As the 40th Earth Day passed this week, it might be reasonable for Alabamians to ponder the question: Exactly what is the actual state of the environment — close to home, that is?
Local activists cheer what they see as positive developments, but seem to find much more work that needs to be done in “Alabama the Beautiful.”
Last week, for instance, two organizations concerned about the environment, the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), applauded Gov. Robert Bentley’s decision to move forward with a statewide water management plan in conjunction with state agencies and nonprofit interest groups.
“After years of advocating for a comprehensive water plan to strengthen Alabama’s position for negotiating the water needs of local communities, businesses and ecosystems, we support the Governor’s decision to move ahead with the report,” said Mitch Reid of Alabama Rivers Alliance. “This is a crucial step toward protecting the streams, rivers and lakes that provide for this great state.”
The report, which outlines progress so far toward the comprehensive water plan, relates to decades of conflict between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over usage of water that benefits all three states. Until now, Alabama was the only state among the contesting parties without a comprehensive water plan.
The recommendations for the Alabama plan “include implementing a robust stakeholder process that brings all water users to the table, decreasing reliance on expensive, large-scale projects like reservoirs and dams that severely disrupt the ecological balance of rivers and streams in favor of improved conservation and efficiency efforts, and implementing flow standards to better protect the rivers and streams as well as all water users throughout the watersheds,” the SELC and ARA said in a joint statement.
So as far as that plan goes, environmentalists think the state is moving in the right direction.
But on Monday, as Earth Day approached, the same SELC joined with Black Warrior Riverkeeper to issue a very different joint statement, one taking a dim view of the state highway department’s moving forward with an undertaking they expect to have detrimental effects on the local environment: the Northern Beltline. The occasion was a groundbreaking for the first phase of the highway, projected to be the most expensive highway ever built in Alabama at 52 miles long, six lanes, nearly $105 million per mile.
“To continue investing in an unnecessary road that will cross and permanently alter streams and wetlands in 125 places, impacting two major sources of local drinking water, is nothing to celebrate,” said Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “Today’s event is merely a distraction from the fact that the Northern Beltline remains a wasteful and destructive diversion from the Birmingham area’s pressing transportation needs, such as the I-59/20 upgrade and major traffic issues on I-65 and Highway 280.”
The statement goes on to say that ALDOT has not stated exactly how the Beltline will be paid for — beyond the initial, less than two-mile stretch of the road.
“This is particularly problematic in the wake of an announcement this week that the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which Alabama relies on to fund transportation projects all over the state, is projected to run out of money in four months,” the joint statement said.
“The lack of funding to get this project from start to finish — much less fund Birmingham’s other transportation needs — further illustrates that the Beltline is a bad idea for the region and a poor investment for the taxpayers,” said Gil Rogers, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Not only is this project needlessly damaging the Black Warrior and Cahaba River watersheds, but its $5.4-billion price tag would use all of Alabama’s federal funding for much needed road improvements and maintenance projects around the state. Other states are sensibly shelving large projects that are far less costly than the Beltline in the face of economic realities.”
SELC has filed federal court lawsuits on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper in opposition to the Northern Beltline. One suit, filed in 2011, contends that the agencies behind the Beltline have “failed to provide a necessary analysis of alternative transportation investments as required by law, and to justify the environmental impacts and tremendous economic cost of the Beltline.”
The other suit, filed in 2013, also took aim at potential harm to the environment. That suit challenges a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow the first phase of the Beltline’s construction, alleging, among other things, that authorities have failed to follow the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Both lawsuits remain open cases.
But the Northern Beltline is not the only environmental concern on the minds of local activists. Alan Gurganus, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, says that Alabamians need to take the next step before recycling begins to really pay off.
After touting the AEC’s consumer-searchable database of recycling locations around the state, Gurganus said, “An important aspect of recycling that often gets overlooked is the idea of buying recycled and recyclable consumer goods. If you think about it, it’s a bit pointless to recycle unless we make an effort to close the loop by purchasing goods made from post-consumer recycled materials. Fortunately, in Alabama, we have at least 26 manufacturers that rely on recycled-content feedstock to make their consumer goods.”
Citing the “negative environmental and climate impacts of electrical production,” Gurganus said, “We all should pay attention to how we use energy … [W]e should make sure that we are conservation-minded and use it as efficiently as possible. An energy audit can show us ways to save energy and money in our homes and businesses, as well as help us to live more comfortably in our space. Many times, we can save as much as 25 percent with a few simple changes.”
Recycling and what to do with so much discarded material remains a hot topic for Pat Mitchell, the original Auntie Litter.
“As we celebrate Earth Day 2014, Alabamians need to consider the importance of living in a clean and healthy environment by protecting our land, water and air,” said Mitchell, executive director of Auntie Litter, Inc. “Each person can make a difference by taking pride in Alabama, practicing the environmental 3 Rs (reuse, reduce waste and recycle), conserving our natural resources, reducing car emissions and preventing litter! The end result will have a positive long-term effect on the health of our citizens and our natural resources for generations to come.”
Generations of poor residents in north Birmingham have been exposed to toxins in their environment — the air and the soil in places like Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont contaminated by nearby heavy industries. The result has been higher rates of cancer and respiratory ailments. That’s been a focus for GASP, the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Air Pollution, which produced a recent documentary on contamination in north Birmingham called Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret.
Michael Hansen, communications specialist for GASP, said that Earth Day should be a time for remembering that the most impoverished citizens are often those most exposed to unhealthy elements in the environment.
“As our society becomes more and more dependent on smart phones, social media and other modern technologies, it’s important not to become apathetic to and disengaged in the very real environmental concerns facing Alabamians today,” Hansen wrote. “As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’
“A study recently found a significant disparity between the quality of air that poor people and communities of color breathe compared to white people. In 2014, it’s unacceptable for economic status and skin color to be an indicator of your quality of life. Air pollution has significant health consequences — heart disease, lung cancer, asthma, COPD, childhood development, premature births, etc. People should be outraged that air pollution isn’t front and center in the conversation about economic development and public health, particularly in the Birmingham area, which has some of the dirtiest air in the nation.
“That’s something Alabamians should think hard about this Earth Day,” Hansen said, “and consider getting involved, just as Mead suggested. We all have the power to make a difference if we choose to do so.”
Just last month, GASP launched a pollution hotline “for Alabamians who live and/or work near toxic pollution sources, such as power plants and industrial facilities, to report complaints, especially as related to health issues,” as described on the GASP website. To access the hotline, call 1-866-581-GASP (4277). GASP pledges to forward all complaints to the Jefferson County Department of Health.
State agencies tend to paint a pretty picture — or at least a more positive one — of the state of Alabama’s environment. For instance, back in March, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) noted that every county in the state now complies with strict Environmental Protection Agency standards for air quality.
“Several areas of the state, particularly the Birmingham area, have historically not met the standards which limit fine particle concentrations. The areas having met today’s stringent standards is a result of local, state and federal emissions-limiting laws and regulations covering industry, vehicles and other sources of air pollutants,” ADEM notes on its website.
“Nationally, air quality standards have become more and more stringent over the years, and even though overall air quality in Alabama has constantly improved, the Department has been pursuing an ever-changing standard. Due to a lot of hard work by ADEM and other stakeholders, the State of Alabama has attained this current, more stringent air quality standard for all 67 counties.”
With so much unfinished business as far as activists and others are concerned, what is there to celebrate in this little section of Earth?
Earth Week events
Earth Day and Earth Week were celebrated by events throughout the community, including the indie rock band Earthbound’s outdoor concert called Earthbound’s Earthfest, held April 19 at Avondale Brewery and benefiting Black Warrior Riverkeeper.
The event gave Black Warrior Riverkeeper a forum for promoting its causes, including prevention of the proposed coal mine at Shepherd Bend, which is opposed by Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Avondale Brewery, the City of Birmingham and more than 100 other businesses and organizations. The coalition against the mine has sought to persuade the University of Alabama not to lease or sell land or mineral rights for the proposed mine.
On Earth Day proper, the Alabama Environmental Council’s 18th annual Green Tie Affair at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens featured music, food and drinks, and a sponsorship credit shared between the AEC, Star Recycling, Advanced Technology Recycling and a number of corporations. That event raised money for AEC programs statewide.
The AEC, along with authorities representing Jefferson County, Birmingham, Bessemer and the state agency which is the Jefferson County Health Department, will host a Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day on Saturday, April 26, from 8–11 a.m. at Legion Field’s McLendon Park, 400 Graymont Ave W.
“This is a zero landfill event for Jefferson County residents to safely recycle and dispose of paint, electronics, batteries, motor oil, ammunition, drugs, appliances and small engines,” Gurganus said. “A free paper shredding service will also be onsite.” More information can be found here.
What do you think?
What do you think of the environmental condition of the state of Alabama, and of Birmingham in particular? Let us know. Write to us at email@example.com or leave a comment below.