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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.”

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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.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected]eporter.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Economy

Clean water advocates want a comprehensive water plan for Alabama that creates jobs

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Environmentalists are optimistic about making progress on water resource issues and the state’s climate change preparedness under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and next Congress, particularly because the president-elect is indicating that economic gains go hand-in-hand with protecting the environment.

“It’s really exciting to see the Biden administration put jobs in the same conversation with their climate and environmental policies, because for too long there has been that false argument that jobs and the environment don’t go together — that you can’t have a regulated business sector and create jobs,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance.

On a recent post-election call with other advocates, Lowry said that the current policy outlook reinforced the importance of voting. There have been some steps forward for conservation during the presidency of Donald Trump, she said, like the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, but the administration has prioritized industry interests.

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

“We have spent so much time and energy as a movement trying to defend and basically just hold the line against so many of the rollbacks, and now we can focus on moving forward on certain areas,” Lowry said.

Julian Gonzalez, a clean water advocate with the nonprofit Earthjustice in Washington D.C., said on the call that the incoming Congress will be the “most environmentally aware Congress we’ve had.” Still, the real work remains.

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“Everything needs to be one conversation, and you should be able to go call your Congressperson and say, ‘How are you going to fix America’s water problem?’ and they should have an answer, but right now that’s not the case,” Gonzalez said.

For Alabama’s water advocates, priorities are what to do with coal ash, how to prepare for droughts and flooding, improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure and providing relief to communities that have been affected by environmental degradation.

While production of coal ash has reduced due mostly to market-driven decreases in the burning of coal, enough facilities still use it that Alabama is developing its own permitting process and regulations for storing it. The Biden administration can provide leadership on the issue, Lowry said.

While many people associate water issues with drought, Lowry said the topic encompasses much more than that. Pipes that contain lead need to be replaced. There’s plenty of water, she said, but the state needs a comprehensive water plan that prepares communities for drought management, especially as more farmers use irrigation, which uses more water.

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Her organization has been working toward a state plan that can ensure fair access to water without depleting the environment of what it needs to remain stable.

With the increased frequency and intensity of storms being attributed to climate change, water infrastructure will need to be upgraded, Lowry said. Many communities rely on centralized treatment centers to handle their wastewater, and many of those facilities are overburdened and experience spills. Storms and flash floods push old pipes and at-capacity centers past their breaking points — pipes leak or burst and sewage pits overflow.

Lowry said that there has been some progress in recent years on funding infrastructure upgrades in communities and states. It’s a more bipartisan conversation than other environmental issues, and communities that have been hit hard by multiple storms are starting to have new ideas about how to rebuild themselves to better withstand the effects of climate change.

Still, Alabama’s preparedness efforts are all reactionary, which is why a comprehensive water plan is a priority, she said.

“Policies like that — proactive policies that are really forward-thinking about how we will make decisions if we do run into challenges with our environment — are something that this state has not been very strong on,” she said.

Lowry hopes for more emphasis on environmental justice, with official agencies working more with local municipalities to provide relief to communities hurt by pollution and weather events. Such problems are characteristic of the Birmingham area, where Lowry is based, and the Black Belt.

She wants to see stronger permitting processes for industry projects and easier access to funding for cleanups in communities that need them. North Birmingham activists have been trying for years to get a Superfund site there on the Superfund National Priorities List.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address these problems, Lowry said. Having multiple avenues for access to funding is important so that all communities have options. Smaller communities can’t always pay back loans, so they need access to grants.

Lowry emphasized that new jobs must be created without exacerbating climate change. Although Alabama tends to look to heavy industry for economic gains, she said she’s hopeful that a different approach by the Biden administration will trickle to the state level.

Lowry also said that conversations about climate change in Alabama have to be put in terms of what is happening in Alabama.

For her and other environmentalists working in the Deep South, it’s all about relationships and establishing trust. The environment becomes a less partisan issue when you focus on the basics, she said, because everyone wants clean water.

“I’ve found it much more easy to have conversations with elected officials at the state level in places like Alabama, where people do kind of grow up a little closer to nature and conservation, and [by] just kind of meeting people where they are,” Lowry said.

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Environment

Alabama Political Reporter partners with Covering Climate Now

We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of climate change that are within your spheres of influence.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Covering Climate Now logo

Climate change is a complex and evolving subject. It is often difficult to comprehend on a personal and community level, yet its effects are already being felt on those levels, whether we realize it or not. Climate science researchers project catastrophic consequences for every place and organism on Earth if current trends continue, and most say that humanity is somewhere inside a critical window for action that may prevent the worst.

At Alabama Political Reporter, we believe that within this context, journalism’s role is to make sense of this topic as it relates to our state. Every person on the planet is doing something about climate change for better or for worse, intentionally or not. We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of it that are within your spheres of influence. APR is excited to announce a partnership with Covering Climate Now (CCN), a global journalism initiative co-founded in 2019, by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in association with The Guardian. In partnering with CCN, we join more than 400 news outlets globally with a combined audience approaching 2 billion people.

CCN will work with APR as we craft climate coverage stories that will show the real impact those changes are having on communities, as we hold businesses and politicians accountable for how they are addressing climate change — or aren’t — and how poor people and people of color are disproportionately impacted.

Through this partnership, APR‘s stories will be available to a wider audience, and APR will occasionally publish articles from other outlets that are relevant to our readers. Our focus will be projections for our region and prevention.

APR began a more concerted effort to cover climate change during the summer of 2019. Throughout the year, we talked with state experts, such as James McClintock, a professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has spent decades researching climate change. APR looked at how people communicate about climate change, how climate-change-induced heatwaves and stagnation are affecting air quality and how Auburn University planned to use a $3 million grant to fund climate change education.

With a new administration entering the White House in January will come changes in how the federal government addresses the threat of climate change. President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as special envoy on the climate crisis is a sign that a Biden administration plans to tackle climate change head-on.

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Kerry was instrumental in the international effort to craft the Paris climate agreement, and he will likely approach climate change as a foreign policy issue.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry tweeted on Nov. 23.

Biden also recently appointed numerous climate advocates to senior economic leadership positions, including climate change advocate Neera Tanden, as White House budget director. Tandem is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“President-elect Joe Biden has committed to a government-wide strategy to combat the climate crisis — a plan that must start with investing in clean, renewable energy so we can put people back to work,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, a partnership of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. “This team of outspoken advocates for climate innovation and leadership will be meaningful allies for Biden’s vision of immediate and bold climate action on day one of the new administration.”

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With the incoming administration refocusing on the climate crisis, APR believes that it is critical to refocus coverage on a topic that will continue to impact Alabamians for decades, and generations, to come.

We hope that through factual reporting, with a focus on the human impact, APR will give our readers and state leaders better information with which to make decisions that can affect lives and our environment for the better.

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Environment

Pike County Public Fishing Lake will be temporarily closed beginning December 23

During the closure, water levels at the lake will be lowered by approximately 6 feet.

Brandon Moseley

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Pike County Public Fishing Lake (VIA OUTDOOR ALABAMA)

The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries announced this week that it will temporarily close the Pike County Public Fishing Lake near Troy for maintenance beginning Dec. 23, 2020. The lake is expected to be closed for four to six weeks.

During the closure, water levels at the lake will be lowered by approximately 6 feet in an effort to control excessive aquatic plant growth around the bank fishing areas. The lake will be reopened for fishing when the water level reaches full pool.

Until Dec. 23 the lake will be open for all of its normal recreational activities. Alabama is a sportsman’s paradise with year-round freshwater fishing, hunting and saltwater fishing opportunities that the whole family can enjoy.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made many activities including youth sports, sporting events, gyms, concerts, theaters, museums, arcades, roller rinks, parties, dining out and shopping malls too dangerous due to the threat of spreading the virus. The outdoor sports of hunting and fishing allow the whole family to participate while still maintaining social distancing.

Hunting and fishing in Alabama does require a license, but these are available at many different retailers, your county courthouse and online directly from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Lifetime licenses are also available.

Money used from fishing licenses as well as the sale of hunting and fishing gear are used to preserve and protect Alabama’s diverse wildlife resources and their habitats.

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More information about the Pike County Public Fishing Lake is available online.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes 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 about the ADCNR.

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Environment

SNAP recipients approved for additional aid in 20 counties hit by Zeta

Those who qualify automatically get an additional 40 percent of their monthly benefits loaded to their EBT cards. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A satellite image of Hurricane Zeta approaching the Gulf Coast. (VIA NWS/NOAA)

People living in 20 Alabama counties impacted by Hurricane Zeta who receive food assistance through SNAP will automatically get an additional 40 percent of their monthly benefits loaded to their EBT cards. 

Impacted counties are listed by the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) as: Autauga, Bibb, Butler, Calhoun, Chilton, Clarke, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore, Lowndes, Mobile, Monroe, Perry, Randolph, Shelby, Talladega, Tallapoosa and Wilcox.

“Many of Alabama’s families most in need are facing tremendous challenges putting food on the table in the aftermath of Hurricane Zeta. Offering a helping hand in the form of these replacement benefits will prevent hunger and ease their financial burden at an especially difficult time,” said DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service approved the additional benefits Sunday at the request of DHR, according to a press release from the department. The additional benefits are meant to replace food lost during the widespread power outages when the storm struck in late October.

Those who receive SNAP benefits and who live in counties not listed above, and who were without power for more than four hours following the hurricane, can request replacement benefits by visiting their local DHR office to complete an Affidavit of Loss to determine replacement eligibility.

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