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Opinion | Local leaders best positioned to decide land use issues, including quarries

Land-use determinations should be made at the local level.

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Construction projects are in the works across Alabama. More than at any time in the past.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are going to drinking water and sewer projects, thanks to allocations by the Alabama Legislature from American Rescue Plan Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management oversees those projects.

The state is making a similarly huge investment from those funds in expanding broadband availability.

Numerous road projects have been announced, many to be paid for with Rebuild Alabama proceeds from the gas tax championed by our governor. 

And the state has seen amazing growth in business, industrial and research developments in recent years.

It’s a great time for Alabama’s economy.

However, all that economic activity puts great demand on people and resources. Engineers, construction managers, truck drivers and machine operators are just some of the many professionals and other workers needed to get these projects done.

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There is also a tremendous need for the materials used in construction, such as stones and aggregates.

Over the past year, several new quarries have been proposed in Alabama. In January, ADEM held a public hearing in Oxford to hear residents’ comments about the air and water permit applications for one such proposal – a quarry in Cleburne County.

Approximately 250 people attended the hearing, and about two dozen spoke. Most were residents of the area. Several elected officials, including a county commissioner, city council member and state legislator, also voiced their opinions.

Nearly all of them, elected officials included, said they did not want a quarry near their homes and businesses.

This Thursday, at 6 p.m., ADEM will hold a public hearing at Calhoun Community College in Decatur on proposed air and water permits for a limestone quarry in the Limestone County community of Belle Mina. The public has until 5 pm on March 22, to submit comments to ADEM. 

A number of residents and local officials have spoken out publicly against that quarry.

As the director of ADEM, I understand their sentiments. Individuals have a vested interest in how the land in their community is used. 

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However, it is important to understand that ADEM, by law, cannot make any determination about whether a quarry is a good use of a particular piece of land. That land-use determination should be made at the local level.

ADEM’s role is to protect public health and the environment by ensuring compliance with all environmental laws, including the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water federal acts. In our regulatory role regarding quarries, our staff perform thorough, scientific reviews of the air and water permit applications. 

If a preliminary determination is made that the applications meet all state and federal rules, ADEM provides the public opportunities to comment in writing and verbally. If there’s enough local interest, ADEM will hold a public hearing – as it is doing Thursday – to maximize the public’s opportunity to comment.

ADEM evaluates those comments that are relevant to the specific air and water permit applications before making a final determination on whether to issue the permits.

Many of the comments we receive are not relevant to the particulars of the proposed permits. In the case of quarries, residents often express concerns about property values, noise, traffic and other issues that ADEM cannot regulate. 

That is why it is important for residents to engage their local officials. Zoning ordinances, building codes and construction permits are rightly vested in local communities and their elected leaders who are positioned to make those land-use decisions.

Indeed, actions at the local level will likely have a greater effect on the fate of the proposed quarries than ADEM’s decisions on the permits.

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But let me be clear: ADEM fully embraces its duty to make sure that various activities do not have an unallowed impact on air or water quality. The department is committed to ensuring compliance with all environmental rules. We want to hear from the public, and we take seriously the comments we receive. 

Some things, however, such as land-use decisions, are outside of what ADEM can or should do. Those decisions are best left to those closest to the community.

Lance LeFleur is director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. For more information about the upcoming CCR public hearings, go to Public Hearings on ADEM’s website.

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