SUMMER POLICY UPDATES
Summer is my favorite season in Alabama, and I hope you’re out swimming, paddling, fishing, and enjoying your favorite waterways. Now that our staff has been vaccinated, we’re resuming some in-person meetings and activities, and I’m glad to be meeting more and more of you outside of the Zoom boxes! I am truly excited by the work we’re accomplishing together.
The legislative session earlier this year was busy, virtual, and mostly benign–from an environmental perspective. I’ve included a recap of environmental bills below. We are optimistic to hear more discussion in the legislature about issues affecting our waters, and we will continue to push for stronger protections for all of our rivers and sensible policies to responsibly manage our water resources.
To successfully #DefendRivers, we must do it together.
– Jack West, Policy & Advocacy Director
STATE LEGISLATIVE & POLICY UPDATES:
LEGAL CHALLENGE OF BIOSOLID AND BYPRODUCT SLUDGE REGULATIONS
Together with our partners at Southern Environmental Law Center and Black Warrior Riverkeeper, we recently filed our brief challenging the regulations adopted by the Alabama Environmental Management Commission that govern the spreading of byproduct waste sludges on agricultural land as a “beneficial” soil amendment. The land application of waste sludges from wastewater treatment plants, poultry processing facilities, and byproducts from industrial and manufacturing processes continues to plague Alabama’s lands and waters. Contaminated runoff from these waste sludges threatens nearby creeks and streams, and the staggering stenches from these materials continues to afflict communities around the state.
Our coalition of communities concerned about waste sludges is growing, and our board member, Julie Lay, is spearheading this effort. Please click here to join the coalition.
If you want to learn more about this issue, please take a moment to watch SOILED, the Southern Exposure film we produced last summer.
HYDROPOWER RELICENSING OF HARRIS DAM ON TALLAPOOSA RIVER
This is an eventful year in the relicensing of Alabama Power’s Harris Dam on the Tallapoosa River. Numerous scientific studies have documented the negative impacts this hydroelectric project has on fishes and macroinvertebrates. Many local community members and recreationists along the river would like to see the dam operated in a way that does not harm the river and restores a more natural flow pattern. Last month, we filed comments on the relicensing activities with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Alabama Power recently filed its Preliminary Licensing Proposal that lays out how the utility proposes to operate the dam over its next license term. The comment period on this proposal is open until September 24. We attended a community meeting at Southern Union Community College in Wadley this past week with concerned residents to discuss the utility’s proposal.
Stay tuned for a Southern Exposure film this fall examining the once-in-a-generation opportunity to participate in this hydropower relicensing process!
COOSA RIVER HYDROPOWER RELICENSING
After our successful legal challenge in 2018 of the license conditions for Alabama Power’s hydroelectric dams on the Coosa River, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was required to re-do much of its environmental analysis. The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement produced by FERC for the Coosa Project was noticed and issued last month, and the public comment period runs until August 16.
IMPLEMENTATION OF NEW LOW-INCOME HOUSEHOLD WATER ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
Due to the pandemic and economic downturn last year, many low-income water customers were disconnected from access to clean water for an inability to pay bills. Some are still struggling to pay past bills and have their water service reconnected. Along with many of our partner organizations, we urged the governor last year to issue a moratorium on water shut-offs. At the end of 2020, in response to the wave of utility shut-offs, Congress appropriated funds to assist low-income households with water and wastewater bills and created the new Low Income Household Water Assistance Program. The program is currently not permanently funded and advocates are working to make it more permanent. In Alabama, this federal program will be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), and we have been organizing concerned partners to submit comments to ADECA about how the program should be implemented in our state to ensure an efficient delivery of funds to people struggling to maintain access to clean water. Click here to read the letter we sent with our partners to ADECA.
To view the state’s draft model plan for implementation of this assistance program and to make comments, click here. Please note the short turnaround time. Comments are due July 28.
STATUS OF ALABAMA MEGA-PRISONS
Last fall, Governor Ivey announced a plan to build and lease three new privately owned mega-prisons throughout the state to be located in rural areas with significant water and wastewater infrastructure challenges. Thanks to the hard work of many social justice organizations, criminal justice reform advocates, environmental organizations, and community activists, the plan was scuttled after the financiers of the private prison company backed out of the deal after receiving immense public pressure. Now state legislators and the Alabama Department of Corrections are discussing building two new state-owned prisons via a bond issuance and refurbishing existing facilities. However, the private prison company, CoreCivic, is still at the discussion table. We continue to support the social justice groups leading the fight for meaningful justice reforms and are helping keep the water and wastewater implications of new prison development in the minds of legislators.
ALABAMA COAL ASH
ADEM is having a public hearing on the coal ash permit for PowerSouth’s Plant Lowman ash pond on July 22 in Jackson, AL. Written comments can be filed with ADEM through July 29. You can view the notice with details about the public meeting and instructions for submitting comments here. ADEM also recently approved the coal ash permit for Plant Barry, over the objection of many environmental groups, which will allow the utility to cap-in-place an enormous amount of coal ash next to the Mobile River.
Learn more about coal ash problems in Alabama at AlabamaCoalAsh.org.
Watch our 2018 Southern Exposure film, Ashes to Ashes, by clicking here.
FISHER’S RIGHT TO KNOW
The Alabama Department of Public Health released its Fish Consumption Advisories for 2021 showing the locations and species of fish that are unsafe to eat due to contamination by mercury, PCBs, PFAS, and other pollutants.
Alabama Rivers Alliance sponsors the fish consumption advisory hotline operated by our friends at Coosa Riverkeeper along with their popular Fish Guide program designed to help anglers reduce health risks when cooking and eating fish. We continue to work with our partners on statewide “Fisher’s Right to Know” legislation that could greatly improve awareness of polluted fish and help all Alabamians recreate in our waters more safely.
To learn more about this issue, watch the 2020 Southern Exposure film A FISHER’S RIGHT TO KNOW, which was recently honored with the Impact Award for Coosa Riverkeeper’s work throughout their watershed!
ALABAMA LEGISLATIVE SESSION RECAP
Working with our partners at Conservation Alabama, we kept an eye out for possibly harmful environmental bills and helped raise awareness about the positive ones. While much of the session was devoted to COVID response, medical marijuana, and a state lottery, here are the highlights from the environmental perspective:
- The bill to improve Alabama’s state parks (HB 565) passed and will allow for an $85 million bond issue to maintain, renovate, and expand state park facilities to increase access to our public lands. This legislation is a constitutional amendment and will appear before voters in the 2022 general election.
- Legislation extending state tax credits to restore qualified historic structures (HB 281) also passed. By incentivizing restoration of older buildings, less material is sent to landfills. Also, the older neighborhoods that receive these investments are often more walkable.
- The “drone bill” fought back by environmental groups last year that could make it more difficult to conduct investigations into pollution using drones did resurface this year (HB 516), but it did not pass.
- Unfortunately, a bipartisan bill introduced later in the session that would promote access to clean drinking water in schools and provide students reusable water bottles to reduce plastic waste (SB 368) did not make it through, but it could be reintroduced next year.
- A bill designed to remove the ability of counties and municipalities to use their eminent domain powers to build hiking and biking trails (SB 105) did not pass, preserving the right of local governments to construct recreational hiking and biking trails through use of eminent domain.
- A bill to revamp Alabama’s public records law and provide greater government transparency and citizen access (SB 165) did not pass. Many environmental organizations rely on public records laws, and a stronger law, such as SB 165, would enhance our ability to gain access to public information.
- A House Joint Resolution recognizing the importance of access to clean water and the biodiversity of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (HJR 196) brought forward by Rep. Joe Faust (R-Baldwin Co.) passed.