In its fight to keep a larger portion of the Southeast green and asphalt-free, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has discovered that its battle isn’t solely being waged in court.
The nonprofit environmental legal advocacy group has suffered a recent cyber attack at its national headquarters in Charlottesville,Virginia, and locally has been the subject of a video parody making rounds on the Internet as well as a marketing campaign painting the organization as “job killers.”
While rhetoric of this sort isn’t new, given what’s at stake in the continuous and contentious battle between environmentalism and development, it has left SELC officials wondering whether the attacks flow from an organized and determined campaign to undermine its efforts.
“We don’t know how all this is connected, if it’s connected,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the SELC’s office in Birmingham. “It’s all so very coincidental.”
For the past 25 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used its partnership with environmental groups and government officials to halt development, strengthen environmental laws and policies, preserve valuable undisturbed land and waterways and make air in the Southeast region cleaner to breathe.
Among its triumphs: halting the nearly $600 million “Road to Nowhere” which would have cut a path through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; winning a U.S. Supreme Court decision that forced coal-burning power plants to install more modern pollution controls to curb emissions; and preserving the winter habitat of North America’s tundra swan and geese population by opposing a U.S. Navy flight-training center in North Carolina.
The SELC has a team of nearly 50 attorneys in its Capitol Hill office as well as offices in Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The organization doesn’t charge its clients for their services and relies heavily on donations.
Along with its many victories, it has collected many enemies as well. The group is in a constant battle with pro-economic development groups and corporations who believe SELC exaggerates its claims, is against growth and progress and is keeping Americans from much-needed jobs.
And its opponents aren’t necessarily recognizable corporations like Duke Energy or state departments of transportation that find themselves and their projects at odds with SELC.
Earlier this month (in October), a hacker accessed the SELC’s computer system, obtained confidential medical, credit card and donor information and published it online. The SELC immediately reported the “major Internet security breach” to the FBI, which is currently investigating the matter, and asking anyone who received an email regarding the information to delete it and not open any links.
Although a suspect has not been identified, a spokesperson said the center believes the cyber attack is an attempt to undermine its environmental protection efforts throughout the Southeast.
Johnston said the organization has no idea who is behind the cyber attack and won’t lay it at the feet of its legal opponents. “We don’t know who was behind the hacking,” he said.
On the local level, SELC has its hands full with the Northern Beltline project, a proposal Johnston said is the most important environmental issue the group has faced in Alabama.
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) plans to build a 52-mile, six-lane highway, moving counter-clockwise from northeast Jefferson County to a southwestern point at I-59 South and I-459 near McCalla. The project is expected to cost about $5 billion and cut through acres of undisturbed land. Northern Beltline supporters hail it as the economic boost the region needs.
“Construction of the Northern Beltline will create thousands of construction jobs now, and it will lead to significant economic growth in Jefferson County,” said Patrick Cagle, executive director for JobKeeper Alliance, a Montgomery-based nonprofit group whose goal is to keep and protect high-paying jobs.
“There are no other transportation infrastructure projects that can create this many jobs or grow the economy to the extent that the Northern Beltline will.” The project has the backing of the alliance as well as the Coalition for Regional Transportation.
SELC, in conjunction with Black Warrior Riverkeeper, has sued ALDOT in a federal court in Montgomery, claiming the state transportation department has not completed environmental impact studies for the entire project as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
ALDOT’s spokesman Tony Harris did not return calls for this article.
The goal of the environmental groups appears to go beyond federal mandates and regulations to stopping the project completely. “We are entirely opposed to the Northern Beltline for not just environmental reasons but for many other reasons,” said Nelson Brooke, a spokesman for the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on keeping the Black Warrior River clean.
Those reasons including preventing the state from wasting billions of dollars and diverting tax dollars from needed road projects in other, more suitable areas for development, Brooke added. The beltline would cross 17 tributaries of the Black Warrior River and impact drinking water and marine and animal life throughout Jefferson County, Brooke said. It will also cause major runoff issues as asphalt replaces land and hotels, restaurants, and gas stations spring up around the beltway, he said.
JobKeeper Alliance has fought back with a marketing and informational campaign of its own.
The group distributed postcards and produced a radio ad “in an effort to inform citizens of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s ongoing efforts to block construction of the Northern Beltline in an attempt to advance their anti-growth agenda,” Cagle said. “The message in our ads explained what will happen if the SELC succeeds in stopping the Beltline. Our ads were entirely factual and necessary to make the distinction between what SELC calls the ‘real’ issue and what the group is actually trying to accomplish by opposing 13 road and bridge projects in five states.”
The postcards, which direct residents to www.StopBlockingTheBeltline.org, refer to those opposed to the beltline as “job killers” and “activist lawyers.” Johnston takes exception to the language. “They’re resorting to name calling,” he said. “They’re not debating the issue, which is the validity of spending $5 billion on a road that has no need.”
Cagle said the terms fit and Alabamians should know what’s at stake. He said SELC tries “to use our courts to change legislatively determined policy that does not align with their ideological preferences. The lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center is an attempt to advance the group’s ideological preference, which seeks to prevent new growth from occurring in undeveloped areas.”
There has been an anonymous campaign launched to undermine SELC’s mission with respect to the Northern Beltline.
A parody video circulating on the Internet takes shots at the SELC as a group of tree hugging, know-it-all, job killing lawyers who know what’s best for the citizens of Alabama. It even plays on Southern sensibilities of being talked down to by outsiders.
“Protecting Alabamians from themselves is not always easy. That’s why we depend on the sympathy of smart people from San Francisco to help us do the job,” the 90-second video states. “In fact, San Francisco has funneled tens of thousands of outside dollars into the Heart of Dixie so we can continue our radical work to keep business costs high and job creation low.”
Johnston said he doesn’t know who authored the video and calls its claims ridiculous.
Cagle said JobKeeper Alliance doesn’t need to hide behind anonymous videos. It has been open in its opposition to SELC’s efforts.
“Our organization has absolutely nothing to do with this video,” he said. “Our organization has not, and will not, produce or circulate anonymous materials of any kind.”
In a press conference earlier this month, representatives from JobKeeper Alliance, the Birmingham Business Alliance and Coalition for Regional Transportation blasted SELC and Black Warrior Riverkeeper for tying up the Northern Beltline project in court.
Mike Thompson, CRT chairman, lamented the delays.
“We’ve worked for 36 months, meeting with ALDOT, and it keeps getting pushed back further and further,” he said in a quote from an AL.com story. “We thought this road would start two years ago.”
The project has yet to start, but the rhetoric in this high-stakes game of environmental protectionism and economic development has only just begun.