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Opinion | Corruption, pollution and no pollution

Guy V. Martin Jr.

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Senator Doug Jones and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin have called on the EPA to reconsider placing the 35th Avenue Superfund Site on the National Priorities List (NPL) for a faster and more expensive cleanup. And we heard of a Democratic opponent attacking Congressman Mo Brooks for signing a letter to the EPA supporting an extension of time for Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to comment on the proposed NPL listing of the site.

All of this comes after pundits told us that a law firm, Balch & Bingham, and a coal company, Drummond Coal, bribed a politician, Oliver Robinson, to sabotage the EPA’s quest to protect children dying from Drummond pollution.

According to some, the law firm, the coal company and all they touched should burn in Dante’s Hell for poisoning the poor children.

What drew me into this mess was the more I dug for facts, the more I saw opinion. My history with the EPA made me wary, and it took little effort to determine that lost in the tempest are crucial facts that appear to contradict the thesis on which two years of press are based.

For background, think of this as a Tale of Two Sites. The EPA was cleaning up a Superfund site (35th Avenue); environmentalists pressured to expand the site to the edge of Drummond’s ABC Coke plant in Tarrant. The lawyer got a politician involved to convince Tarrant citizens to oppose the expansion; from that involvement sprang the indictments. Activists whipped it into a frenzy of public corruption and death from pollution by Drummond.

Against this explosive rhetoric, I was surprised to learn that Drummond had nothing to do with the Superfund site; the site was polluted by Walter Coke, a bankrupt company with no connection to Drummond (source: 1989 EPA Walter Coke order, EPA website).

Even more surprising, the EPA wrote the City of Tarrant before the trial of the lawyer and a Drummond executive ever started, saying that the EPA had decided not to add the Tarrant site to the Superfund project. The EPA’s letter, which was an exhibit in the trial, said EPA based the decision on tests showing no pollution on the Tarrant site (Caveat: a boiled egg contains around two parts benzene to a billion parts boiled egg, so “no pollution” means not enough to warrant a Superfund site).

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Third, EPA over-reach ignited the initial flame by trying to saddle Drummond with cleanup costs for the Superfund site based on the “Air Deposit Theory,” claiming smoke from Drummond’s ABC plant showered down pollutants onto the Superfund site. Even the Ninth Circuit, our nation’s most liberal, had rejected that theory. The EPA tried it anyway; Drummond called the EPA’s hand; tests showed no actionable pollutants on that ground; thus, the EPA letter to Tarrant. So all of the politicians who wrote letters opposing the Air Deposit Theory were correct — the theory failed in law and fact.

Fourth, a scientific study by NewFields (commissioned by Walter Coke, an admitted polluter, and two other companies in the area, not Drummond) showed the EPA was using bogus testing methods to hype up toxin levels at the Superfund site, trying to show property there was severely polluted when it was not: “flawed and biased approaches,” violating the EPA’s own testing protocols like testing under downspouts and next to roads, knowing asphalt shingle and road residue would skew the results.

Though the EPA admitted no wrong-doing, it knew that it was being watched when it tested the Tarrant site. The EPA’s testing in Tarrant resulted in its letter to the mayor of Tarrant stating there was no pollution there.

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So, drilling down through the rhetoric: Drummond had nothing to do with the Superfund site and was cleared of wrongdoing regarding the Tarrant site. Given the EPA’s bogus testing procedures, folks in Tarrant should never want the EPA to test their lots, because home values plummet when saddled with a hazardous waste stigma.

Moving to corruption, what the defendants did here is not a blatant, Chicago-styled money grab like in the Jefferson County sewer debacle, made clear by both the motion to dismiss the indictment and the government’s reply brief-both excellent briefs discussing cases such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning an indictment of the Governor of Virginia who used his office to arrange meetings for major donors-showing the fluid state of anti-corruption laws. Oliver Robinson pleaded guilty. The conviction of former Balch & Bingham attorney Joel Gilbert and Drummond Co. executive David Roberson will be appealed, and who knows what the Eleventh Circuit will do.

Clearly, there are two stories here, a corruption charge and pollution. Yet, neither reason nor equity supports a leap from a corruption charge to condemning a company and its law firm for killing children. Such a leap would require one to sail over too many precepts we hold dear in this society: the facts, the truth and the law.

Drummond and Balch don’t need a minnow like me to carry their water. It bothers me, however, that millions of minnows like me are reading how corrupt this state is–when the currents of the real story run deeper-and how a law firm belongs in Hell. Balch & Bingham was never charged with anything — the government used Balch witnesses to prove its case against Gilbert, who retained former state Rep. Oliver Robinson.

The government’s lawyer told the jury Gilbert had not told Balch’s ethics lawyers what he was doing. I’ve dealt with Balch as an attorney since 1974. They’re a yeoman group seeking yeoman solutions to problems; they darken churches and PTA meetings across our state; they’ve set a high bar for ethical standards others envy. I’d hire them in a flash if I were pounded by the EPA, because they know how to pound back — like they checkmated the EPA with respect to the Tarrant site.

Who does have the moral high ground here? Not Robinson, who failed to tell folks in Tarrant he was being paid by Drummond.

Not those who told you Drummond was killing children — they failed to tell you about the EPA letter and that Drummond had not polluted either site. Not those who campaigned for the EPA to test your property — they failed to tell you about the EPA bogus testing practices and the hit to home values in a Superfund site. The EPA? If bogus testing is anything, it’s corrupt. Pushing a theory discredited by science and the courts is hardly high ground.

The one lawyer and the one executive who committed crimes were wrong. If their convictions hold up on appeal, they should be punished. If the 35th Avenue Superfund Site turns out to be one of the worst Superfund sites in America based on real science, the EPA should put the site on the NPL for a faster cleanup. But saying that everyone who wrote a letter or in any way touched the pushback against the EPA’s effort to expand the Superfund site is the moral equivalent of Nazis for poisoning the poor children of Tarrant is wrong, according to the Obama administration’s EPA’s testing. That line might sell newspaper stories and garner self-righteous glory for the finger pointers, but it’s a lie, so don’t believe it.

Guy V. Martin, Jr. has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and teacher at the Birmingham School of Law. He is a member of the Board of Directors at The Foundry Ministries.

 

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Opinion | On the Nov. 3 ballot, vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1

Chris Christie

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(STOCK PHOTO)

On Nov. 3, 2020, all Alabama voters should vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1. Vote no on Amendment 1 because it could allow state law changes to disenfranchise citizens whom the Legislature does not want to vote. Because Amendment 1 has no practical purpose and because it opens the door to mischief, all voters are urged to vote no.

Currently, the Alabama Constitution provides that “Every citizen of the United States…” has the right to vote in the county where the voter resides. Amendment 1 would delete the word “every” before citizen and replace it with “only a” citizen.

In Alabama, the only United States citizens who cannot vote today are most citizens who have been convicted of a felony of moral turpitude. These felonies are specifically identified in Ala. Code 17-3-30.1.

Without Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution now says who can vote: every citizen. If voters approve Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution would only identify a group who cannot vote. With Amendment 1, we, the citizens of the United States in Alabama, thus would lose the state constitutional protection of our voting rights.

In Alabama, no individual who is not a United States citizens can vote in a governmental election. So, Amendment 1 has no impact on non-citizens in Alabama.

Perhaps the purpose of Amendment 1 could be to drive voter turnout of those who mistakenly fear non-citizens can vote. The only other purpose for Amendment 1 would be allowing future Alabama state legislation to disenfranchise groups of Alabama citizens whom a majority of the legislature does not want to vote.

In 2020, the ballots in Florida and Colorado have similar amendments on the ballots. As in Alabama, Citizens Voters, Inc., claims it is responsible for putting these amendments on the ballots in those states. While Citizens Voters’ name sounds like it is a good nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), it has secret political donors. One cannot know who funds Citizen Voters and thus who is behind pushing these amendments with more than $8 million in dark money.

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According to Citizen Voter’s website, the stated reason for Amendment 1 is that some cities in several other states allow non-citizens to vote. My understanding is that such measures are rare and only apply to voting for local school boards.

And why would a local government’s deciding that non-citizens can vote for local school boards be a state constitutional problem? Isn’t the good government practice to allow local control of local issues? And again, this issue does not even exist in Alabama.

The bigger question, which makes Amendment 1’s danger plain to see, is why eliminate the language protectingevery citizen’s right to vote? For example, Amendment 1 could have proposed “Every citizen and only a citizen” instead of deleting “every” when adding “only a” citizen. Why not leave the every citizen language in the Alabama Constitution?

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Amendment 1 could allow Alabama new state legislation to disenfranchise some Alabama citizens. Such a change would probably violate federal law. But Alabama has often had voting laws that violated federal law until a lawsuit forced the state of Alabama not to enforce the illegal state voting law.  

The most recent similar law in Alabama might be 2011’s HB56, the anti-immigrant law. Both HB56 and Amendment 1 are Alabama state laws that out-of-state interests pushed on us. And HB56 has been largely blocked by federal courts after expensive lawsuits.

Alabama’s Nov. 3, 2020, ballot will have six constitutional amendments. On almost all ballots, Amendment 1 will be at the bottom right on the first page (front) of the ballot or will be at the top left on the second page (back) of the ballot.

Let’s keep in our state constitution our protection of every voters’ right to vote.

Based on Amendment 1’s having no practical benefit and its opening many opportunities for mischief, all Alabama voters are strongly urged to vote “no” on Amendment 1.

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Opinion | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution

Gerald Johnson and John Cochran

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The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.

A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.

The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.

In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.

While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.

Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.

Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.

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On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.

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Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color

Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt

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Auburn University's Student Center (VIA AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.

This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.

Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.

These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.

We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.

Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.

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In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.

We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.

In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.

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Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.

Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”

Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.

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Opinion | Alabama lags behind the nation in Census participation with deadline nearing

Paul DeMarco

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The United States Census is starting to wind down around the country with a Sept. 30 deadline for the national population to be completed. However, a United States District Court has recently ruled that the date may be extended another 30 days to allow more time for the census to take place.

Regardless of the deadline, Alabama has work to do when it comes to the census.

To date, the national average for participation around the country has been almost 65 percent for the census.

Unfortunately, Alabama residents are providing data to the census at a lower percentage, around some 61 percent of the state population.

There is already concern among state leaders that if that number does not reach above 70 percent, then the state will lose a seat in Congress, a vote in the electoral college and millions of federal dollars that come to the state every year.

The percentage of participation has varied widely around the state, from a high of 76 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36 percent in neighboring Coosa County.

State leaders are making a final push to request Alabama residents fill out the census in the last month before it is closed.

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We will find out later this fall if Alabama passes the national average of participation in the census compared to other states to retain both its future representation and share of federal dollars.

In the meantime, Alabamians need to fill out their census forms.

The state is depending on it.

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