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Other state AGs are suing 3M over pollution; Alabama’s AG is threatening reporters and feigning ignorance

Josh Moon

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When the attorney general of Minnesota learned of the years of pollution dumped from a 3M plant into his state’s waterways, he filed a lawsuit demanding the company clean up its mess.

A few years later, on the eve of the trial, 3M settled, agreeing to pay $850 million to make Minnesota’s water clean again.

Michigan has followed suit, with its Republican governor asking his attorney general to also file suit against 3M.

At least three other states have also filed lawsuits against the company, with court records documenting decades of pollution and also concerted efforts by 3M and other polluters to mask the dangers of that pollution.

Alabama isn’t one of those states.

Oh, we have the pollution. Testing near a 3M plant in Decatur has shown high levels of pollutants similar to the ones in Minnesota and Michigan, and it has left residents in Lawrence and Morgan counties afraid to drink their tap water.

But Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall isn’t filing a lawsuit.  

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Instead, he’s busy threatening reporters and pretending like he has no clue about the three-year-long ordeal.

Multiple sources have confirmed to APR that a spokesperson in Marshall’s office, communications director Mike Lewis, contacted WHNT-TV station, at Marshall’s direction, to complain about reporter Chelsea Brentzel, who is the station’s lead reporter on the ongoing water issues in north Alabama.

Brentzel’s mistake: Accurate reporting.

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With residents clamoring about the water situation, she and WHNT have produced multiple stories, asking for comments from multiple state officials. That included Marshall, whose office continually ignored their requests for comment.

The one time Brentzel was able to corner the AG, back in July, to ask if any legal action was planned, he said the Alabama Department of Environmental Management hadn’t told him to file a lawsuit.

But when Brentzel quoted Marshall’s opponent, Joseph Siegelman, in a recent story saying he would take action if elected and questioning Marshall’s lack of action, suddenly the station couldn’t get the AG’s office off the phone.

Sources familiar with the calls said Lewis, at Marshall’s direction, complained about Brentzel’s recent story, calling it “political.” Because making sure the people of the state can drink their damn water is political now.

And then there was the threat.

Lewis informed the WHNT bosses that the AG’s office planned to freeze out Brentzel and would no longer respond to her requests, according to the sources.

When asked, Lewis denied that there was a threat, but he did confirm the call to WHNT. He said it was “professional,” and suggested I call WHNT and ask.

So, I did. The WHNT bosses and Brentzel wouldn’t talk publicly about the situation. But assistant news director Paul Caron made it clear that they stood behind their reporting. The stories are up and will remain up, apparently.

Also, sources close to the news station say that Brentzel received the full support of the station, as she should have. It’s nice to have people in power do their jobs. It would be nice if our elected officials would do the same.

Instead, we’re left with yet another pathetic example of Alabama’s AG toting the dirty water for a polluter.

As if Luther Strange’s $25,000 letters on behalf of Drummond Coal weren’t embarrassing enough, Steve Marshall is going after reporters for accurately reporting on the mess 3M has made of the Tennessee River — a once thriving waterway that is now so dirty you can’t swim in portions.

It’s puzzling, right? Why would an elected official turn away from defending the health of thousands of voters?

When such questions are raised, there is usually one answer: money.

And sure enough, Marshall’s campaign received a $2,000 donation from 3M earlier this month, and a $500 donation in May.

He possibly received more 3M money in the $735,000 that came into his campaign from the Republican Attorneys General Association, but the original contributors to RAGA are masked by layers of PAC-to-PAC transfers. (Those sorts of transfers are illegal under Alabama law for just this reason.)

Marshall isn’t alone in this.

Gov. Kay Ivey, asked by WHNT why she’s not pressing for legal action, told the station it’s something she “might” get involved with “later on down the road.”

Until then, let them drink Dasani, I guess.

This is the perfect encapsulation of Alabama government at work: shirk the responsibility, ignore the victims, take money from the polluters, blame the messengers when you get caught.

And they won’t change until voters make them.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Governor announces $356,000 in grants to community agencies to address poverty

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced the award of $356,250 to 20 community action agencies statewide for programs aimed at reducing poverty. 

The Community Action Association of Alabama is to use the funds to support programs by the local agencies which help low-income families, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. 

“Our state’s community action agencies provide vital services to low-income residents who are working to establish or regain their footing to be successful,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work these agencies do to further the goal of reducing and eliminating poverty by helping families build brighter futures.”

The 20 agencies to receive the federal community service block grants offer educational and assistance programs, including job training and education opportunities, access to better nutrition and help with financial management and credit counseling, according to the release. 

The funds are administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and were appropriated by the state Legislature.  

“Gov. Ivey and ADECA fully support the assistance programs offered by these agencies because we have seen how they can serve as a jumpstart for life-changing success for Alabama families,” said ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell in a statement. “ADECA is pleased to continue our partnership with the Community Action Association by supporting the many valuable programs offered by the state’s community action agencies.”

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Hindu temple planned for vacant theater in Hoover

Micah Danney

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The vacant AMC theater off Lorna Road in Hoover, Alabama. (IMAGE VIA GOOGLE)

A local Hindu organization purchased a 38-square-foot former theater in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover and plans to convert it into a sanctuary and educational space to serve the area’s growing Hindu community.

Hindus make up less than 1 percent of Alabama’s population, and while an accurate count of adherents in the state is hard to come by, the number of Hindus in the U.S. has more than doubled over the last decade. 

Rajan Zed, a prominent Hindu cleric based in Reno, Nevada, issued a statement claiming that there is an increasing population of Hindus in Alabama that will require new temples, or mandirs, to “help the community to pass on Hindu spirituality, concepts and traditions to coming generations amidst so many distractions in the consumerist society.” 

Zed urged Hoover’s mayor and city council to unanimously approve the temple plans, “thus expressing warm welcome to the caring Hindu community” that he said is known for its charity and community development.

BAPS Birmingham is the group that owns the theater property. It operates a temple in North Birmingham that is currently closed due the pandemic. It proposed the plans for its second temple, which include a large worship space and 14 classrooms, to the Hoover Planning and Zoning Commission, which voted on Monday to recommend them for approval by the city council.

Mayor Frank Brocato said that he doesn’t anticipate anything preventing that approval. 

Before it closed, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan temple hosted weekly assemblies and offered classes to teach children Gujarati, an Indian language distinct from Hindi but similar.

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There is another Hindu temple near Hoover not affiliated with BAPS, in neighboring Pelham. 

BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, is a Hindu denomination established in 1907 with more than 1 million followers. It operates charities and learning centers worldwide and requires five lifetime vows from its followers: no alcohol, no addictions, no adultery, no meat and no impurity of body or mind.

The population of Hindus in the U.S. increased from 1.2 million in 2007 to 2.23 million in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Zed estimated that the number is around 3 million now. It is projected to reach 4.78 million in 2050, or 1.2 percent of the U.S. population.

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Prisoners quarantined at formerly closed prison kept in unconstitutional conditions, groups say

Conditions are so bad that inmates have been forced to urinate and defacate on themselves because restrooms are not accessible, the complaint alleges.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The male intake area at an ADOC facility. (VIA ADOC)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is violating the constitutional rights of inmates being quarantined in deplorable conditions in the previously decommissioned Draper prison, several civil rights groups wrote in a letter to the state’s prison commissioner.

The ACLU of Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed and other groups in a letter to Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn on Thursday detail those conditions, which include no indoor toilets or running water, repeated power outages, deprivation of regular showers and the requirement of incarcerated men to urinate in “styrofoam cups and plastic water” bottles.

“These conditions fail to meet the most basic constitutional standards and present a substantial risk of serious harm to people already suffering from a potentially fatal disease,” the letter reads. “We therefore request that you immediately cease using Draper to house and/or quarantine COVID-19 patients, and instead house them in medically appropriate settings in accordance with Eighth Amendment standards.”

The groups note that Draper was closed after the U.S. Department of Justice, during its investigation of violence in Alabama prisons, noted Draper as exceptionally “dangerous and unsanitary” with “open sewage” near the entrance, rat and maggot infestations and “standing sewage water on the floors.”

In October 2017, the Justice Department informed ADOC of the department’s shock at the state of the facility and a month later ADOC’s engineer concluded that Draper was “no longer suitable to house inmates, or to be used as a correctional facility,” the letter states.

ADOC reopened a portion of Draper earlier this year to house incoming inmates from county jails being quarantined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the civil rights groups note in the letter that ADOC failed to indicate plans to also use a classroom without bathrooms, running water or adequate medical care at Draper to house COVID-19 patients from other state prisons.

The groups allege in the letter that approximately 15 cots are located in the approximately 500 square feet former classroom, where at any given time between 5 and 15 inmates are being kept. The only restroom facilities the men can use are portable bathrooms outside, and the men have to “bang on the classroom windows to get officers’ attention.”

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“Though officers sometimes escort the men when asked, they decline at other times and fail to maintain a schedule; thus, the men do not have access to bathroom facilities when needed,” the letter reads, adding that the men aren’t allowed to use the outdoor restrooms between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“We have further reason to believe that one man was permitted to use the bathroom only three times during a 13-day quarantine. Another man was not taken to the bathroom until his third day at Draper, while another was forced to urinate on himself on multiple occasions after being denied bathroom access,” according to the letter. “One man suffering from diarrhea was forced to wait hours to use the restroom to defecate. Many others could only relieve themselves into styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, portable urinal containers, or trash cans.”

“They had to hold onto urine-filled bottles for hours at a time until they were allowed to leave the classroom to empty them. It is also our understanding that some men held in these conditions did not receive bottles at all; correctional officers simply told these men that they were ‘out of luck,’” the letter continues.

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The letter also details instances of alleged inadequate medical care, including a man who was sent to a local hospital with heart attack symptoms after not receiving his heart medication for several days.

The groups are also unaware of any Inmates leaving Draper who were tested for COVID-19 before being returned to Elmore and Staton prisons, the letter also states.

“We also have reason to believe that many of the symptomatic men at Staton and Elmore have not reported their symptoms to prison staff for fear of being held at Draper in the deplorable conditions described above,” the letter continues.

APR has learned from several sources in recent weeks, who asked not to be identified because they have loved ones in Alabama prisons and are fearful of retributions for speaking out, that many inmates who have symptoms of COVID-19 aren’t reporting those symptoms to prison staff for fear of being quarantined. Those family members are concerned that the disease is spreading much more broadly in Alabama prisons than is known as a result, putting their loved ones at greater risk of contracting the deadly disease.

Many of the concerns expressed in the letter were first reported by AL.com reported on Sept. 13, which found that access to medical care in Draper is limited and the conditions unsanitary.

In a response to AL.com’s questions for that article, an ADOC spokeswoman wrote that inmates at Draper have access to “medical and mental health care, telephones, law library, mail services, and showers.”

“Please remember — Inmates remanded to our custody have been convicted of a crime and handed a sentence to serve time as determined by a court. The unfortunate reality is that he or she, as a result of the crime committed and subsequent conviction, loses his or her freedoms,” ADOC said in the responses.

“This response is unacceptable as a matter of principle, and inadequate as a matter of law,” the letter from the civil rights group states.

“As ADOC knows, the fact of a criminal conviction does not strip incarcerated people of their rights under the Eighth Amendment, nor does it relieve ADOC of its constitutional obligations to the people in its custody, which are to provide them with ‘humane conditions of confinement,’ ‘adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care,’ and ‘reasonable safety,’” the letter continues.

On Sept. 16, ADOC reported that there have been 403 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, 21 deaths of inmates after testing positive for COVID-19, and 375 cases among prison staff. Two prison workers have died from COVID-19, ADOC previously said.

As of Sept. 14, there had been 1,954 inmate tests for coronavirus, out of the approximately 22,000 state inmates, according to ADOC.

ADOC on Sept. 16 said that on Thursday the department was to begin rolling out a plan to provide free COVID-19 tests to ADOC staff and contracted healthcare staff using fixed and mobile testing sites.

“In addition, we will test all inmates in facilities that house large numbers of inmates with high risk factors as an enhancement to our current testing protocols,” ADOC said in a press release.

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Health

Study: Those with COVID twice as likely to have dined in restaurants

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten in restaurants, which builds upon known factors about how the disease is transmitted, experts say, but the study has limitations.

The study surveyed 314 adults in 10 states and found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at restaurants within the previous 14 days. Researchers found that there was no significant difference between those who tested both positive and negative and who said they had gone to gyms, coffee shops, used public transportation or had family gatherings.

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes.

Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and associate professor at UAB’s School of Public Health, told APR on Wednesday that the study lends evidence to what the medical community knows are potential risks for contracting COVID-19, which include being indoors and unmasked, but there are nuances to each of those activities that can either increase or decrease that risk.

The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, and infectious disease experts say being outdoors decreases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s also hard to know what policies are in place where these people were recruited from for this study,” Hidalgo said. “Whether they’re required to be masked or if there’s a decreased capacity in a restaurant.”

Monica Aswani, assistant professor at UAB’s School of Health Professions, said she would be cautious about interpreting the study through a causal lens.

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“People who are willing to dine in restaurants are also likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as not wearing masks. Since this is a survey, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the source of exposure was restaurants without contact tracing to supplement it,” Aswani said. “Likewise, respondents may have misreported their behaviors, given the sensitive nature of the questions. The authors note this as a limitation and highlight how participants were aware of their Covid-19 test results, which may have influenced how they responded.”

Aswani also noted that the questions about dining did not differentiate between indoor versus outdoor seating, “which represent different levels of risk to exposure.”

“Participants who visited a restaurant on at least one occasion, regardless of the frequency, are also considered similar. Consequently, in the two weeks before they felt ill, someone who dined on a restaurant patio once and someone who ate indoors at five different restaurants are indistinguishable in their data,” Aswani said.

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Hidalgo said that while there are clear limitations to the CDC’s study, the findings do back up what the medical community knows about the transmission of the disease.

“I would very much look at this from the big picture perspective, and say we know that indoor activities are an increased risk for COVID-19. This study lends evidence to that,” Hidalgo said.

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