11-Nov-2005 -- I had been in Mobile, Alabama, all week for the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) conference. Over 650 people at the conference were interpreters of flora, fauna, climate, landforms, human-environment interaction, archaeology, and other subjects in state and national parks, museums, and elsewhere. In addition, as I would the next day co-teach a GPS-topographic mapping workshop at the conference with my USGS colleague, a confluence trek seemed particularly appropriate. Earlier in the day, I had visited 31 North 87 West, and on my way back to Mobile, decided to make a run for 31 North 88 West. I knew fully from reading the previous accounts what I would be getting into.
After driving southwest along Interstate Highway 65, I crossed the point where the Alabama River winds toward Mobile Bay. Rather than "point," it is better described as an immense wetland over 20 km across. From here, ships can move all of the way to the Ohio River through a series of locks and waterways. The confluence backs up to this immense wetland. I drove north on US Highway 43 past a series of heavy industries such as equipment manufacturers and chemical plants, the likes of which we really don't have that much in Colorado, where I live. I turned into the main gate of Alabama Power and drove past thick woods to the Main Security gate.
I arrived at the Main Security gate at 3pm local time. It was quite busy with employees getting off work for the day, and delivery trucks appearing. I expected to be waved off, and indeed, at one point, the Chief asked if I could return the next day. I showed various forms of identification as I spoke with the Security Chief. While he checked the security monitors and spoke with numerous people by telephone, we had a conversation about the need for national and plant-level security that was sobering but also very enlightening. Many grounds of heavy industry are wildlife sanctuaries, and this was no exception. He told me about the wide variety of wildlife that live here.
After about 25 minutes, a security officer appeared, and the Security Chief briefed him on my goal. I received permission to take photographs as long as they did not include any of the buildings. I boarded the truck driven by the security officer, and we were off to the east, driving around the main power plant and to the northwest to the piles of coal that had been offloaded from barges on Mobile Bay. I asked if a road existed to the southeast, and we drove around that side of the power plant, underneath electrical lines, and out onto a road that bounded a marsh.
This road indeed led to the southeast, straight toward the confluence, but skirting it to the west. We came within 280 meters of the confluence on this road, but having no place to turn around, drove to 500 meters away, and then back again. We stopped at the 280-meter point and I took photographs and the video, careful to avoid taking any of buildings. The confluence lies in the marsh, which is being filled in with ash left after the coal is burned. I also spotted a sign for an asbestos dump here. The skies were clear; the temperature stood at a very pleasant 24 C (75 F) as the sun was sinking low.
We then drove on the road that bounded the marsh to the northeast, but only came within 500 meters of the confluence on this side. My 280-meter distance was going to have to stand. This confluence taught me that there are limits that even I, confluence enthusiast that I am, hold dear. I have no doubt that the previous visitors are suffering no ill effects of wading out into the coal ash-asbestos filled swamp, but I did not want to endanger my health and ruin my clothes. I was content to let my visit rest. In addition, I knew I was taking the security officer away from his regular duties; he did not offer to wait there while I waded into the swamp.
I thought about the other times I had been to 31 North--today at noon just one degree to the east, and the times I had been to 88 West: In Illinois and in Michigan. We drove past the barge unloading point on the way back, and through a car wash that cleaned the coal dust off our our vehicle. I expressed my thanks to the Security Chief when we returned to the Security Office.
I left the way I came in, back to Highway 43. Once there, I took a photograph of the sign for Alabama Power. I could have taken a photo of the power plant from the main highway, but I had given my word not to take any photographs of buildings, and I would honor it.
As I reflected on my visit to the power plant and grounds, I thought about the recent book I had written called Essentials of the Environment. While everyone at Alabama Power impressed me with their work ethic, one has to think about what we are doing to the environment by burning coal. People think usually about air pollution, mining, and such, but one also should think about the grounds of the power plants themselves. There are better ways to make electricity, and it is up to us to make them economically feasible.