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ADECA releases plan to spend $25 million in VW settlement money

Josh Moon

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The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) released its plans last week for spending more than $25 million — its share of a $2.3 billion national settlement with Volkswagen — and is now seeking public input on the plan.

The settlement stemmed from VW’s scheme to cheat emissions testings, which resulted in years of VW’s cars emitting levels of nitrogen oxides that far exceeded government limits.

According to the terms of the settlement, states have up to 15 years to spend their allocated funds and up to 10 years to spend 80 percent. Alabama’s plan would use all of the funds inside of 10 years, making it eligible to receive more funds should they be available in 15 years.

The general public can view ADECA’s plan on their website. A public hearing on the plan will be held Jan. 15 in the 7th-floor auditorium at the Alabama Center for Commerce at 401 Adams Ave. in Montgomery.

“ADECA has put a lot of work into this plan,” said Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition Executive Director Mark Bentley, “and we encourage all stakeholders to read the draft and, if they desire to provide constructive input, attend the public hearing meeting on the 15th.”

After the hearing, ADECA will make in necessary alterations to the plan and then forward it to Gov. Kay Ivey for approval. The agency plans to submit initial requests for applications within the first quarter.

 

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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Corruption

Prosecution accepts misdemeanor plea in high-profile environmental administrator’s case 

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Bill Britt

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Almost two years ago, Trump administration EPA Region 4 Administrator Onis “Trey” Glenn III was charged with more than a dozen state felony ethics violations. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecution.

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission at the time, Glenn, along with former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips, was charged after a Jefferson County grand jury returned indictments against the two on Nov. 9, 2018, according to a statement from the Ethics Commission.

Rather than moving forward with the case, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Glenn. They opted to reach an agreement to accept a plea on three counts of “unintentional” violations of the ethics code. Glenn received a two-year suspended sentence for his actions.

“In the interest of efficiency, we were pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to resolve this matter,” Glenn’s attorney Matt Hart told APR when reached for comment. “My client pleaded to unintentional, misdemeanor violations of the ethics law, and the matter is concluded.”

Questions surround the prosecution’s decision to settle the case for a confession to minor offensives in such a high profile case. Still, from the beginning, the case was marred by allegations that the Alabama Ethics Commission’s lawyers had mishandled the investigation and indictments.

Indictments against Glenn and Phillips were reported by AL.com even before the pair was arrested or served with the indictments. In AL.com’s report, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that then-Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help indict the two men.

As first reported by APR, shortly after Glenn and Phillips’ indictments, Albritton and his team’s actions raised serious questions about the process that led to charges against the two men. APR reported that Albritton and Ethics Commission lawyer Cynthia Propst Raulston approached Anderton, and he did not request help with the case from the commission, as was reported in AL.com.

Later, APR confirmed that the Ethics Commission approached Anderton, contradicting Albritton’s public statement. In a sworn statement given on Feb. 9, 2019, Anderton said it was Ethics Commission lawyers who approached him, as first reported by APR in November of last year.

According to Anderton, in the fall of 2018, Propst Raulston approached him because “she had a case she wanted to present to the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

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He further states, “I told Ms. Raulston that I would facilitate her appearance before the grand jury but that my office did not have the resources to support her case. I also told her that she would have to prosecute the case herself.”

These and other aberrations came into sharper focus when Hart — the state’s most famous prosecutor of his generation turned defense attorney — began diving into the particulars of the prosecution’s case.

Glenn’s defense argued from the start that procedural process was circumvented when Albritton and Propst Raulston took the complaint directly to a grand jury rather than the Ethics Commission as prescribed by the Legislature.

An ethics commissioner told APR privately that the commission was never informed about a complaint against the two men, nor was the investigation.

According to internal sources, actions taken by Albritton and Propst Raulston created turmoil at the commission and raised a question about who would prosecute the case on the state’s behalf.

During the process, Albritton, Propst Raulston, and other attorneys for the commission asked the attorney general’s office to take over the case; however, according to sources within the office, the AG turned them down after a review found “statutory problems” with how the case against Glenn and Phillips was handled.

In a motion to dismiss, the defense said, “In sum, the Ethics Commission Staff trampled Mr. Glenn’s rights in obtaining the indictment without giving him his required notice and an opportunity to be heard as required by the Alabama Ethics Act, and then after indictment denied him notice as guaranteed by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and failed to protect his presumption of innocence as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

While not explicitly noted in the motion to dismiss, the relationship between environmental group GASP and the prosecution was a subject that would have been heard in the hearing on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Immediately following Glenn and Phillips’ indictment, GASP posted a celebratory tweet, even taking credit for the indictment.

Former GASP director Stacie Propst is the sister of Ethics Commission lawyer Propst Raulston who presented the case to the Jefferson County grand jury.

While many in the environmental community celebrated Glenn’s indictment, the defense argued the prosecution took an illegal short cut to indict him, which denied Glenn due process and amounted to selective and vindictive prosecution.

Monday’s plea agreement ended the two-year drama without further exposure as to what happened behind the scene. Phillips’s case is still pending.

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Environment

Interior Department designates new national recreational trail in Alabama

The designation is part of a broader national announcement that establishes 30 new national recreation trails in 25 states, adding more than 1,275 miles to the National Trails System.

Brandon Moseley

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Located in Cheaha State Park, the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (Bald Rock Boardwalk) is a 0.3-mile boardwalk trail.

United States Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt this week designated a new national recreation trail in Alabama.

Located in Cheaha State Park, the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (Bald Rock Boardwalk) is a 0.3-mile boardwalk trail that allows users of all abilities to journey through the enchanted hardwood forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

The designation is part of a broader national announcement that establishes 30 new national recreation trails in 25 states, adding more than 1,275 miles to the National Trails System.

The announcement is in addition to the 370 miles of national recreation trails that were designated in 2018, bringing the Trump administration’s total to 49 national recreation trails added, spanning 1,645 miles.

“I encourage Americans to get outside, enjoy our incredible public lands and visit a nearby national recreation trail,” Bernhardt said. “Spanning more than 83,000 miles, larger than the interstate highway system, the National Trails System provides easy access to a wide variety of outdoor experiences. The Trump Administration is committed to expanding public access to the outdoors, so more Americans have the opportunity and ability to experience it in all of its splendor.”

Bernhardt said that the new designations advance the Trump administration’s priority to increase public access to outdoor recreational opportunities in alignment with Secretary’s Order 3366.

Interior-managed outdoor recreation activities support more than 452,000 jobs and account for more than $58 billion in economic output across the country.

“American Trails promotes and maintains the database of our country’s National Recreation Trails (NRT) and applauds this new slate of Secretarial designations from the Department of the Interior,” said NRT executive director Mike Passo. “The NRT program brings vibrancy to the National Trail System by uniquely highlighting trails that are accessible, relatable, and serve a wide diversity of our nation’s public. With these designations, the NRT database at AmericanTrails.org exceeds 1,300 trails.”

“American Hiking Society welcomes the designation of 30 new National Recreation Trails that will create enhanced recreational opportunities for hikers and all types of trail users,” said American Hiking Society executive director Kate Van Waes. “Each trail selected to receive this honor must support a diversity of users, reflect its region, and be among America’s best trails, all qualities that benefit the hiking community.”

“Americans are enjoying close-to-home recreation and thanks to our amazing National Trails System, they have even more places to explore,” said PeopleForBikes President and CEO Jenn Dice. “With a 75 percent increase in bike ridership on trails this year, we commend the Department of the Interior for this expansion and granting our nation more access to the outdoors. Thanks to these initiatives, we’re getting closer to meeting the needs of a fast-growing community of people outdoors and on bikes finding joy, freedom and health on our trails nationwide.”

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The National Trails System, which includes national scenic, national historic, and national recreation trails, offers an abundance of scenic, historic and recreation trails for outdoor enjoyment on America’s public lands.

The system promotes preservation, public access, travel within and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas, and historic resources of the United States.

The National Recreation Trails Program is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with a number of federal and nonprofit partners.

The designation of a national recreation trail can be done by either the secretary of the interior or the secretary of agriculture on an existing local or regional trail with the consent of the federal, state, local, nonprofit or private entity that has jurisdiction over the trail.

Families are looking for more outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, hunting and camping given the dangers associated with group activities like sports, theaters and other activities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hiking on the National Recreation Trails is a fun, safe activity that the whole family can enjoy while still maintaining CDC recommended social distancing.

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Environment

State shuts down flounder harvest in November

Fishermen can resume harvesting flounders Dec. 1, 2020, at 12:01 a.m.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Marine Resources Division reminded saltwater fishermen that harvesting any flounder (Paralichthys albigutta) during the month of November is prohibited.

“The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division would like to remind anglers of the flounder changes that were adopted on August 1, 2019,” the MRD announced. “Flounder will be closed for harvest during the entire month of November for both commercial and recreational fishermen.”

Fishermen can resume harvesting flounders Dec. 1, 2020, at 12:01 a.m.

The MRD reminds saltwater anglers that the recreational size limit for flounder is 14 inches total length, and the daily bag limit is five per person. The commercial size limit is 14 inches total length with a daily limit of 40 per person or 40 per vessel.

Alabama is a sportsman’s paradise with year-round freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing and hunting opportunities. Hunting and fishing are activities that the whole family can enjoy while still social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Remember that you must have a valid license to hunt or fish. You can get the appropriate licenses online.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is tasked with promoting wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. More information is available online.

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Environment

ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures

APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

Bill Britt

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ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.

While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.

“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”

LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”

According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”

EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.

“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”

He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.

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Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.

Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.

“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.

According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.

“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.

Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.

Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.

Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.

“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”

The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.

Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.

“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”

While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.

ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.

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