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Alabama Power to Close Coal Power Plants

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Friday, August 1, the Alabama Power Company announced that in response to heavy handed regulation by the federal government, they will close two coal generating units in North Alabama and reduce or eliminate coal power units at Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County.  Alabama Power’s announcement comes in response to a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule on greenhouse gases at existing power plants that would make the cost of retrofitting the old plants cost prohibitive.

Congressman Bradley Byrne (R) from Mobile issued a written statement following the announcement.  Representative Byrne said, “It is extremely alarming to learn that Alabama Power will be closing coal units in North Alabama and cutting down on operations at Barry Steam Plant in North Mobile County due to an ill-conceived rule from the EPA. Just earlier this week I joined my colleagues from the Congressional Coal Caucus to draw attention to the harmful effects the Obama administration’s new rule on existing power plants will have on coal production in America.”

Congressman Byrne said that he has repeatedly warned about the impact the EPA’s rule would have on Alabama power production.

Public Service Commission (PSC) President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh (R) said in her own written statement, “It’s a sad day when Barack Obama and the federal government get to tell the people of Alabama how to handle our own energy production. The men and women who work at these facilities have families who depend on these jobs for their livelihood. These plants also help keep our utility bills low when electricity demand is high during very cold and very warm weather. Now, Obama and his liberal EPA are bringing uncertainty to the jobs and utility bills of our citizens.”

Republican U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions sent a joint letter to President Obama and EPA Director Gina McCarthy.  Sens. Shelby and Sessions wrote,

“Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced sweeping new regulations under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act in a purported effort to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from existing power plants.  While we appreciate the EPA’s willingness to hold public hearings on this proposal in four locations (Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; Washington, DC; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) from July 29 through August 1, 2014, we are writing to urge the Administration to carefully consider the comments and concerns that were presented at the Atlanta public hearing by Alabamians from all parts of the user spectrum—workers, small business owners, elected officials, civic leaders, farmers, homemakers, and others.  Our constituents presented Administration officials with a wide range of legitimate concerns.  For example, officials heard compelling arguments explaining why the witnesses believe the EPA’s proposal is based on a flawed interpretation of Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.  As the EPA’s proposal even acknowledges, the EPA has never used this provision of the Act in the manner now proposed—a reality that makes relevant the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent admonishment.  ‘When an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate ‘a significant portion of the American economy… we typically greet its announcement with a measure of skepticism.  We expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast economic and political significance.’”

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Alabama Minority Leader Representative Craig Ford (D) from Gadsden said, “I want to commend Alabama Power for protecting thousands of jobs and looking out for their employees and their families.”

The Speaker of the Alabama House of Representative Mike Hubbard (R) from Auburn said, “Obama’s EPA is out of control. Newly announced regulations could kill coal jobs in the state and result in higher electricity prices for our citizens. These regulations are nothing but an attempt by the federal government to limit our state’s right to provide energy how we see fit, and the Alabama House is committed to doing everything possible to stop their implementation.”

PSC Commissioner Place One Jeremy H. Oden (R) said, “Following the announcement from Alabama Power regarding the effects of Federal mandates, it is alarming that compliance with these mandates will have such a severe impact on the generation fleet.  As I stated in my testimony earlier this week at the EPA hearing in Atlanta, these environmental mandates have a negative impact on reliability, fuel diversity and cost effective energy production in Alabama. We now see the effects of just one of these countless regulations aimed at the nation’s power production. Compliance with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) by 2016 and other proposed mandates will have a devastating effect on our energy production, jobs and our economy.”

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Senators Shelby and Sessions continued in their letter, “It cannot be seriously argued that the action proposed by the EPA has been expressly authorized by Congress.  Indeed, if brought to Congress for a vote now, the EPA’s proposal would certainly not be approved.  The Administration’s actions have already begun affecting Alabamians.  Just this morning, Alabama Power cited federal regulations as the impetus behind its decision to alter operations at seven operating units located within three power plants across the state.  As part of these transitions, two coal-fired units at the Green County Electric Generating Plant will be converted to gas-powered units, reducing electric generating capacity by a third and eliminating sixty jobs located in the heart of the Black Belt.  These job losses have serious consequences in a region which has faced declining populations, high unemployment rates, as well as a host of infrastructure challenges.”

Senators Shelby and Sessions continued, “The EPA’s proposal, if finalized, would impose enormous costs and burdens on Alabama workers and their families, and would hinder our global economic competitiveness.  The impact will be felt the deepest in states—like ours—where fossil fuels provide a significant share of our electricity generation.  The Administration’s claims that energy costs will not be impacted by this proposal ring hollow.  Simple economics suggest that the EPA’s plan will undoubtedly increase electricity prices, which will hinder—not help—economic growth.  Alabama has historically seen lower than average energy costs, in part because our state has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources that can be harnessed to power our homes and businesses and to make life better for our citizens.”

Rep. Byrne said, “While the long-term impact of Alabama Power’s decision remains to be seen, it is clear that President Obama’s ‘war on coal’ is already starting to impact Alabama families. I fear that this is just the start and that this rule will continue to harm our economy and kill good-paying jobs. I will keep pushing President Obama and his activist EPA to abandon this rule and join House Republicans in supporting an all-of-the-above energy strategy.”

Commissioner Oden said, “With approximately $3 billion invested over the past decade and another $1 billion of scheduled retrofits, the cost of compliance is staggering. With EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, the future costs and effects on electricity production are unknown. However, based on Alabama Power’s announcement today, compliance cost of further environmental mandates will be substantial and will directly impact Alabama’s energy production.  It is my intention to continue fighting against further damaging environmental mandates and to work alongside our public utility companies to measure the impact these rulings will have on our economy, affected employees, and the production of reliable, cost effective energy for Alabamians.”

Sens. Sessions and Shelby concluded, “Alabamians are also deeply troubled by the prospect that the EPA’s proposal will further erode the primary role of the states in managing electricity generation and determining the mix of energy sources that work best for them in their specific circumstances.  In Alabama, our electricity is generated from a range of sources—nuclear, coal, natural gas, hydropower and renewables.  Those decisions should not be dictated by EPA officials in Washington, D.C.  Perhaps ironically, the EPA’s chosen formula for establishing CO2 emission reduction targets disadvantages states with nuclear power, which is the nation’s most significant source of emission-free electric generation.  Moreover, Alabamians expressed to Agency officials their beliefs that the EPA gave activist environmental groups a special role in crafting this proposal.  In fact, in an article entitled ‘Environmentalists Drew Emissions Blueprint,’ the New York Times recently reported  that the EPA’s Section 111(d) proposal is a ‘remarkable victory for the Natural Resources Defense Council’—an activist environmental organization with known anti-coal and anti-nuclear viewpoints.  The article explains that the EPA ‘used as its blueprint the work of’ this outside group.  Indeed, a review of recent NRDC proposals for regulating CO2 emissions from power plants closely resembles the proposal issued by EPA.  These are just a few examples of the myriad of concerns—legal, technical, environmental, and economic—that have been raised in recent weeks in response to the EPA’s proposal.  In light of the foregoing, we urge the Administration to listen closely to those who came from our great state to discuss the adverse consequences of these recent policies and proposals on their families, their jobs, and their communities.”

Even though the EPA held hearings on the controversial new rules, most observers believe that was only a legal formality for an Obama presidency that, like in the immigration debate, appears blindly determined to bull their extremist agenda into reality, even if they have to do it without cooperation from the Congress or the support of the American people.

Meanwhile Alabamians can expect more job losses and higher electricity bills in the near future.

 

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Legislature

Medical marijuana bill “is not about getting high” — it’s “about getting well.”

Bill Britt

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More than half of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form. Last week, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB165 on an 8 to 1 vote. If the measure becomes law, it will allow Alabama residents to obtain medical marijuana under rigorously imposed conditions.

Known as the Compassion Act, SB165 would authorize certain individuals to access medical marijuana only after a comprehensive evaluation process performed by a medical doctor who has received specific training.

“I care for people who are ill, and I try to reduce their suffering to the best of my ability, using the tools at my disposal that are the safest and most effective,” said Dr. Alan Shackleford, a Colorado physician who spoke before the Judiciary Committee. “Cannabis is one of those tools.”

Shackleford, a Harvard trained physician, has treated more than 25,000 patients at his medical practice over the last ten years, he says a large number of his patients have benefited from medical cannabis.

While there are detractors, the Compassion Act is not a hastily composed bill but is, in fact, the result of a year-long study by the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission that voted to approve the legislation by an overwhelming majority.

“It’s a strong showing that two-thirds [of the commission] thought the legislation was reasonable and well-thought-out,” said Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, after the commission vote.

Melson, who chaired the commission, is a medical researcher and is the lead sponsor of SB165.

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Two-thirds of Americans say that the use of marijuana should be legal, according to a Pew Research Center survey. “The share of U.S. adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent today” according to Pew. The study also shows that an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (91 percent) say marijuana should be legal either for medical and recreational use (59 percent) or that it should be licensed just for medical use (32 percent).

These numbers are also reflected in surveys conducted by Fox News, Gallup, Investor’s Business Daily and others.

“This bill is not about getting high. This bill is about getting well,” says Shackleford.

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Cristi Cain, the mother of a young boy with epilepsy that suffers hundreds of seizures a day, pleaded with lawmakers to make medical cannabis legal.

“This body has said so many times that your zip code should not affect your education,” Cain told the committee. “Well, I don’t believe that your area code should affect your doctor’s ability to prescribe you medication. If we were in another state, my son could be seizure-free.”

SB165 will strictly regulate a network of state-licensed marijuana growers, dispensaries, transporters, and processors.

There will be no smokable products permitted under the legislation and consumer possession of marijuana in its raw form would remain illegal.

“The people of Alabama deserve the same access to treatment as people in 33 other states,” said Shackelford.

 

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Education

Opinion | Instead of fixing a school for military kids, how about just fixing the schools for all kids?

Josh Moon

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The education of police officers’ kids isn’t worth any extra effort. 

Same for the kids of nurses and firefighters. Ditto for the kids of preachers and social workers. 

No, in the eyes of the Republican-led Alabama Legislature, the children of this state get what they get and lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure any of them get a particularly good public education. 

Except, that is, for the kids of active duty military members stationed at bases in this state. 

They matter more. 

So much so that the Alabama Senate last week passed a bill that would create a special school to serve those kids — and only those kids. To provide those kids — and only those kids — with a quality education. 

An education better than the one available right now to the thousands of children who attend troubled school systems, such as the one in Montgomery. 

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The charter school bill pushed by Sen. Will Barfoot at the request of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth carves out a narrow exception in the Alabama Charter School law, and it gives the right to start a charter school located at or near a military base — a school that will be populated almost exclusively (and in some cases, absolutely exclusively) by the kids of military members. 

The explanation for this bill from Barfoot was surprisingly straightforward. On Tuesday, Ainsworth’s office sent information packets around to House members to explain the necessity of the bill. 

In each case, the explanation was essentially this: the Maxwell Air Force Base folks don’t like the schools in Montgomery and it’s costing the state additional federal dollars because top-level personnel and programs don’t want to be in Montgomery. 

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And in what has to be the most Alabama response to a public education problem, the solution our lawmakers came up with was to suck millions of dollars out of the budget of the State Education Department budget and hundreds of thousands out of the budget of a struggling district and use it to build a special school that will provide a better level of education to a small group of kids simply because it might generate more federal tax dollars. 

And because having your name attached to a bill that supposedly aids the military looks good, so long as no one thinks about it too hard. 

But in the meantime, as this special school is being built, the hardworking, good people of Montgomery — some of them veterans and Reservists themselves — are left with a school district that is so recognizably bad that the Legislature is about to build a special school to accommodate these kids. 

Seriously, wrap your head around that. 

Look, this will come as a shock to many people, but I like Will Ainsworth. While we disagree on many, many things, I think he’s a genuine person who believes he’s helping people. 

The problem is that he is too often surrounded by conservatives who think every issue can be solved with a bumper sticker slogan and screaming “free market!” And who too often worry too much about the political optics and too little about the real life effects. 

And Montgomery Public Schools is as real life as it gets.

Right now, there are nearly 30,000 kids in that system. And they need some real, actual help — not the window dressing, money pit BS they’ve been handed so far through LEAD Academy and the other destined-for-doom charters. And they sure as hell don’t need a special charter for military kids to remind them that the school system they attend isn’t good enough for the out-of-towners. 

Stop with the facade and fix the school system. 

You people literally have the power and the money to do this. Given the rollbacks of tenure laws and the passage of charter school laws and the Accountability Act, there is nothing that can’t be done. 

Listen to your colleagues on the other side, who took tours recently of charter schools in other states — charters that work with underprivileged students and that have remarkable success rates. Hell, visit those charters yourself. Or, even better, visit some states that have high performing public schools in high poverty areas, and steal their ideas. 

But the one thing you cannot do is leave children behind. Whatever your solution, it cannot exclude some segment of the population. It cannot sacrifice this many to save that many. 

That sort of illogical thinking is what landed Montgomery — and many other areas of the state — in their current predicaments. Carving out narrow pathways for a handful of students has never, ever worked. 

Let’s stop trying it.

 

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Crime

ADOC investigating possible suicide at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The death of a man serving in the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County on Sunday is being investigated as a possible suicide. 

Marquell Underwood

Marquell Underwood, 22, was found in his cell unresponsive at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, according to a statement by the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Underwood was being held in solitary confinement, known as “segregation” cells in Alabama prisons. Suicides in such isolated cells is central to an ongoing lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

“He was not on suicide watch. All attempts at life saving measures were unsuccessful,” The statement reads. “ADOC cannot release additional details of the incident at this time, pending an ongoing investigation and an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.” 

Underwood pleaded guilty of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Gregorie Somerville in Tuscaloosa and was sentenced to life in prison. 

Underwood’s death is at least the second preventable death inside state prisons this year. 

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Antonio Bell’s death on Jan. 9 at Holman prison is being investigated as a possible drug overdose. 

Last year at least 6 people serving in Alabama prisons died as a result of suicide, according to news accounts. During 2019 there were 13 homicides in state prisons, and as many as 7 overdose deaths, according to news accounts and ADOC statements. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections over access to mental health care for incarcerated people is ongoing. 

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“The risk of suicide is so severe and imminent that the court must redress it immediately,” U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in a May 4, 2019, ruling. 

Judge Thompson in a 2017 ordered required ADOC to check on incarcerated people being held in segregation cells every 30 minutes, to increase mental health staffing and numerous other remedies to reduce the number of preventable deaths. 

“The skyrocketing number of suicides within ADOC, the majority of which occurred in segregation, reflects the combined effect of the lack of screening, monitoring, and treatment in segregation units and the dangerous conditions in segregation cells,” Thompson wrote in his order. “Because prisoners often remain in segregation for weeks, months, or even years at a time, their decompensation may not become evident until it is too late—after an actual or attempted suicide.” 

The SPLC in a Jan. 2019 filing wrote to the court that “the situation has become worse, not better, since the Liability Opinion. There have been twelve completed suicides since December 30, 2017…Defendants fail to provide the most basic monitoring of people in segregation. Defendants fail to do anything to learn from past suicides to prevent additional suicides.”

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Crime

Early morning contraband raid at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday raided the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County to collect contraband. 

More than 200 officials from ADOC, state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Natural Resources, Game Warden Division, and Russel and Coffee County Sheriff’s departments conducted the early morning search, according to an ADOC press release. 

“Operation Restore Order is a critical initiative designed to create safer living and working conditions across Alabama’s correctional system,” ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement. “The presence of Illegal contraband including drugs, which undoubtedly is perpetuated by the presence of illegal cell phones, is a very real threat we must continue to address.” 

“Additionally, our aging and severely dilapidated facilities are constructed of increasingly breakable materials that ill-intentioned inmates can obtain and fashion into dangerous weapons. The presence of illegal contraband puts everyone at risk, and action – including Operation Restore Order raids – must regularly be taken to eliminate it,” Dunn’s statement reads. “We remain committed to doing everything in our power to root out the sources of contraband entry into our facilities, and will punish those who promote its presence to the full extent of the law.”

ADOC is developing plans to conduct more of these larger raids, in addition to smaller, unannounced searches, which prison officials hope will help the department “develop intelligence-based programs to identify contraband trends and provide necessary intelligence to identify corruption indicators.” 

“The public should contact ADOC’s Law Enforcement Service Division at 1-866-293-7799 with information that may lead to the arrest of anyone attempting to introduce illegal contraband into state prisons. The public may also report suspicious activity by going to the ADOC Website at http://www.doc.alabama.gov/investigationrequest.”

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