Three environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against Gulf Power Company, charging that its plant in Jackson County has been discharging toxic coal ash into the Apalachicola River. WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody reports the utility says the plant is in full compliance with environmental regulations.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in Tallahassee Federal Court, representing the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Waterkeeper Alliance and Apalachicola Riverkeeper.
"There is an unpermitted discharge, coming up from the coal ash impoundment, discharging directly into the Apalachicola River” said lead plaintiff attorney Alisa Coe. “In addition, there have been some seeps, which tells us that the permit conditions for the pollution that Gulf Power is allowed to produce, that is not being adequately complied with.”
The groups say the Pensacola-based power company is violating the federal Clean Water Act by discarding millions of gallons of coal ash sludge from its Sneads plant, known as Plant Scholz, in 40 acres of unlined pits on a bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River. The sludge, says Coe, contains numerous heavy metals – including arsenic, chromium, barium, lead, and mercury among others.
The Apalachicola River flows into the Apalachicola Bay, which supports a multi billion-dollar seafood industry. Gulf Power spokeswoman Natalie Smith says they received a letter from Earthjustice in February, informing them of the law firm’s intent to file the suit.
“After receiving the Earthjustice letter of intent Gulf Power, as well as the (Florida) Department of Environmental Protection, actually conducted follow-up site and inspections and sampling tests,” said Natalie Smith at the utility. “All test results were determined to be within compliance, and didn’t support any of the allegations that Earthjustice is making.”
Smith also said Gulf Power had conducted surface-water tests both downstream and upstream from the plant, "and these studies have always demonstrated conclusively that there are no differences." Earthjustice’s Alisa Coe says the law firm had asked to conduct joint water sampling with Gulf Power representatives, but the company refused. A re-test confirmed Gulf Power’s position.
“We actually referred them to the DEP testing results, and conveyed that our testing results also supported the DEP findings,” Smith said. “After receiving the letter with the claims that Earthjustice is stating, we went back out and conducted additional tests to see if we could duplicate their findings. And we simply cannot duplicate what they found.”
The plant, which opened in 1953, is slated to retire in April 2015. When Gulf Power announced the closure in March of last year, its news release pointed to stricter regulations imposed by the EPA. Plaintiff attorney Alisa Coe was asked, why file now?
“I think now is the most important time to get this placed closed up,” Coe said. “It’s exactly because they’re going to close down the plant. We need to make sure now, that what’s left behind is not a continuing pollution source for the Apalachicola River.”
Gulf Power has 30 days to submit a response to the court. Earthjustice and the environmental groups are seeking a jury trial to voice the arguments.