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Environmental groups call for ADEM director’s resignation or termination

Brandon Moseley

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Eleven Alabama environmentalist groups signed off on a letter Monday calling for the resignation or firing of Alabama Department of Environmental Management Director Lance LeFleur.

The groups claim that the bribery and corruption trial U.S. v. Gilbert, et al yielded many disturbing revelations, including the failures of leaders at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Environmental Management Commission (AEMC) to avoid conflicts of interest with those whom they regulate.

The groups claim that in many other instances, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur has failed to lead the Department in a manner that advances its official mission “to assure for all citizens of the State a safe, healthful and productive environment.”

LeFleur’s annual job evaluation and public comments were due on Monday, July 30.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper emailed its evaluation of Director LeFleur to the Personnel Committee of the AEMC, which oversees ADEM. The letter calls for LeFleur’s resignation or termination for what the groups claim is his consistent failure to lead and advance ADEM’s mission.

Groups signing Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s letter include: Alabama Rivers Alliance, Cahaba River Society, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Environmental Defense Alliance, Friends of Hurricane Creek, Friends of the Locust Fork River, Gasp, Little River Waterkeeper, and Tennessee Riverkeeper.

The groups claim that sworn testimony in the recent public corruption case has revealed bias and corruption at both the Environmental Management Commission (“EMC”) and ADEM.

“In order to repair that trust, there must be new leadership at ADEM. When an organization like ADEM stumbles, its director must take responsibility,” the groups wrote. “Director LeFleur has failed to lead the Department in a manner that advances the mission of ADEM “to assure for all citizens of the State a safe, healthful and productive environment.” He must resign or be terminated.”

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“Instead of carefully weighing all the evidence and allowing the Department to make decisions that would protect the health and safety of North Birmingham residents, Director LeFleur’s testimony at trial shows how he failed not only those residents but his job,” the letter states. “He apparently did not express opposition to EPA’s efforts to clean up toxic pollution at the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in North Birmingham, until lawyer Joel Gilbert and lobbyists David Roberson and Trey Glenn, among others, began to exert pressure on behalf of their clients Balch & Bingham and/or Drummond Co. When Governor Bentley and the EMC joined in, the Director succumbed to that pressure and began to publicly and actively oppose EPA’s efforts. Even worse, he sent a letter to EPA in his capacity as Director opposing EPA’s cleanup in North Birmingham. Although trial testimony indicates that Director LeFleur may not have known this, the letter he sent was drafted at least in part by Gilbert, whose client Drummond Company, had the most to lose if EPA expanded the cleanup and placed the 35th Ave. site on the National Priorities List. Gilbert apparently routed the draft letter through Governor Bentley’s office, which then sent it to Director LeFleur to send.”

“Director LeFleur testified that it was not uncommon for lobbyists/consultants to draft letters for him to sign,” the letter continued. “The closeness of the relationship between the Director and those he is supposed to regulate should disqualify him from this important position of public service. He is ultimately answerable not to Drummond Co. or Balch & Bingham, but to the citizens of Alabama, for whom he is supposed to ensure a safe, healthful and productive environment.”

The groups said that they. “Were disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to learn that Director LeFleur and ADEM were part of a leak of a planned EMC public presentation.” “Testimony and evidence offered in U.S. v. Gilbert indicates that Director LeFleur and his staff, along with others, communicated and/or discussed a proposed presentation submitted by Gasp, with parties outside the Department, and subsequently discussed the substance of that proposal.”

“There is no suggestion that the EMC or ADEM solicited or neutrally evaluated all available information and reached a considered decision,” the letter stated. “They apparently took talking points directly from the industry’s lawyer and uncritically adopted them as their own.” “These actions reflect poorly on the judgment of the Director and the Department. These actions reinforce the appearance of favoritism and bias on the part of the Director and ADEM. There is no indication that the Director or his staff reached out similarly to residents of North Birmingham or any other potentially affected parties.”

“The testimony in U.S. v. Gilbert suggests that fair play or neutrality at ADEM is currently a myth,” the environmentalists argued. “The Director and the Department have broken trust not just with us, but with the public that ADEM is supposed to serve. A group worried about health consequences in a poor, polluted area wanted to present information to state regulators about appropriate cleanup in the area — and the presentation was sent straight to a lawyer who represented one of the companies most likely responsible for the pollution.”

“The Director knew this and did not blow the whistle,” according to the letter. “Secretly sharing information with favored parties, then allowing their point of view to masquerade as the EMC’s or ADEM’s is beyond wrong. This subterfuge occurred outside the public view and was only exposed by a criminal prosecution where Director LeFleur and others were subpoenaed to testify.”

“Regardless of whether Director LeFleur’s tenure at ADEM ends, we ask the EMC to authorize a neutral, independent investigator to determine whether the actions revealed by U.S. v. Gilbert are an isolated event or represent routine practice at the EMC and ADEM,” the groups stated. “We ask the EMC to share the method and the results of this investigation with the public in order to begin the process of restoring the public’s trust. Finally, we ask the EMC to implement any procedures as necessary that will ensure that this kind of dishonesty and favoritism ends.”

They also accused Director LeFleur of failing to fully implement federal regulation from using criteria or methods of administering its programs or activities that subject individuals to discrimination because of their race or color, among other things. “Ensuring that ADEM complies with requirements of state and federal law and providing the public with valid policies to combat discrimination should have been key priorities for Director LeFleur and the Department. Evidently they were not. We urge the EMC to work with the ADEM Director to ensure that this issue is quickly and decisively addressed through valid rulemaking.”

“Rather than passively wait for an EPA investigation or further litigation, a director must take proactive measures to ensure that the Department has all necessary legal authority to meet EPA’s funding requirements. Delay invites the substantial risk of litigation, another EPA investigation, or the catastrophic loss of the Department’s federal funding,” the groups charged. “Director LeFleur’s failure in this regard reflects poorly on his job performance and should be considered in the EMC’s evaluation.”

The groups also complained that ADEM ranked dead last in per capita funding among state environmental agencies in a recent study published by the Environmental Council of States, just $10.85 per person, per year from 2013 to 2015. While Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida’s general funds all contribute millions to their state environmental agencies, in recent years, ADEM has received little from the state’s General Fund and in one year actually had to return money (earmarked for scrap tire cleanup) to the General Fund. They claim that part of the Director’s job is to make the public case for the adequate funding of his agency.

They also accused ADEM and LeFleur of being soft on polluters. “When permittees’ interactions with ADEM after permit noncompliance involve warning letters, notices of violation, long compliance schedules, and nominal fines rather than meaningful enforcement actions, the message ADEM sends is clear. Occasional enforcement is a cost of doing business and is cheaper than investing in compliance.”

“ADEM’s mission is “to assure for all citizens of the State a safe, healthful and productive environment.” Director LeFleur has failed to lead ADEM in a manner that advances that mission,” the environmentalists claimed in their letter. “He must resign or be terminated. When the EMC puts together the appropriate search committee for his replacement, we ask that at least one representative from the undersigned organizations be a part of that committee.”

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Economy

Alabama nonprofit hopes federal food aid for children continues through summer

Eddie Burkhalter

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Almost half of Alabamians experienced a loss in income since the COVID-19 crisis began, and more than 13 percent said they hadn’t had enough to eat during the prior week, according to a recent survey, but there is help for families with children struggling with food insecurity. 

Two federal programs combined can help keep Alabamians fed during coronavirus’s continued impact on health and finances, but there’s work to be done to ensure those programs are fully used, and will continue to help during this time of need, according to Alabama Arise, a nonprofit coalition of advocates focused on poverty. 

Celida Soto Garcia, Alabama Arise’s hunger advocacy coordinator, on Friday discussed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s  Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools with high poverty rates to serve breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of a parent’s income. 

There are still a little more than 100 school systems in Alabama that would qualify under the program, but haven’t yet applied to do so, Garcia said. 

“Schools that had implemented CEP prior to the pandemic made it a lot easier to distribute food. They didn’t have to worry about eligibility and delayed distribution,” Garcia said. 

Garcia said the coronavirus crisis has brought attention to the CEP program and that some school board officials and child nutrition professionals are beginning to identify which school systems could qualify for the aid. 

“So that of course was a benefit prior to the pandemic, and now there’s just an increased need for it,” Garcia said. 

Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst at Alabama Arise, discussed with APR on Friday the pandemic Electronic Benefit program (P-EBT), which gives parents of children who receive free and reduced lunches a debit card loaded with value of each child’s school meals from March 18 to May 31. The cards can be used at any grocery store. 

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Immigrant families with children enrolled in school can also receive the P-EBT cards, Gundlach said. 

“We of course hope that Congress will see their way to continuing pandemic EBT for the remainder of this summer, because of course, children still have to eat, whether school is in or not, and families are still going to have to pay for those extra meals,” Gunlach said. 

Just more than 13 percent of Alabamians polled said they didn’t have enough to eat during the week prior, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, and 43 percent said they’d experienced a loss of income due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“So clearly parents are going to have a very difficult time continuing to feed the whole family through the summer,” Gundlach said. “It’s really a serious crisis and continuing Pandemic EBT would make a really big difference.” 

Many individual school systems across the state are working hard to supply sack lunches to students in need, but without federal aid it will be hard to keep those meals coming all summer, Gundlach said. 

There was an expansion of P-EBT for the remainder of the summer, and a 15 percent increase in regular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, known as food stamps, in the $3 trillion Heroes ACT, which Democrats in the U.S. House passed last week. Gundlach said she hopes the U.S. senators from Alabama get behind the Heroes Act. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentuky, said last week, however, that if the Senate takes up another round of coronavirus relief legislation it won’t look like the House version, according to NBC News. 

Gundlach also wanted those without children to know that there’s additional food assistance available to them. 

The Family’s First Act temporarily suspended SNAP’s three-month time limit on benefits, and Gundlach said that even if a person was denied assistance before because they hit that time limit, they can reapply and receive that aid.

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Elections

Alabama Democratic Party announces qualifying dates for State House District 49 special election

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday the Alabama Democratic Party announced that it has opened on-line qualifying for the upcoming special election in State House District 49.

Any resident of House District 49 may complete a form and apply in person, by mail, or online. The prorated application fee is $558.26. Please call the Democratic Party office at (334) 262-2221 to verify residency and to request additional information.

Candidates may qualify on-line at any time during the qualifying period at: http://aldemocrats.org//

Anyone needing to qualify in-person may come to the Alabama Democratic Party headquarters at 501 Adams Avenue Montgomery. Or candidates may mail in the paperwork to the Alabama Democratic Party, P.O. Box 950, Montgomery, AL 36101.

Qualifying will close on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at 5:00 p.m. CST, per the proclamation issued by Governor Kay Ivey (R). All papers and the fee must be turned in at that time.

The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Representative April Weaver, R-Briarfield, resigned to take a President Donald J. Trump (R) appointment as a regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

House District 49 consists of portions of Bibb, Shelby and Chilton Counties.

The special primary election for House District 49 will be held on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. If a runoff election is needed, it will be held on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. The general election will be held on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

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Elections

ALGOP announces qualifying dates for State House District 49 special election

Brandon Moseley

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Friday the Alabama Republican Party announced that it will open on-line qualifying for the upcoming special election in State House District 49 on Monday, May 25, 2020 at 8:30 a.m. CDT on the party’s website (algop.org).

Candidates may qualify on-line at any time during the qualifying period.

Anyone needing to qualify in-person may come to the Alabama Republican Party headquarters in Hoover at 3505 Lorna Road beginning Tuesday, May 26, 2020. The office will be closed on Monday in observance of Memorial Day. The office is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST.

Qualifying will close on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at 5:00 p.m. CST, per the proclamation issued by Governor Kay Ivey (R).

The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Representative April Weaver, R-Briarfield, resigned to take a President Donald J. Trump (R) appointment as a regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

House District 49 consists of portions of Bibb, Shelby and Chilton Counties.

The special primary election for House District 49 will be held on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. If a runoff election is needed, it will be held on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. The general election will be held on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

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Congress

Sen. Doug Jones: COVID-19 relief should not be a partisan issue

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Friday during a live-streamed press conference that the Senate should begin debating the next COVID-19 relief package, and Republicans in Congress should stop playing partisan politics with urgently needed COVID-19 relief.

“That bill is not perfect at all. There are a number of things in there that I don’t think will be in a final bill,” Jones said of the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. “It’s not perfect, but it is something to start talking about. It is a shame that Senate Republicans have made this into a partisan issue, trying to say that this was some kind of Democratic ‘wish list.’ It is not.”

The $3 trillion relief package includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to struggling state and local governments and another round of $1,200 payments to individual taxpayers and up to $6,000 per family.

The bill, which passed the House last week along partisan lines, appropriates billions for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing and provides money for hazard pay for essential workers, among many other provisions its 1,800 pages.

“It is a wish list for cities and counties, which we’ve been talking about,” Jones said. “The first line essential workers that have been there that we don’t need to lose — so much of our workforces in city and county governments. It’s a wish list for the CDC and the NIH to continue funding for research, not just for a vaccine, but for therapeutics for how to treat this virus until we get that vaccine. It’s a wish list for businesses.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations, would also get additional funding in the new relief bill.

Jones has called for a plan to give small businesses another round of help in paying employees by using payroll processors instead of banks, which have, at times, been slow in delivering aid to businesses and have prioritized clients with whom the banks had a pre-existing relationship.

Jones urged lawmakers to consider using payroll companies rather than banks when the first installment of the Payroll Protection Program was taking shape.

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The House’s HEROES Act also includes provisions that clarify PPP provisions for small businesses and would ensure that PPP funding can reach underserved communities and nonprofits. It adds $10 billion for emergency grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

“It has a form of the program that we have — not as scaled up as much as I would lie, but it’s got a program that will help keep businesses operating and their payroll operating as a supplement, an add on to the Payroll Protection Program,” Jones said. “So it’s a wish list, really, for the American people. It’s just a shame that it has been politicized as partisan, because it should not. None of this should be partisan.”

President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the House-passed legislation were the Senate to pass it, and House and Senate Republicans have decried the legislation as too expansive.

Republican members of Alabama’s congressional delegation have called it Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “wish list” and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks called it “socialist.”

The 1,800-page bill also includes $175 billion in housing support, student loan forgiveness and a new employee retention tax credit.

Republicans have particularly opposed provisions in the bill that would require all voters to be able to vote by mail beginning in November and another that would temporarily repeal a provision of the 2017 Republican tax law that limited federal deductions for state and local taxes.

Trump has also opposed a provision in the bill that would provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has struggled amid the COVID-19 crisis and could become insolvent without support.

The HEROES Act was declared by some as “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has so far refused to take up the bill. Senators returned back to their home states this week until early June.

“The goal when we get back is maybe … enough talks will be going on, that we can pass some legislation in a bipartisan way,” Jones said. “Because there is an urgency.”

Jones said he didn’t believe the bill would pass as it is currently written, and that he doesn’t know what the final version would look like, but “we need to be talking about it. It’s a starting point,” he said.

The legislation also provides $75 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, which public health experts say are essential for reopening the economy safely and avoiding a second wave of the virus in the fall.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey loosened more of the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions, allowing entertainment venues to reopen Friday and sports to resume by mid-June.

Jones urged Alabamians to continue adhering to social-distancing guidelines, to listen to public health officials and to wear masks. He said reopening the economy and preserving public health don’t have to be at odds.

“I think the governor has done as great a job as she could to try to be very strategic, to be thoughtful on how to do this,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I also believe that a lot of people in Alabama are only hearing part of her message. They’re only hearing the message that you can go to church, you can go to the theater, you can go out to eat, and they’re not listening as much to the messages about personal responsibility.”

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