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Infrastructure

Freshman lawmaker bushwhacks governor, walks back his I-10 bridge stance

Bill Britt

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Freshman State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, last week took to the Mobile radio airwaves to stab Gov. Kay Ivey in the back, reveal the contents of a private meeting and walk back his former position on the I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge.

While holding the office of Baldwin County Commissioner, Elliott was fully aware of the potential cost of the bridge, the tolling mechanism to pay for it and the lack of funding coming from the federal government.

He was for ALDOT’s plan for the bridge before he was against it.

Elliott has been on board with the project since its early planning stages, however, he failed to mention any of his previous positions when he appeared on FM Talk 106.5’s “Mobile Mornings” with host Sean Sullivan.

“I think it all goes back to the cost of the project,” Elliott said as reported by Jeff Poor for Yellowhammer News. “The cost of the project drives the need for tolling. The cost of the project drives the need for a very long timeframe on the tolling. So that’s where in my mind we need to start – is we need to go back to some of the design input that were made early on in this process and take a step back and look and say, ‘Do we need this bridge to be this tall?’ for instance.”

Elliott was part of toll discussion and had input into how the bridge would be configured.

During the interview Elliott took the occasion to reveal the contents of a private meeting the South Alabama delegation had with Ivey during the BCA conference at Point Clear.

“We met with Gov. Ivey last week in Point Clear,” he said. “She had the Mobile and Baldwin County delegations in. And she read from a sheet of paper and proclaimed that we needed a 215-foot bridge for post-Panamax vessels to go under.”

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Elliott said the governor was wrong about why the bridge needed to be so high.

The state contends the new Mobile River Bridge will have more than 215 feet of vertical clearance to carry I-10 across the Mobile Channel, permitting all types of maritime traffic in the Port of Mobile.

The Federal Highway Administration regulations state that the Bayway needs to be raised above the 100-year storm surge level.

Elliott says the only reason to have 215 feet of vertical clearance is to allow for cruise ships.

Astonishingly, the freshman lawmaker seemed to take delight in emphasizing that the governor read her remarks rather than speaking off the cuff during the closed-door meeting with lawmakers.

As a general rule, private meetings with any governor are off the record and only for internal discussion. That Elliott divulged Ivey’s conversation would suggest he doesn’t respect that time-honored tradition.

In Montgomery, as in all politics, information is power, but to betray Ivey’s confidence doesn’t speak well for a man who took office only a year ago.

Before being elected a state senator from District 32, Elliott served on the Baldwin County Commission. As part of that body, he was involved in the planning for the I-10 toll bridge including the discussion to toll the bridge.

“We are looking at a way to make sure that that 60 percent of the traffic that is not from Mobile and Baldwin County is helping pay for a portion of this bridge through a tolling option as well, Elliott said according two Al.com. “I think that will be much more palatable for our taxpayers.”

Elliott was also part of the delegation that traveled to Washington D.C. in 2018, to discuss a federal-state match for the proposed bridge construction.

According to a report by Fox10, Elliott knew that the federal match would be much less than for previous projects and supported a toll to make up the difference.

‘”It used to be an 80/20 federal to state match, and now we have almost reversed that to be a 20/80,” Elliott said. “The local money in the 80 percent split would come from bonds, some state money, private investor money, and tolls.”

He also said that he wanted to reconfigure the toll authority board by cutting into Gov. Ivey’s two at-large appointments.

In a not so veiled threat, Elliott is looking to curtail Ivey’s influence on the board.

“You’re probably going to see legislation this year that changes that,” Elliott said on Mobile Mornings. “There are certain things the legislature can do and certain things the legislature can’t do. But what you are going to see out of the Mobile and Baldwin County delegations is probably a dozen pieces of legislation that tries to address some of the failings that we’re seeing right now.”

Elliott takes issue with Ivey’s appointment of her chief of staff, Jo Bonner, and her deputy chief of staff, Liz Filmore.

Bonner is the former U.S. Representative for Alabama’s 1st congressional district from 2003 to 2013, and he has been involved with Mobile area issues long before Elliott dreamed of being a public official. Bonner has served the people of South Alabama for decades as congressman and chief of staff to legendary lawmaker Sonny Callahan who served the area from 1985 to 2003.

As one coastal representative speaking on background about his colleague, Elliott said, “Chris has found a set of brass balls, he just doesn’t realize they belong to Kay Ivey.”

Like other coastal lawmakers and public figures, Elliott is flip-flopping on his previously held positions due to pressure from anti-toll forces.

Despite having insider knowledge of the scope of the project and agreeing to the need for a toll, Elliott is now looking to claw his way back from his previous stances while throwing the state’s popular governor under the bridge.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Elliott’s bill as enabling toll legislation. His bill was part of a series of measures that dealt with tolling and tax breaks on construction. Elliot’s bill made construction cost for the bridge tax-exempt, lowering the cost of construction.

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Environment

Alabama’s drinking water is safe during COVID-19 crisis, ADEM Director Says

Staff

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Alabama’s drinking water is safe, so there’s no need to hoard cases of bottled water during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

“With so many things Alabamians have to worry about – their jobs, social distancing, the welfare of loved ones, gathering food and other necessities – the safety of their drinking water shouldn’t be one of them,” said Lance LeFleur, ADEM’s director. “The water they get from their tap, whether it’s from a large municipal system or a small, rural utility, is 100 percent safe due to the proven safety requirements they are required to follow and that ADEM enforces. People don’t need to fear the coronavirus as far as their water is concerned.”

LeFleur in a statement from his office points out that the disinfectants used in the water systems—as standard operating procedures kill viruses, including COVID-19. It is also a standard operation of municipal wastewater systems to kill any viruses before the treated water is discharged into Alabama’s rivers and streams.

“ADEM, through its permitting and inspections, is making sure the drinking water systems, as well as wastewater systems, abide by the appropriate, stringent clean water standards,” LeFleur said.

In a letter sent to Gov. Kay Ivey, on Friday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew R. Wheeler emphasized the importance of the public having confidence in their water supply during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“Ensuring that drinking water and wastewater services are fully operational is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks,” Wheeler said. “Handwashing and cleaning depend on providing safe and reliable drinking water and effective treatment of wastewater.”

Wheeler also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognizes water and wastewater treatment workers and their suppliers as essential critical infrastructure workers and urged state and local officials to “ensure that these workers and businesses receive the access, credentials, and essential status necessary to sustain our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

LeFleur agrees with Homeland Security’s designation of essential workers.

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“From an environmental standpoint, nothing is more important than maintaining clean drinking water,” he said. “While coronavirus does not in itself pose a threat to our drinking water, nor to our wastewater treatment systems, it would be impossible to fight the virus without clean water. Our water systems and their employees are essential, and from our standpoint, so too are the people, our people, whose job is to make sure those systems are safe and well-maintained.”

Aubrey White heads the drinking water branch of ADEM’s Water Division, which oversees municipal and rural water systems as part of the agency’s authority delegated by the EPA to carry out the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Alabama. ADEM does this through enforcement of regulations, construction and operating permits, robust monitoring and reporting, and frequent inspections of the nearly 600 public water systems in the state.

“Obviously, this is a huge responsibility given us, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” White said. “Even as a lot of business and state agencies have curtailed activities due to COVID-19-related mandates, we must continue the monitoring, inspections, reporting and enforcement of the regulations that help ensure our water is clean and safe and will remain clean and safe.”

An example of ADEM’s continuing efforts to safeguard public health is the State Revolving Fund (SRF), through which the agency provides low-interest loans to public water, wastewater and stormwater management systems to pay for infrastructure improvement projects. Three such projects recently were awarded funding by ADEM totaling millions of dollars and are currently in the public comment period – $1.25 million to the Grand Bay Water Works Board in Mobile County for a new wastewater treatment unit; $1.2 million to Phenix City for a sanitary sewer lift station; and $462,000 to Spanish Fort to restore and improve a drainage canal.

“Some of these projects might not be possible if not for the financial assistance we help provide,” said Kris Berry, chief of ADEM’s State Revolving Fund section. “These projects were proposed by the local authorities based on what they need to maintain and improve their safe water managing systems, reviewed by our staff and opened to the public to weigh in.”

Created by 1982 Law

Making sure our drinking water is safe is just one of the many vital roles ADEM performs. Protecting the state’s air, water and land by enforcing state and federal rules and regulations is why ADEM exists.

ADEM traces its roots to the Alabama Environmental Management Act, passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1982 to create a comprehensive program of environmental management for the state. The law created the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and established ADEM as the vehicle to absorb several commissions, agencies, programs and staffs that had been responsible for implementing environmental laws.

 ADEM, with 575 employees at its headquarters in Montgomery and regional offices in Birmingham, Decatur and Mobile, administers all major federal environmental laws. These include the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts and federal solid and hazardous waste laws.

During the current health crisis, LeFleur said his agency is following the new mandates issued by Gov. Kay Ivey and the state health officer to curtail the spread of COVID-19, which means some employees are working remotely. However, ADEM offices are operating under normal business hours while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“All essential functions of the department are being performed,” the director said. “All citizen complaints received by ADEM will be investigated, and they can be submitted and tracked electronically. In addition, ADEM staff is readily accessible, and public contact is available seamlessly by phone and email.”

ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov, provides plenty of useful information, LeFleur said. Website visitors can keep up with current issues, including notices, comment periods and contact information, as well as enforcement actions.

If past public health and public safety crises are an indication, ADEM could be called on to help in another way. ADEM trucks and vehicles are available to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to transport medical supplies and other uses. LeFleur said those vehicles helped transport supplies following the Gulf oil spill as well as in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes that struck the state.

Helping Protect Jobs

LeFleur said ADEM continues to work with local economic development offices concerning new industry. These efforts help protect current jobs and provides assistance to industry that create new jobs. In addition to the current SRF loan projects, other programs through which ADEM provides assistance include scrap tire cleanups, unauthorized dump cleanups, recycling grants, water and air quality monitoring, weather forecasting, underground storage tank monitoring and cleanups, anti-litter campaigns and brownfield cleanup program.

“The fact is, we are doing a lot that the public is not aware of to assist businesses and local governments,” LeFleur said. “That is especially important now when everyone is eager for the coronavirus crisis to end and for people to go back to work.

“That is not to say, however, that we are going easy on them. To the contrary, if they violate their permits and regulations and cause environmental harm, rest assured we are going to hold them accountable. Our job one is protecting Alabama’s water, air and land resources, and by extension public safety. That is what we are continuing to do.”

 

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Infrastructure

Cable provider wants more access to broadband as schools stay closed, go to E-learning

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that Alabama’s K-12 schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,”

For many wealthier suburban children, this will mean a transition to E-learning. For many poorer and more rural children, they don’t have broadband in their homes.

Some schools already have this in place. Other systems will be scrambling to get compliant with Superintendent Eric Mackey’s directives and parents will have to figure it out once their local schools do.

If your internet connection consists of going to the McDonald’s parking lot (sitting in the dining portion of a restaurant is now illegal due to COVID-19 fears) being a good E-learner will prove to be challenging it if happens at all.

Alabama cable providers want to supply that broadband to unserved and underserved communities. The Alabama Cable and Broadband Association welcomed the news.

“Taking into account the events of the last three weeks, greater reliance on high-speed internet service from our homes has emerged almost overnight,” said ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth, Executive Director. “Fortunately for many Alabamians, high-speed or ‘broadband’ access already existed in the home. But for many who live in rural areas of the state, and for those who cannot afford broadband service, the spotlight exposed the absence of broadband in homes and small businesses.”

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

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Even prior to the current public health crisis, Alabama’s cable providers had already been planning to invest more than $13 million to bring broadband telecommunications services to rural Alabama citizens who do not yet have high-speed internet services. The investment would be incentivized through $4.67 million in grant funding from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund (ABAF), a state fund established in 2018 to help extend broadband services to rural Alabamians who do not yet have them.

These ABAF grants can fund up to 35 percent of project costs to extend broadband technology, would enable the full $13 million cable provider broadband investment. These grant-funded projects would be in addition to the ongoing rural broadband investment being made by Alabama’s cable providers, Roth said.

For the current ABAF grant cycle, the 18 grants applied for by Alabama cable providers cover nearly 8,000 rural Alabama homes and businesses, including 35 community anchor locations such as rural hospitals and libraries. The grants seek to serve the highest number of unserved homes, businesses and community anchor points for the least cost and best level of service. Projects including the highest broadband speeds are emphasized in the evaluation process.

“Alabama’s cable companies have been providing broadband to rural consumers since the late 1990s, and we are proud to continue efforts to expand broadband service in rural areas,” Roth said. “But bringing high-speed, broadband access to Alabama’s rural customers takes more than just cable provider investment. It takes all broadband providers across technology platforms working together for a common good as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

“No stakeholders can say for sure how our economy and society will change as a result of the COVID-19 crisis; however, this much is clear: we must expedite our collective industry efforts to bring broadband to the state’s rural and low-income citizens, so that everyone has a chance at a much brighter future,” Roth said.

While unserved communities is the focus on the state’s broadband efforts, there are also many communities with an obsolescent cable connection that don’t have enough bandwidth and speed to get the most out of the internet.

As of press time, 526 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had already been found and hundreds of COVID-19 diagnosed persons, as well as people who were admitted to the hospital with symptoms that appear to be COVID-19 are filling Alabama’s intensive care wards and many of them are on ventilators. Children’s Hospital already has one of these patients.

Families are being advised to shelter in place for their own protection and so as not to spread the virus to other people. The Mayors of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa have both given orders forbidding nonessential movements. This will be somewhat perplexing for the parent that has to drive miles to a library, Jacks, or McDonalds to access the WIFI for the child to fulfill their public school assignments.

We don’t know yet whether grades and advancing to the next grade or not will be dependent on how a child performs in the remaining eight weeks of distance learning.

COVED-19 has already killed 1,300 Americans, including at least one Alabamian, as of press time and over 84,000 Americans have been confirmed with the disease. Many more are infected and are showing only mild symptoms. Others are waiting on labs to process their test results. A shortage of test kits has also delayed getting many people tested.

 

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Health

Natural gas company Spire suspends disconnections, late fees until at least May

Eddie Burkhalter

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Natural gas company Spire on Wednesday announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic its employees would now only do essential work, and disconnections and late fees for customers have been suspended until at least May 1. 

“If you’re worried about your natural gas bill, please give us a call. We’re always here for you, ready to work with you on finding the best solution for your situation,” The company said in a statement.

Spire’s full statement: 

To all those we serve,

As your local natural gas provider, we’ve been closely monitoring the evolving coronavirus events across the communities we serve—because we believe nothing is more important than your safety and the safety of Spire employees. This holds true whether we’re delivering energy to homes and businesses or doing our part in preventing the spread of the virus.

And that balance of delivering reliable energy while helping our communities stay safe is incredibly important right now, because we’re considered an essential utility and part of our nation’s vital energy infrastructure.

As an “essential service” designated by government authorities, we’ll continue to operate even under a state of emergency and any shelter in place orders.

So, when you see our field technicians working, know that we’re there to provide you with the energy you need to cook homemade dinners and warm your homes while our communities shelter in place.

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Simply put, these are uncertain times. And as we face them together, your trust in us is important.

So, I’d like to share with you what we’ve been doing to take action and care for each other and all those we serve.

For you, our customers

We’ve adjusted the services we provide, performing only essential work. This will help protect both you and our team members as we continue to closely monitor developments. The CDC is regularly updating their guidelines and best practices, and we are following these guidelines carefully.

We’ve officially suspended late fees, disconnection notices and disconnections until at least May 1. If you’re worried about your natural gas bill, please give us a call. We’re always here for you, ready to work with you on finding the best solution for your situation.

We’ve provided field employees with the tools they need to do their jobs, requiring everyone to maintain social distancing and safety guidelines provided by the CDC. And, we’ve increased the frequency of deep cleanings of our equipment and at our facilities. 

 For our employees

Because we live and work in the communities we serve, caring for our employees has an impact on our communities at large. That’s why we:

  • Enacted our preparedness response plan, which defines how we adjust the service we provide in response to the changing situation
  • Canceled all travel and events
  • Provided emergency leave for employees who are unable to work from home and are quarantined, caring for a loved one who is quarantined or taking care of a child or family member because of coronavirus-related school and child care facility closures
  • Ensured all employees who can work from home do so

As an essential service that you depend on, we’ll continue to monitor our processes as the situation evolves. And, if you’d like more information about all we’re doing to keep Spire employees and communities safe, visit us 24/7 at  SpireEnergy.com/Coronavirus.

Through it all, our promise to you is that we’re focused on the safety and well-being of those we serve.

We’re in this together.

 

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Health

The numbers show COVID-19 could cripple Alabama’s hospitals

Chip Brownlee

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Even in the best-case scenarios, we could run out of ICU beds. In the worst, thousands could be without a bed. Will this crisis cripple our hospitals?

Read more here

 

 

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