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Group organizes to support, promote Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the most bio-diverse body of water in the world

Chip Brownlee

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Britton Bonner, chairman of the board of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, speaks at an announcement of the Alabama Delta Alliance. (Contributed)

A new group is organizing to support Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the most bio-diverse body of water in the world.

The Alabama Delta Alliance is coming together to promote the delta, which is America’s second largest Delta at about 406 square miles, has a watershed that includes the vast majority of Alabama and has been designated a National Natural Landmark.

Individuals, organizations and businesses who want to promote and enhance the ecological wetland are coming together to organize the group.

“The Alabama Delta Alliance is a group that shares a deep appreciation for the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and the many benefits it offers the people of this state,” said Britton Bonner, chairman of the board of the Coastal Alabama Partnership. “Our goal is to build a robust, diverse coalition and effort focused solely on promoting the MTRD region —now and in the future.”

The delta is one of Alabama’s main remaining natural terrains and has been at the center of disputes between conservationists and developers and business interests.

Including parts of Baldwin, Clarke, Mobile, Monroe and Washington County, the area has a footprint that spans a huge chunk of South Alabama.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson called the initiative “an idea whose time has come.”

“The delta is a hugely untapped resource for eco-tourism,” he said.

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Dozens, if not hundreds, of interconnected stream systems, floodplains, swamps, bayous, lakes and forests paint the land in the delta and create a maze of natural wonders that are home to more than 500 plant species, 300 birds, 126 fishes, 46 mammals, 69 reptiles and 30 amphibians.

“Our newly created effort will serve as a resource to further educate the public on the biological and ecological diversity of the MTRD, the expansive flora and fauna, as well as the many recreational opportunities available to all regardless of interest or income level,” said state Rep. Randy Davis, whose legislative district abuts the delta. “A major goal of our effort will be to catalog the many access points, boat ramps, trails, local businesses and other important destinations the public will want to have at their fingertips when planning a trip in the MTRD.”

One goal of the Alabama Delta Alliance is to encourage people to learn more about the delta in the hopes they will be inspired to visit the area.

The Alliance has created a new website as a tool for both visitors and residents alike, at www.alabamadelta.com, with the goal of promoting ecotourism in the area.

The website includes a history of the delta, places to visit and information about alliance and steering committee members who are committed to the area.

“Our website will be representative of the diverse people and organizations that are working with us,” said Russell Ladd, a steering committee member. “The interactive map will serve as a great resource that we can promote through social media and other digital channels, encouraging more visitation and driving ecotourism in the region.”

The organization has the support of more than 40 members from across the state and a steering committee made up of what the new alliance says are  “long-time delta supporters.”

Despite concerns from conservationists who are worried about the effects of upstream dams on stream pollution, stream flow, sediment loads, a decline in fish populations and the effects of invasive plant and animal species, steering committee members are said to believe that state and local management practices are enough to protect and expand access to the MTRD region.

The alliance says that federal designations and oversight come with limitations on access and management of those properties.

The group argues that it’s important to maintain the quality of life and outdoor recreational heritage by continuing to allow the state to manage the delta.

“Our goal is to protect the many natural resources and the vast biological diversity that the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta enjoys,” Ladd added. “By getting involved in our effort, people are ensuring that we can continue to provide these important lands all throughout the region for future generations to enjoy.”

 

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Crime

Prison worker says excessive pepper spray may have killed inmate

A prison worker says the amount of pepper spray used was excessive, and that officers knowingly and intentionally put the inmate’s life in jeopardy.

Eddie Burkhalter

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It’s not yet clear what caused the death of 38-year-old Darnell McMillian after he was pepper sprayed inside an Alabama prison last month, but a prison worker says the amount of pepper spray used was excessive, and that officers knowingly and intentionally put his life in jeopardy.

Some time around 6 p.m. on June 22, three correctional officers placed McMillian in suicide cell S-11, with an inmate who was known to be aggressive and who was already on suicide watch, according to a prison worker with knowledge of the incident, who reached out to APR to discuss the death because the person said it troubled them.

The ADOC worker asked not to be identified because the person is still employed with the department.

“He shouldn’t have been doubled up with somebody,” the worker said of the aggressive inmate already in cell S-11. “It was very clear that the person in that cell was threatening.”

The worker said the officers enticed the two men to fight, and once the inmate began threatening McMillian, McMillian took the first swing to hit the man.

The three officers standing outside then deployed a pepper spray called Cell Buster into the cell, the worker said. Cell Buster is a potent spray used by correctional staff and produced by the Chicago-based company Sabre.

“The inmate was yelling that he couldn’t breathe,” the employee said. “One Cell Buster is enough to do a lot of damage. There were three officers present at the time of this, and there were three cans of Cell Busters sprayed.”

The employee said that once McMillian was pulled from the cell, he was almost unconscious and then “went completely unconscious, because he was coughing and aspirating.”

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The cell was then cleaned by inmates, except for some spots of blood, which the worker said might make it appear to have been a homicide by the other inmate, but the worker said several staff members at the prison believe the death may have been caused by excessive use of pepper spray.

“He was on his back when they were getting him to the infirmary, which can also cause asphyxiation, especially if he’s coughing and saying he can’t breathe. That spray can make you vomit,” the worker said.

While there are video cameras that record each suicide cell, the worker said they do not believe there is footage from cell S-11 during the time of McMillian’s death. The employee said they’ve been through many incidents in the prison but that “this one seems pretty bad.”

The worker said it’s not clear why the officers encouraged a fight between the other inmate and McMillian, but from experience, the person said some officers will do so when an inmate angers them.

The employee said when they read APR’s first article on McMillian’s death, and there was little information on what happened, they decided to reach out.

“I’d rather share it and put it out there,” the person said. Some details of what the worker said were corroborated by the Jefferson County Coroner’s office.

Jefferson County Coroner Bill Yates told APR on Thursday that McMillian’s final cause of death awaits results from the autopsy, which can take between four and six weeks, but that there did not appear to be any external injuries that could have caused his death.

McMillian was pronounced dead at Donaldson prison at 7:49 p.m. on June 22, Yates said.

Yates, reading from his notes on the incident, said that in the moments before his death, there appeared to be a physical altercation between McMillian and another inmate, and that correctional officers used pepper spray to stop the fight.

“Obviously, Department of Corrections staff is going to step in to stop that, and it’s my understanding that after that, he was having complaints of not being able to breath,” Yates said. “I think they used — there was some pepper spray that was used to stop that, and he immediately went, from our understanding, to the infirmary.”

“From our autopsy, I don’t believe we found any type of trauma that would explain death,” Yates said.

His office is awaiting lab results, to include toxicology and other lab work to determine if drugs or an unknown medical condition may have been factors in his death, Yates said. McMillian didn’t have a history of any heart conditions, but Yates said lab results could reveal one if in fact he had a condition.

Asked if it’s possible to die from exposure to a large amount of pepper spray, Yates said “I haven’t heard of it, not to say it can’t happen.”

“I think you could pass away from extreme amounts of anything,” Yates said, but he’s never known of a death that resulted from large exposures to pepper spray.

Yates said there’s been no reports to his office of any other inmate in that cell, or any ADOC staff, experiencing health problems as a result of the incident.

A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice on the use of pepper spray by police and corrections staff in North Carolina found that two cases of the 63 studied resulted in death from the use of pepper spray, and that both incarcerated persons who died had asthma. In only one of those cases, however, a large amount of pepper spray was used on the man, and the positioning of the man’s body may have been a factor as well.

“Pepper spray was used more times in this case than in any other, but according to police officers, it was ineffective. The subject, who was obese, was handcuffed behind his back and placed in a facedown position when being transported,” the report states. “The difficulty of breathing in this position may have been compounded by the damage already done to his airways.”

In June, a 35-year-old inmate named Jamel Floyd died after correctional officers at a federal prison in Brooklyn used pepper spray after he had barricaded himself in his cell. He was unresponsive when removed from his cell and prison staff were unable to revive him, according to CNN. The death was under investigation and the U.S. Marshals and the FBI were notified, according to a release by the Metropolitan Detention Center.

According to the Sabre’s own promotional video, Cell Buster is to be used in three-second bursts, with the correctional officer checking after each burst to determine if the “desired effects” have been produced, before using it for another 3-second burst. Cell Buster’s description states that the product “delivers pain, irritation, inflammation, coughing, temporary blindness and redness of skin.”

ADOC spokeswoman Linda Mays in a message to APR on Thursday said that the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division is investigating all aspects of the incident.

“While we would like to address your questions and provide insight that would be helpful to you, at this juncture in the process we simply cannot provide information that would compromise the integrity of our ongoing investigation. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation into Daniel [sic] McMillian’s death,” Mays wrote.

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National

Byrne secures authorization for additional Austal ship in NDAA

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, this week announced that the House Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 by a vote of 56 to 0. The bill includes a Byrne amendment authorizing $260 million to construct an additional Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel at Austal Mobile. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote for passage.

“Today’s defense authorization bill received strong bipartisan support and will ensure that the men and women of our military have the resources necessary to protect American interests and safety,” Byrne said. “Like most legislation, the bill isn’t perfect, but the committee’s willingness to work together towards a common goal should be a template for the entire House of Representatives to follow.”

“It is great news for Southwest Alabama and our entire nation that the committee accepted my amendment to authorize the construction of an additional EPF at the Austal shipyard in Mobile,” Byrne said. “Passage of this amendment acknowledges the critical role the 4,000 men and women at Austal Mobile play in supporting our nation’s military readiness and moving us closer to our goal of a 355-ship fleet. In fact, just this week we reached a landmark when the Austal-built USS Oakland LCS was delivered to the Navy, becoming the 300th ship in our Navy’s fleet. Construction of an additional EPF will strengthen Austal’s footprint in Mobile and bolster its contributions to our national defense, and I hope Congress moves quickly to pass this bill into law.”

The NDAA sets policy and authorizes funding for the entire United States military and has been passed by the House each year for the previous 59 years. The bill is expected to receive a vote in the House as soon as this month.

An Expeditionary Fast Transport is a 338-foot shallow draft aluminum catamaran designed to be multi-mission capable of intra-theater personnel and cargo lift, providing combatant commanders high-speed sealift mobility with inherent cargo handling capability and agility to achieve positional advantage over operational distances. Bridging the gap between low-speed sealift and high-speed airlift, EPFs transport personnel, equipment and supplies over operational distances with access to littoral offload points including austere, minor and degraded ports in support of the Global War on Terrorism/Theater Security Cooperation Program, Intra-theater Operational/Littoral Maneuver and Sustainment and Seabasing. EPFs enable the rapid projection, agile maneuver and sustainment of modular, tailored forces in response to a wide range of military and civilian contingencies such as Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. It is a non-combatant transport vessel characterized by its high volume, high speed, and flexibility. Its large flight deck can accommodate a variety of aircraft.

The EPF is designed to transport 600 short tons of military cargo 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots in Sea State 3. The ships are capable of operating in shallow-draft ports and waterways, interfacing with roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and on/off-loading a combat-loaded Abrams Main Battle Tank (M1A2). The EPF includes a flight deck for helicopter operations and an off-load ramp that allow vehicles to quickly drive off the ship. The ramp is suitable for the types of austere piers and quay walls common in developing countries. The ship’s shallow draft (under 15 feet) will further enhance littoral operations and port access. This makes the EPF an extremely flexible asset for support of a wide range of operations including maneuver and sustainment, relief operations in small or damaged ports, flexible logistics support or as the key enabler for rapid transport.

EPF has a crew of 26 Civilian Mariners with airline style seating for 312 embarked troops and fixed berthing for an additional 104. Military Sealift Command (MSC) operates and sustains the EPFs, which will be allocated via the Global Force Management for Theater Security Cooperation, service unique missions, intra-theater sealift and special missions.

Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District.

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Health

Second Julia Tutwiler Prison worker dies after testing positive for COVID-19

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A second employee at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday. 

The worker recently tested positive for coronavirus and has since died, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release, which doesn’t note when exactly the person tested positive or passed away. 

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

ADOC last week announced the first death of a prison worker at Tutwiler, while an outbreak of COVID-19 at the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County resulted in the deaths of two men serving there.

As of Thursday there have been 10 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 30 cases among staff at Tutwiler prison. At Staton prison, there were 18 cases among inmates and 23 among workers. 

ADOC on Thursday also announced another worker at Tutwiler self-reported that they tested positive for COVID-19, as did a worker at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one at Limestone Correctional Facility. 

Additionally, another inmate who was exposed at the infirmary at Staton prison, two and St. Clair Correctional Facility and two at Easterling Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus. 

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Confirmed cases among staff continue to outpace cases among inmates, and that likely comes down to access to testing. ADOC doesn’t offer free testing for staff, but ask that any worker who tests positive outside of work self-report the test results to the department. Inmates must either be exhibiting symptoms and be tested at the request of an ADOC physician, or they are tested at local hospitals while being treated for other conditions, which is how the majority of confirmed cases among inmates have been identified. 

Even though confirmed cases among inmates — 75 as of Thursday — remains much lower than confirmed cases among staff — 171 as of Thursday — nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, while two workers have died after learning they were positive for the virus. 

Of the approximately 22,000 inmates in Alabama prisons, 413 have been tested since the start of the pandemic, according to ADOC’s statistics.

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Courts

Supreme Court sides with Alabama in COVID-19 voting case

Brandon Moseley

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The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision Thursday blocked a federal district judge’s order that would have made it easier for many Alabamians to vote during the pandemic, issuing an emergency stay of the lower court’s injunction in People First of Alabama v. Merrill.

The court’s more liberal justices dissented, while the five conservative justices voted to strike down the lower court ruling, which had blocked absentee ballot witness requirements in a few Alabama counties and a statewide ban on curbside voting programs.

The decision to grant the stay means that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s ban on curbside voting remains in place, and he may intervene into any county in Alabama to prevent curbside voting.

Voters in every county in the state must still follow all the required witness, notary and photo ID requirements for absentee ballots.

Federal District Judge Abdul Kallon had found in favor of the plaintiffs and issued an order allowing local officials to implement curbside voting. Merrill and the secretary of state’s office appealed the lower court ruling to the Supreme Court, who issued the emergency stay.

The court could still hear Alabama’s appeal, but the ruling was a blow for the groups representing the plaintiffs in the case. Caren Short is the senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“While we are deeply disappointed with today’s ruling, we look forward to presenting our clients’ case at trial later this summer,” said Short. “Our goal is simple though unfortunately at odds with Alabama officials. We want to ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama voters will not be forced to choose between exercising their fundamental right to vote and protecting their health or the health of a loved one.”

Deuel Ross is the senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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“We are deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court‘s stay,” said Ross. “Unfortunately, this means that Alabama voters who are at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 will be required to risk their health and violate CDC recommendations in order to vote on July 14. This is occurring at a time when COVID-19 infections are soaring in Alabama and nationwide. Nonetheless, the litigation will continue and we intend to seek relief for our clients and other voters in time for November.”

Plaintiffs argued that making voters go to the polls and wait in line to show a photo-ID would be a bar to voting given the fear of the coronavirus in Alabama. Voters will have to decide whether voting in the July 14 party runoff elections is really worth the risk of possibly contracting the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and possibly dying.

At least 14 Alabamians died from COVID-19 on Thursday, taking the state death toll to 961. Additionally, 1,162 Alabamians tested positive for the coronavirus.

The state argues that voter ID and other security measures are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote and prevent voting fraud. Since his election as Alabama secretary of state, Merrill has said that it is his goal to “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

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