In better news, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this year that it was finally getting serious about protecting groundwater from coal ash contamination — a move that was greeted with cautious optimism by environmental groups. “That was great to see,” said Cade Kistler, a full-time advocate for the nonprofit Mobile Baykeeper, in a phone interview last week. “It makes it crystal clear that Alabama Power’s plan is illegal under the E.P.A.’s rule because it will leave coal ash in groundwater. And that pollution is going to continue for generations if they move forward with this plan to cap it in place.”
Nevertheless, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management — which has a long history of siding with industry over the environment — has already approved the cap-in-place plan, according to Mr. Kistler. “This clarification from the E.P.A. should force them to move the coal ash. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take the E.P.A. to push back on Alabama.”
The fact that the Mobile River has just made American Rivers’ most-endangered list may bring even more scrutiny to the A-bomb on the riverbank, Mr. Kistler said. “We’re hopeful that the list will make more people aware of the extreme danger and shortsightedness of Alabama Power’s plan. Across the Southeast, utilities are moving 250 million tons of coal ash away from their coastal sites, where hurricanes and sea-level rise pose such a threat. The citizens and environment of Alabama deserve the same protection.”
I have never been on an oyster boat in Mobile Bay, where generations of families have made their livelihoods. I have never visited nearby Africatown, a community founded by some of the people who were smuggled into Alabama on the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans into this country, a ship that now lies at the bottom of the Mobile River. I don’t belong to any of the human communities that would be devastated if the earthen dam keeping Alabama Power’s coal ash out of the Mobile River ever collapses.
But I have been in the American Amazon, as the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is known. I have heard the songbirds calling, and I have seen the ospreys fishing. I have fallen under the spell of the intoxicating American lotus in full bloom, and I can hardly bear to think that any of these treasures, human and environmental, could be in such danger.
I called up Mr. Meador, who is no longer giving public tours of the delta. I wanted to ask how he feels about seeing the Mobile River on a top-10 list of America’s endangered rivers. “You know, I grew up on Mobile Bay when the water was so clear, and now the water is never clear,” he said. “The whole thing is just really sad to me. We’ve already lost so much.”
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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