Miller Steam Plant
The James H. Miller Jr Electric Generating Plant (also known as Plant Miller or Miller Steam Plant) is a large coal-fired electric generating plant owned and operated by Alabama Power near the confluence of Village Creek and the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River in the vicinity of West Jefferson. The plant is one of the nation's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, accounting for 19,247,050 metric tons of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants in 2015.
The facility went into service with the completion of the first of four 705.5 megawatt generating units in 1978. It was named for then-Alabama Power executive James H. Miller Jr. Additional units were brought on-line in 1985, 1989 and 1991. The plant's current capacity is 2,640,000 kilowatts. During 2006 the plant produced 21,658,406 megawatt-hours of electrical power. The plant burns sub-bituminous coal along with natural gas and fuel oil to produce steam which powers its electrical generating units. The plant's large cooling towers, sometimes mistaken for nuclear plant cooling towers, are visible from as far away as Bluff Park and the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. The plant employs about 345 full-time workers along with hundreds of short-term contract workers during maintenance shut-downs.
In 2001 the United States Environmental Protection Agency filed a claim that two of the units at the Miller Steam Plant fell under the "New Source Review" requirements of the Federal Clean Air Act. On April 25, 2006, after a protracted legal battle, the parties announced a partial settlement. Under a consent decree, Alabama Power installed flue gas desulfurization devices, purchased and retired $4.9 million of SO2 allowances, and expanded the use of selective catalytic reduction technology to year-round, with the aim of reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by 27,000 tons per year. The estimated cost for complying with the decree was over $200 million.
According to a July 2007 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, Plant Miller emitted 23,466,022 tons of carbon dioxide gas in 2006, ranking second in the United States for emissions and 126th in emissions per MWh of electricity generated. The plant also emitted 21,237 tons of nitrogen oxide and 53,379.5 tons of sulfur dioxide, ranking 30th and 45th respectively in total output for those pollutants. Its 1,595 pounds of mercury emissions ranked third in total amount, and 32nd by rate. Plant Miller's total atmospheric releases for 2010 were more than twice that of the next biggest polluter in Jefferson County.
By 2015 the added technologies had reduced the total output of atmospheric pollutants by more than half. The volume of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, responsible for contributing to the greenhouse effect and to ground-level ozone (smog), was less affected. In 2021 Plant Miller, with recorded emissions of 21 million tons, was ranked for the 7th straight year as the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States.
In addition to products of combustion expelled into the air, Miller Steam Plant also produces "coal combustion residuals" or "coal ash". A 2011 Environmental Integrity Project analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated that the plant produced 5 million pounds of coal ash per year, which is released from the plant as part of its wastewater, discharged at a rate of up to 11.5 million gallons per day. Since the plant opened that effluent has been stored in a 321-acre "surface impoundment", or "ash pond" to the south of generation facility. The unlined impoundment at Plant Miller was designed to hold up to 22 million cubic yards, and is impounded from the nearby waterways by dykes built of clay, soil and rock. In 2015 Alabama Power reported that the ash pond was at just over 80% capacity.
Coal ash which can contain concentrations of arsenic, beryllium, lead, radium, and selenium — all of which are toxic pollutants if released into streams and groundwater resources. The practice was relatively unregulated prior to a massive spill which occurred in 2008 at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Kingston, Tennessee. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published new rules regarding coal ash storage, under which ash pond operators were required to closely monitor and report groundwater contamination using test wells. Most utilities also made plans to change over to dry handling and storage of coal ash to comply with the stricter regulations. Alabama Power began de-watering their coal ash ponds in 2020 following procedures approved by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. In 2023 the EPA proposed to find that those approved procedures did not adequately protect against harmful pollution.
Greenhouse gas emissions by year
- 2006: 23,487,259 tons
- 2010: 40,569,000 tons
- 2015: 19,247,050 tons
- 2020: 19 million tons
- 2021: 20,998,639 tons (16,529,796 tons CO2)
- 2022: 21.8 million tons
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (April 25, 2007) "Alabama Power Company to Spend More Than $200 Million Under Clean Air Act Settlement". News release.
- Environmental Integrity Project (July 2007) Dirty Kilowatts: America's Most Polluting Power Plants.
- Southern Company Services (2007) "History of Construction for Existing CCR Surface Impoundment: Miller Steam Plant Ash Pond." alabamapower.com - accessed August 7, 2023
- Spencer, Thomas (January 6, 2012) "Jefferson County plant disposes most toxic ash in US." The Birmingham News
- Chaney, Eric & Elizabeth Hernandez (June 5, 2017) "The Worst Greenhouse Polluter in America and the Place that Relies on It". Center for Public Integrity / Weather.com
- Pillion, Dennis (June 5, 2017) "Alabama coal plant listed as largest greenhouse gas emitter in the country." The Birmingham News
- Pillion, Dennis (March 2, 2018) "Alabama Power fined $1.25 million over coal ash ponds." The Birmingham News
- Pillion, Dennis (March 22, 2018) "Alabama's proposed coal ash plan has too many loopholes, critics say." The Birmingham News
- Thornton, William (February 26, 2021) "Alabama coal plant again listed as top greenhouse gas emitter in the country." The Birmingham News
- Pillion, Dennis (December 6, 2022) "Alabama coal plant still the largest greenhouse gas emitter in United States." AL.com
- Pillion, Dennis (August 3, 2023) "EPA rejects Alabama coal ash plan; utilities could be forced to dig out massive ponds." AL.com
- James H. Miller, Jr Electric Generating Plant overview at alabamapower.com