one of the worst polluters among coal-fired plants in the United States.

In the report, the Alabama Power plant ranked No. 2 in the highest levels of arsenic and chromium. According to the report, the plant also dumps high levels of lead, nickel, selenium and thallium — all of which are deemed “toxic pollutants.”

Alabama Power spokesperson Pat Wylie said the report doesn’t put the numbers in perspective.

“We burn a lot of coal in that plant. Those metals are naturally occurring in coal. That makes the levels appear to be so high.” Wylie said. “Even though these numbers seem high, that report does not put it in perspective at all.”

Wylie said the Gaston Plant emissions fall within environmental regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

The Gaston Plant’s coal ash pond went into operation in 1960 and has since been modified with the addition of trees to help ensure the integrity of the pond.

Wylie said the pond’s discharge is regularly monitored and does not exceed safe levels.

“Discharges from the Gaston Plant coal ash pond is subject to limits by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, and that indicates to us that it is not exceeding any limit and is safe for the public,” he said.

The EPA does not consider coal ash, also known as fly ash, to be a hazardous substance. The hazardous metals in coal are considered to be at a minimal level, Wylie said.

“Ash from these coal-fired plants are similar in structure to natural volcanic ash,” he said.

What matters, Wylie said, is that the plant is safe.

“Fly ash ponds like the one at Plant Gaston have been in operation safely for decades. It’s controlled and monitored, and fly ash ponds are a standard across the coal-fired plants of the United States,” he said. “In 2000, the United States EPA concluded after 20 years of study that coal ash does not warrant hazardous waste regulation.”

Staff at the Environmental Integrity Project could not be reached due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.