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Opinion | A silver lining in a very toxic cloud

If we have to allow landfills and disposal sites in Alabama, let’s make sure they are regulated.

An aerial photo of a landfill fire in Moody. Moody Fire Department

On warm, sunny days, I take it for granted that I can go walking anywhere in Madison County. No foul smells taint the air up here. No plumes of dark smoke, either.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been true in at least one Alabama county: St. Clair.

It’s been that way since November. Imagine waking up each day to smoke floating across the sky. Imagine inhaling its toxic stench, perhaps burning in your nostrils and throat. Maybe making your eyes water.

Imagine standing outside, wondering why it’s snowing in 50-degree weather. Wait. That’s not snow.

It’s ash. From the smoke.

Imagine it day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

No one appointed or elected to serve your community seems to have an answer. Probably feels like no one cares, since it’s not dominating every single news website in the state every day.

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Granted, I’m 90 minutes or so from St. Clair. Where the air and skies are clear. But based on the news reports, my imagination isn’t far from reality.

St. Clair County has a population of 91,103 and is east of Jefferson County. Unfortunately, this means it is dwarfed by the 1.11 million people living in the Birmingham metro area.

Population doesn’t equal importance. But it does suggest a certain level of power and prominence when it comes to media coverage and political influence.

Maybe that’s why it’s taken so long for the landfill issues in St. Clair to come to our attention. And to the attention of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Not that the good folks of St. Clair County weren’t trying. According to media reports, they have been tracking the impact of that landfill for years. Writing to ADEM for years.

Inspectors sent to St. Clair County by ADEM reportedly found hazardous materials, items that emit toxins when burned like tires and appliances. Only natural materials were supposed to be dumped there.

It appears ADEM didn’t live up to the “EM” in its name – environmental management. Earlier this week, a small group of folks from St. Clair traveled down to the state house to protest that lack of effectiveness. At least one of them held an “ADEM is failing” sign. 

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Can’t blame anyone from St. Clair for thinking that. Years of waiting for ADEM to help apparently yielded nothing, other than perhaps the formation of a “working group” to do some investigation. 

As usual in this state, it took federal intervention to make things right. In mid-January, ADEM announced that it had requested assistance from the EPA. 

“Neither ADEM nor the county has the experience or expertise to put out a fire of this nature,” ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said in a press release. “The EPA utilizes contractors with experience and knowledge to do this type of work. ADEM and state and local officials have concluded the most effective and safe way to extinguish the fire is for the EPA to lead the effort, and we have entered into an arrangement with the EPA to make that happen.”

Great. But why this wasn’t done in November when the fire began? Believe what you want, but I do not think it just dawned on LeFleur in January that ADEM was incapable of solving St. Clair’s problem. 

My only other question is about the people who have been elected to represent St. Clair’s interests and needs at the state level. What were they doing the past four months? And what about prior years when folks in St. Clair were concerned about what was being dumped in that landfill?

By my count, there are at least seven legislators who represent St. Clair: Rep. Danny Garrett, Rep. Susan DuBose, Rep. Jim Hill, Rep. Craig Lipscomb, Rep. Randy Wood, Sen. Lance Bell, and Sen. Shay Shelnutt.

Garrett gave an interesting quote to the Montgomery Advertiser: “What happened was avoidable. What happened can’t happen again. I, personally, don’t understand why we would want to have an unregulated landfill or disposal site anywhere in the state. Right now, that’s permitted by law, so we were looking very hard at that.”

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Now there’s a novel idea. If we have to allow landfills and disposal sites in Alabama, let’s make sure they are regulated. Let’s create strict laws with steep fines to keep them safe for the Alabamians that must live near them.  

I’d call that a silver lining in a very toxic cloud.

David Person is a media personality and consultant who has been working in the Huntsville market since 1986 as a talk show host, columnist, and director/producer. David co-hosts the podcast Alabama Politics This Week.

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