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House Minority Leader Craig Ford’s Response to the State of the State Address (Transcript)

Craig Ford

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by House Minority Leader Craig Ford
Good Evening. I’m Craig Ford, and I am proud to represent the people of Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Tonight, I have the honor of giving the Democratic response to the State of the State address.

We just heard the governor talk about the condition of our state. And to his credit, the governor and his administration have had to deal with some of the most difficult times Alabama has faced since the Great Depression.

But when we look at the results of their policies over the past three years, it’s clear that their strategy isn’t working.

We also heard the governor present a vision for our future.

We agree with the governor that our priorities should be to create more jobs, give every child in Alabama access to a quality education, make government as efficient and cost effective as possible, and to do these things without raising taxes or cutting essential government services.

But where Alabama Democrats and the Republican Supermajority in Montgomery disagree is on how we achieve these goals.

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Let’s start with job creation.

Alabama’s economy has been on life support for far too long.  In the last fiscal year, we only added 300 jobs to our economy.

Our job growth has been stagnant because we are losing jobs almost as fast as we can create them.

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You have heard the governor talk about the state’s unemployment rate dropping. But that drop didn’t happen because we created jobs. The unemployment rate dropped because Alabamians are falling out of the workforce and are no longer being counted by the government.

Today, Alabama is ranked 49th in the country for job creation, and we are one of just five states to have our economy shrink over the past year.

Clearly, what we are doing is not working.

But the news isn’t all bad, and it’s not too late to get our economy back on track.

In November, we learned that as many as 4,000 skilled labor positions could become available in Southwest Alabama alone over the next year. And with more Alabamians of the baby boom generation preparing to enter retirement, there will be the potential for thousands of jobs opening in our economy in the coming years.

That is why it is essential that we invest in educating our workforce to do these jobs. Nobody works harder or has a better work ethic than the people of Alabama. But we have to give them the tools they need to be successful.

To do that, Democrats will propose a package of legislation that will provide more funding for workforce development training and scholarships for dual enrollment so that high school students can learn a trade or get a head start on their college degree.

Vocational training is essential to the future of our state. It can give those who can’t afford or are not interested in a four-year degree a chance to get the education and skills they need to get a good job and make their dreams come true.

Education and job creation go hand-in-hand. If we want to bring jobs to Alabama, we must have a workforce that is ready to do those jobs. That is why it is so important that every child in Alabama has access to a quality education.

But over the past three years, our public schools have been under constant attack by the Alabama legislature. And there has been no greater assault on our schools than what the Republicans call the Accountability Act.

The Accountability Act was sold to the public as a tool to give kids a choice in where they go to school. But fewer than half as many kids transferred schools this year under the Accountability Act than did the year before. In fact, only 52 kids in the entire state have transferred to a private school under the Accountability Act.

To pay for the tax credits provided by the Accountability Act, Republican legislators cut the state’s education budget this year by $40 million, which means that every public school in Alabama – from Madison and Marhsall Counties to Montgomery and Mobile – has lost funding regardless of how successful that school has been.

And even though only 52 kids qualified for the tax credits under the Accountability Act, our public schools still lost that $40 million this year because the Republicans in the Alabama legislature chose to cut that much from the budget regardless of how many kids would participate in the tax credits.

Now more than half of that $40 million has been given away, not as tax credits for the kids transferring schools, but as tax credits to corporations and people who donated to scholarship granting organizations, even though these organizations have no one to give their scholarships to.

The Accountability Act was written without input from a single teacher or school administrator, which makes about as much sense as refusing to talk to a doctor before treating an illness. Even the state’s Superintendent of Education – who is appointed by the governor – was kept in the dark while the Accountability Act was being written.

But educators were not the only ones left out. The public was also deceived.

Republican legislators knew the Accountability Act would not pass if the public knew what it would do to our schools and had a chance to contact their legislators before it could come up for a vote.

So state leaders waited until a non-controversial school flexibility bill was passed by the House and Senate, and then went behind closed doors away from the public and the media, and replaced that bill with the Accountability Act. Then they sent it back to the legislature where it was only debated for one hour before being voted into law.

For all these reasons and more, the Accountability Act has clearly been a failure. And that is why Democrats will propose legislation to repeal the Accountability Act and use the money that is leftover to expand the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.

Our goal should be to improve schools, not to abandon them. Telling people to pack up and leave is not a solution, and it does nothing to help those kids who can’t leave.

Instead, we should invest in what we know works, like pre-k education, the Alabama Reading Initiative, and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative. These programs are proven to work, and should be implemented in every school system in the state.

In addition to the Accountability Act, our schools have been hurt by the loss of more than 6,000 educators, including the loss of 2,000 teachers. This has demoralized our educators and led to overcrowding in our classrooms.

Alabama is also one of only seven states that does not have a state lottery to help fund education. Every year, Alabama loses more than $250 million to neighboring states that do have a lottery. It has been 15 years since the last time we had a vote on a state lottery, and I believe it is time we let the people decide this issue once and for all.

That is why I will be introducing legislation this year to create a lottery that will provide scholarships for students who maintain As and Bs in school, and will also provide a resource officer for every public school in the state.

There is nothing more important than our children’s safety, and putting a resource officer in every school is a big step in the right direction.

The governor has also talked about pay raises for educators. Our educators have not had a cost of living pay increase since 2007. Three years ago, Republican legislators voted to cut educators’ pay by two-and-a-half percent. Last year, the legislature gave some educators 2 percent back, though many educators and none of our state employees received any pay increase.

The result is that educators, state employees and retirees are still making less today than they were three years ago. That is why Democrats will push for a 6 percent pay increase for our educators, state employees and retirees.

The education budget will have enough money to afford these raises without having to raise additional revenue. However, the state’s general fund budget is in serious trouble.

The biggest issue in the general fund budget is the $100 million hole in the Medicaid budget. Alabama’s Medicaid program is one of the most efficient Medicaid programs in the country, but it is struggling to get by after significant cuts over the past three years.

Medicaid is critical to our economy and our healthcare industry. Seventy percent of payments to nursing homes come from Medicaid, while pediatricians and family doctors across the state depend on Medicaid to pay for vital services their patients rely on.

But for the past three years we have struggled to keep Medicaid from collapsing.

There are no simple or easy solutions to the shortfall in the general fund budget. But raising the cigarette tax by $1 will generate $230 million annually for the general fund budget. That funding would shore up the $100 million hole in Medicaid and still leave enough for the pay raise for state employees and retirees.

But even with that additional revenue, the General Fund budget will still be in trouble until our economy begins to turn around. That is why it is so important that our state government operate as efficiently as possible. But being efficient does not just mean making budget cuts.

Over the past three years, state leaders have made drastic cuts to our state budgets. Education funding has gone down by more than 20 percent, while the governor has claimed to save the state a billion dollars through budget cuts.

But these cuts are coming at a heavy cost to Alabama’s families. Of the billion dollars the governor claims to be saving the state, more than $872 million is being saved by eliminating thousands of jobs, by cutting pay and by reducing health and retirement benefits that thousands of families depend on.

The governor calls this “right-sizing” government. But how has this made the government more efficient or cost effective?

Rather than making government more efficient, these cuts are making government less efficient by overloading state agencies that no longer have the staff to meet the public’s needs. The result has been that our courts are backlogged, many of our roads and bridges are in desperate need of repair, and our law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are dangerously underfunded. And that’s just a few of the consequences from “right-sizing” government.

Four years ago, our state leaders were elected on a platform of change. A lot has certainly changed since then, but it has not been the change the voters were hoping for.

Job growth has been stagnant. Our public schools have been under constant attack. Every year our Medicaid program is in danger of collapsing. And our state leaders seem to be out of solutions.

But there is a way to get Alabama back on track. If we support our public schools and expand our vocational and workforce development training programs, we can give our workers and future generations the tools they need to get good paying jobs and achieve their dreams. This will also help us recruit more business to Alabama, and help existing businesses expand.

We must also dedicate ourselves to supporting our public schools instead of working against them. We need to treat our educators like professionals, instead of treating them like they are the enemy. We need to repeal the Accountability Act and put our tax dollars back into our schools where they belong.

Alabama is not where we want it to be. But we can get there. I encourage the governor and legislative leaders to use this legislative session as an opportunity to invest in the people of Alabama. We share the same goals. Let’s work together to achieve them.

Thank you for listening. May God bless you. May god bless America. And may God bless the great state of Alabama.

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Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden. He has served as the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives since 201

Rep. Craig Ford is an Independent who represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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Opinion | Former Sen. Brewbaker supports Montgomery tax referendum 

If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.

Dick L. Brewbaker

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(STOCK PHOTO)

I am in full support of the property tax referendum on the ballot this November. That may surprise some people because I have been critical of the performance of the Montgomery County Public School System in the past.

Until recently, student performance has generally been poor, financial management has been historically problematic, and there have been real and persistent problems with transparency. New Board leadership has worked hard to address these issues in a real way, but there is still work to be done.

However, whether we are talking about cars or public education, there is such a thing as trying to buy too cheap. Montgomery has been paying the legal minimum in property tax support for decades. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone that our schools’ quality reflects our financial commitment to them.

Yes, it’s true that more money isn’t always the answer, but it’s also true that money is part of the answer. Sometimes the bare minimum isn’t enough, and this is one of those times.

Most people who vote on this referendum will not have children currently attending MPS. If you are one of those people, vote yes anyway.

Our public school population is declining because many young couples with children are leaving our city because they know their children can get a better education elsewhere.

This loss of young parents will eventually kill this city. We have got to turn the schools around before Montgomery’s tax base is eroded beyond repair. Whether you have kids in the system or not, if you care about your local tax burden or the value of your property, it’s time to vote ‘yes.’

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Need another reason to vote yes? Ok, here’s one:  Montgomery will eventually lose both our USAF bases if we don’t show the Air Force we are serious about improving our failing schools. Already less than half of the airmen stationed in Montgomery bring their families with them.

Many military families view MPS as so low quality that they won’t subject their children to them. If we don’t fix our schools, sooner or later we will lose Maxwell and Gunter. If you don’t believe that would be an economic nightmare for our city, ask around.

At the end of the day, passing this referendum is not only a vote to help children succeed, but also a vote to save the city in which we all live. It’s ok to be hopeful, it’s ok to be optimistic even about the future of Montgomery and its schools.

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If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.

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Opinion | FEMA’s Hurricane Sally response

So, how has FEMA performed in responding to Hurricane Sally? So far, pretty darn well.

Bradley Byrne

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Most people in Alabama have heard of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Its name is a little misleading because emergencies by their nature aren’t so much managed as responded to, often after the fact. You can’t manage a tornado or an earthquake, for example, but you can and should respond to it.

Hurricanes are facts of life down here and nearly every part of our state, not just the coast, have been affected in some way by at least one. We can prepare for hurricanes and guard against the worst consequences and that starts with each of us as individuals, family members and citizens doing our part to be prepared to protect and take care of ourselves, family members and neighbors. Alabamians are actually pretty good at doing that.

But, there is also a role for governments at all levels. Local governments actually play the most important public role because they are closest to the people of their areas and have the first responders already employed and trained to take care of the needs of local residents during the period running up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the storm. State governments manage the preparations before the storm and provide the support local governments need afterward to do their jobs. The federal government supports the state and local efforts, which typically means providing the lion’s share of the money needed, anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent of the costs. So there’s not one emergency management agency involved in responding to hurricanes but three, corresponding to each level of government.

The day before Hurricane Sally hit, I was individually briefed by the Director of the National Hurricane Center Ken Graham, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor and Coast Guard officials. That same day I went to the White House and made sure we had a good line of communication in case we needed help, which looked likely at the time. I have to say, the White House was immediately responsive and has continued to be so.

How has FEMA handled the federal response to Hurricane Sally? When the state of Alabama requested a pre-storm disaster declaration, which triggers federal financial support for preparations and response during the storm, FEMA and the White House gave the okay in just a few hours. On that day before when I spoke with the White House, I asked them to send FEMA Administrator Gaynor to my district as soon as possible once the storm cleared to see the damage and meet with local officials. He came three days after the storm and spent several hours touring the damage with me and meeting with local leaders. When the state of Alabama requested a post-storm declaration, triggering federal financial support for public and individual assistance, FEMA and the White House responded affirmatively in less than 48 hours – record time.

Public assistance is federal financial support for the costs to state and local governments as a result of a storm. This includes water bottles and meals ready to eat for locally requested points of distribution, debris removal and cleanup costs (think of the large tandem trucks picking up debris piled up on the right of way), as well as the costs to repair damage to public buildings and infrastructure like roads and bridges, and in the case of Sally damage to the Port of Mobile.

Individual assistance, as the label states, goes to individuals affected by the storm. Private assistance won’t pay something you have insurance for, but it does pay for a variety of losses, particularly having to do with an individual’s home. So far 60,000 Alabamans have applied for individual assistance and already FEMA has approved $42 million. If you haven’t applied for individual assistance there’s still time for you to do so online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or if you need help in applying call FEMA’s Helpline at 1-800-621-3362. If you have applied for individual assistance and have been denied, appeal the decision because frequently the denial is simply because the applicant didn’t include all the needed information.

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Many people were flooded by Sally and over 3,000 of them have made claims to the National Flood Insurance Program. Over $16 million has already been paid out on those claims. The Small Business Administration has approved over a thousand home loans to people with storm losses, totaling over $40 million, and many more loan applications are still pending.

So, how has FEMA performed in responding to Hurricane Sally? So far, pretty darn well. I want to thank FEMA Administrator Gaynor for coming down here so quickly after the storm and for FEMA’s quick and positive responses to all our requests. And I want to thank President Trump for his concern and quick response to Alabama’s requests for disaster declarations. Hurricane Sally was a brutal experience for us in Alabama, but FEMA’s response shows that government can do good things, helping people and communities when they really need it.

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Opinion | An inspirational pick

Many progressives, it seems, claim to believe in the power of women, but only for women who think and talk like they do.

Govs. Kay Ivey, Kristi Noem and Kim Reynolds

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President Donald Trump, left, and his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. (WHITE HOUSE PHOTO)

A century ago, the Suffragettes finally succeeded in winning the right to vote for women. They would be thrilled to see the nomination of a woman so uniquely qualified to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court as Judge Amy Coney Barrett, were they alive today. It’s easy to imagine them storming the streets of America and urging that Judge Barrett be confirmed, and by a wide margin.

After all, the four female justices nominated before her were confirmed with lopsided votes by the U.S. Senate: 99-0 for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 68-31 for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 63-37 for Justice Elena Kagan and 96-3 for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Sadly, it speaks to the times in which we are living that Judge Barrett’s vote by the Senate will most likely come down to a tight vote, with nearly every Democrat opposing her nomination.

As governors who are either the first or second females to be elected in our respective states, we are rightfully proud to see diversity expand among the highest levels of government. Notably, however, our support for Judge Barrett hinges not on her being a female, but rather her superior intellect, unflappable composure and impeccable integrity, all which combine to make her eminently qualified in every way. 

Regretfully, we know – as do many others – that the climb for women into the upper echelon of American leadership has always been a bit steeper. After all, when was the last time a man’s haircut, the color of his tie or suit or the number of children in his family were scrutinized as part of the public discourse?

It is bittersweet that Judge Barrett followed her father’s advice that she could do anything her male counterparts could do, only better, and yet, sadly, millions of women appear to oppose her nomination simply because she interprets the law as-written, rather than siding with them on every issue. Is this the new standard for qualification?  

Many progressives, it seems, claim to believe in the power of women, but only for women who think and talk like they do.

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We applaud President Trump for choosing Judge Amy Coney Barrett for service on our nation’s highest court; she may well be one of the most qualified, extraordinary picks during the past century, and we urge the United States Senate to confirm her nomination in short order.

We especially like the direct answers Judge Barrett provided to two of the Senate Judiciary Committee members who questioned her last week. 

When Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, suggested that Judge Barrett would vote in the same manner as the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative for whom she had clerked earlier in her career, she calmly responded, “I assure you I have my own mind.” 

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And when the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, asked her whether she believed that Medicare was unconstitutional, she cited the “Ginsburg Rule,” so named for the late justice she will be following, of providing “no hints, no previews, no forecasts.”

Perhaps one of the most powerful witnesses to speak in support of Judge Barrett was her former law student at Notre Dame, Laura Wolk. 

Ms. Wolk is totally blind, but before pursuing the “impossible dream” of becoming the first blind law clerk at the Supreme Court last year, she was struggling with her classwork as a first-year law student, fearful of failing. 

Laura recalled, “Judge Barrett leaned forward and looked at me intently. ‘Laura,’ she said, with the same measured conviction that we have seen displayed throughout her entire nomination process, ‘this is no longer your problem. It’s my problem.’”

Ms. Wolk went on to say that Judge Barrett helped her see a pathway to success.  She said the Judge will “serve this country with distinction not only because of her intellectual prowess, but also because of her compassionate heart and her years of treating others as equals deserving of complete respect.”

When Judge Barrett raises her right hand to take the oath to “administer justice without respect to persons” and to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” it will be a win-win for every female – young and old alike during the past 100 years – who has dreamed of seeing women advance to the top positions of our government. 

Moreover, it will be a signal to every little girl – and boy – that the most qualified individual will get the job.

Governors Kay Ivey of Alabama, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kim Reynolds of Iowa authored this column.

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Opinion | Hearings give public opportunity to weigh in on coal ash plans

ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Lance LeFleur

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The mission of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is to ensure for all Alabamians “a safe, healthful and productive environment.” It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.

Ensuring a safe, healthful and productive environment means more than simply being the environmental cop, though that certainly is part of ADEM’s job. When the Alabama Legislature passed legislation in 1982 that led to the creation of ADEM, lawmakers’ intent was for the agency to promote public health and well-being.

The term “healthful” in ADEM’s mission statement speaks directly to that. ADEM’s work is to contribute to the health of Alabama’s environment and the health of all Alabamians.

An example of that work is managing the process that will determine how coal combustion residuals (CCR) – or coal ash – are dealt with in a safe and effective manner. Managing CCR promotes a healthful environment by protecting our land and water.

On Oct. 20, ADEM will hold the first of a series of public hearings on permits drafted by ADEM to require electric utilities to safely close unlined coal ash ponds at their power plants and remediate any contaminated groundwater. The hearings, and the comment periods leading up to them, give the public the chance to provide ADEM input on the requirements in the draft permits.

To understand how we got to this point today, let’s go back to Dec. 22, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. On that frigid night, the containment dike surrounding massive ponds holding decades worth of CCR produced by the coal-burning TVA power plant collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of land.

That spill drew the attention of regulators and the nation to the issue of coal ash storage, for which there was little regulation at the time. It also started the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the road to adopting a federal CCR rule, which took effect in 2015. The Alabama Environmental Management Commission approved a state CCR rule in 2018, patterned after the EPA rule.

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The rules address two primary issues: closing coal ash ponds to avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.

Both the EPA and state rules give the electric utility operators two options in closing the ash ponds. One allowable method is to excavate the millions of tons of coal ash and either move the coal ash to a lined landfill or find an approved beneficial use for the ash. The other is to cap in place, where an impervious cover, or cap, is placed over the ash impoundment. Both methods have been used successfully for decades to close some of the most contaminated sites in the nation.

It must be emphasized that the closure method selection is made by the utilities, as allowed by both federal and state rules. Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth all elected to utilize the cap-in-place option.

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The permits will also set out the steps to be taken to clean up contaminated groundwater caused by the coal ash ponds. ADEM’s job, in its environmental oversight role, is to ensure the closure and groundwater remediation plans proposed by the utilities and included in the permits meet federal and state standards and protect both waterways and groundwater. The permits provide for regular monitoring to confirm the closure and cleanup plans are being implemented as required. If necessary, the plans will be adjusted to ensure the intended results are being achieved.

Currently, ADEM has scheduled public hearings on the permits for three Alabama Power plants. The first is Oct. 20 for Plant Miller in Jefferson County, followed by Oct. 22 for Plant Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County. Permits for the other five sites in Alabama are in development, and hearings will be scheduled when they are complete.

The purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits. This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plans(including the CCR unit closure component) and answer residents’ questions.

The draft permits, the hearings’ dates, locations and times and other information are available on ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov. The public can also mail or email comments related to the permits, including the closure plans and groundwater remediation plans, directly to ADEM during the proposed permits’ 35-day minimum comment periods, which will run one week past the date of the public hearings. Those comments will be considered in the decisions to issue the permits, and ADEM will provide a response to each issue raised.

For maximum protection of the environment, ADEM encouraged the power companies to go beyond the minimum requirements of the state and federal CCR rules. ADEM’s scientists and engineers who analyzed the plans through an exhaustive review and revision process determined the final plans provide the environmental protections Alabamians expect and deserve. But we want to hear from the public.

Certainly, there are pros and cons of each option in closing the coal ash ponds. The daunting task of cleaning up contaminated groundwater will be undertaken regardless of which closure method is utilized. As one opinion writer recently said, there is no easy answer to the coal ash problem. But this is a matter we cannot duck. We must deal with our coal combustion residuals – by EPA requirement and for the sake of our environment.

Here’s what you can count on from your state agency charged with protecting your environment. ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Ensuring that is our mission.

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