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Zeigler: One of the three companies bidding on I-10 bridge walked off four projects in Florida

Brandon Moseley

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State Auditor Jim Zeigler charged that a company on the short-list for building the Mobile Bayway toll bridge walked off four projects in Florida, and its parent company filed bankruptcy.

According to Zeigler, Astaldi Construction Corp. abandoned four large road and bridge construction jobs in Florida. Astaldi’s surety bondholders were required to find and pay new contractors to perform the abandoned work, which has still not been completed.

Astaldi is now a part of Mobile River Bridge Group and is handling lead operations and maintenance for them. They are one of three companies allowed to compete for the $2.1 billion contract for a toll bridge and road on I-10 over Mobile Bay.

“The Alabama Department of Transportation is getting us into something that we cannot get out of,” Zeigler said. “ALDOT blew a $250 million federal grant application to pay toward the bridge. They are dead-set on charging tolls to cross Mobile Bay. Now, I find out that one of their short-list companies walked off four projects in Florida.”

Astaldi’s parent company, the Astaldi Group, filed for bankruptcy in October.

ALDOT has proposed a toll charge of up to $12 for a round trip over Mobile Bay between Baldwin and Mobile counties on I-10. They would charge the toll both on the new bridge and on the existing Wallace I-10 tunnels. The selected company, a private partner called “P3” would operate the bridge and collect tolls for the next 55 years. Persons who went under the electronic toll counters that did not pay the bill would potentially have their registration suspended.

Zeigler has started a Facebook group three weeks ago to oppose the I-10 toll bridge. The group now has 6,500 members.

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Last year, ALDOT applied for a federal grant to help pay for the bridge project. That grant request was denied by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Since there is not federal money for the project, ALDOT proceeded with “plan B,” which is contracting with a private company to build the bridge and allow them to collect tolls on the project for over half a century.

Zeigler says that ALDOT should put this project on hold and go back to the drawing boards on a new plan and suggested that a congestion plan would help alleviate the issues.

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“Going across smooth as silk,” Zeigler said. “Nothing wrong with this bridge. Congestion management can fix it. Working on a congestion plan that is very affordable.”

Advocates for the working poor have suggested that the common people with lower incomes who go back and forth between Mobile and Baldwin Counties will be the most impacted by the toll system. Others have expressed concerns that residents of booming Baldwin County will just avoid Mobile all together and will instead do their big city needs in Pensacola, Florida instead.

“Either ALDOT was negligent in this grant application, or else they lost the grant on purpose to further their intention of a toll bridge operated by their partner,” Zeigler said. “A $12 round trip toll over the bay will damage Baldwin and Mobile counties worse than Katrina and the BP oil spill combined.”

Zeigler is term limited from seeking a second term as state auditor.

He has formed an exploratory committee to look at running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Doug Jones.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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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.”

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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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Infrastructure

USDA awards $3 million in grants for Alabama distance learning, telemedicine infrastructure

Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue this week announced that the USDA is investing $72 million in grants to help rural residents gain access to health care and educational opportunities.

These investments, the department says, will benefit more than 12 million rural residents across the country.

Perdue said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for expanded broadband as many employees are working from home and need reliable internet service.

Improved Internet services will also impact health care through telemedicine.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is right now as our nation manages the coronavirus emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children and remote business operations all require access to broadband. I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on.”

Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.

“I look at investing in broadband as a critical priority, especially in today’s environment,” said USDA Rural Development State Director for Alabama Chris Beeker. “Having access to broadband is vital and no longer a luxury, but rather a fundamental need of rural Alabamians because it creates opportunities for the development of the economy, health care centers and educational institutions that wouldn’t otherwise be available.”

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The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program helps health care and education institutions buy the equipment and software necessary to deploy distance-learning and telemedicine services to rural residents.

The Clay County School District will use a $304,801 distance learning grant to establish a distance learning network connecting the Clay County Hospital and Clay County Board of Education.

Clay County Schools will utilize this project to bolster STEM programs through the addition of distance learning Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment courses.

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Clay County Hospital will use this partnership to connect to teletherapy providers for mental health and drug counseling services, thereby increasing the culpability of school district, hospital and community.

This project will raise the educational outcomes for all students providing much necessary STEM course offerings in the project sites and stimulate growth in the project community by increasing practitioner involvement in all areas of STEM education and health services, including real-world connections to our current curricula and the opportunity to integrate tele-education in areas not currently served through our health services programs.

The Central North Alabama Health Services will use a $173,818 telemedicine grant to help deliver an interactive digital audio-visual communication platform across five health centers in northern Alabama.

Distance learning will be focused on a health and wellness curriculum including concentrations in nursing assistant and opiate substance treatment and counseling. Equipment will include interactive telehealth carts that feature video codec, display, audio system and camera installed on a rolling base that contains an external battery; some will contain peripheral examination equipment. A large conference monitor will also be placed at all sites for group conferencing.

The Dale County Board of Education will use a $716,114 distance learning grant to allow the Dale County Board of Education to launch a new Distance Learning project that will serve seven schools, a career and technical campus and an alternative school in rural Dale County.

Interactive video conferencing will be used to deliver STEM-focused, synchronous educational content to participating end users.

The Franklin Primary Health Center will use a $610,927 telemedicine grant to connect health center hubs located in Mobile, Alabama, with rural end-user medical and dental sites. The new connectivity will provide real-time audio and visual interactions with expert medical and behavioral specialists for the care of rural patients.

The services will include the treatment of substance abuse disorders. The project will deploy interactive video conferencing equipment required for medical consultations and provide training in the use of other project equipment.

This, along with telehealth carts with integrated codec, camera, microphone, monitors and peripheral patient examination devices, will assist specialists to provide real-time interactive telehealth visits.

The Macon County School District will use a $469,859 distance learning grant to assist the Macon County School District to purchase interactive video conferencing equipment. The equipment will provide distance learning services for high school and middle school students.

This project will enable the district to deliver new courses at Macon’s high schools and middle school by connecting and sharing teachers across schools. This will position the district to provide more electives, more core courses and more opportunities for advanced courses for middle school students.

The Madison County Board of Education will use a $775,058 distance learning grant to allow the Madison County School District to expand STEM education augmented curriculum and virtual field trip opportunities using distance learning technology. This expansion will help to enhance career and college readiness for every school within the district.

Twenty-eight sites will connect with each other to share curriculum and improve learning and engagement for their students. This project will help to provide equal access to educational opportunities throughout the schools served within Madison County.

To learn more about investment resources for rural areas, interested parties should contact their USDA Rural Development state office.

The USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements, business development, housing, community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care and high-speed internet access in rural areas.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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Infrastructure

Shelby announces more than $15 million in grants for projects in Tuscaloosa, the Wiregrass region

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby on Thursday announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded two grants totaling more than $15 million for infrastructure projects and planning in Tuscaloosa and the Wiregrass region. 

One Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development grant for $15 million is to be used to improve access to the Riverwalk area in West Tuscaloosa and a second grant of $450,000 to the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission is to fund feasibility studies related to transportation projects in the Wiregrass region, according to a press release from Shelby’s office. 

“I am proud to announce that Alabama has been awarded two BUILD grants, one to improve infrastructure investments in Tuscaloosa and a planning grant to assist the Wiregrass region,” Shelby said in a statement. “Both BUILD grants will provide important federal resources that will improve infrastructure and promote increased economic development opportunities in Alabama. I would like to thank Secretary Chao, the Department of Transportation, as well as the local communities for their work on these projects.”

The $15 million grant for Tuscaloosa will be used to make improvements to the Black Warrior River barge mooring, construct a bicycle and pedestrian path and complete a pedestrian bridge. The mooring improvements will allow the abandoned lock structure to be used for the construction of the shared-use path, according to the release. The pedestrian bridge will cross the new Jack Warner Parkway, and the bicycle and pedestrian path will run from the new pedestrian bridge to the existing riverfront park to the east, with lighting and security elements.

The $450,000 grant to the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission will fund the studies of a project that would widen approximately 24 miles of State Route 167 from a two-lane to a four-lane, from the Alabama State Line to U.S. Route 84.

The second project would widen approximately 13 miles of State Route 52, extending a segment from Geneva to Dothan that is currently being widened to State Route 167. Both of these projects could receive construction funding in the future, according to Shelby’s office.

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