Summer Policy Update

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.

FEDERAL POLICY UPDATES:

 

The Alabama Rivers Alliance participates in multiple national coalitions, including River Network, the Clean Water Network, and the Clean Water for All Campaign. We sign on to letters of support and action alerts on the issues that our national partners recommend and we pass along these opportunities to other Alabama groups. Some of the following updates are from our national partners.

 

GUIDANCE RELATED TO THE SUPREME COURT’S MAUI DECISION

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that point source discharges to navigable waters through groundwater are in fact regulated under the Clean Water Act in County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund. Subsequently, at the end of the previous Administration, EPA released a guidance document that narrowly interpreted the Court’s decision, added loopholes for polluters, and limited when indirect groundwater pollution requires Clean Water Act permits. Last month, Alabama Rivers Alliance participated alongside some of the largest national environmental organizations in a listening session with EPA to ask the agency to rescind this ill-conceived guidance.

 

WATERS OF THE US

Last month, EPA and the Department of the Army announced their intention to revise the definition of Waters of the US (WOTUS) yet again, after determining that the prior administration’s “Dirty Water Rule” has led to significant degradation of waters around the country. They also announced their intention to do a second rulemaking restoring protection levels to where they were before the 2015 Clean Water Rule. While EPA’s decision to base a new rule on sound science incorporating climate impacts to our waters is welcome news, while the rulemaking unfolds (EPA gave no timetable for it) the Dirty Water Rule will remain in place. Click here to watch the 2019 Southern Exposure film, WATERS OF THE U.S. to learn more.

 

SECTION 401 OF THE CLEAN WATER ACT

EPA announced their intention to revise the harmful Trump-era reforms to the regulations implementing Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which allows states and authorized tribes to provide “water quality certifications” to permittees to ensure that potentially permitted projects, such as pipelines and dams, don’t harm local waters. While the revisions are developed, however, the reforms from the last administration will remain in place.

 

WATER INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE “INVEST IN AMERICA ACT”

The House of Representatives recently passed a $715B surface transportation and reauthorization bill, H.R. 3684. You can see the text here, and a fact sheet here. The bill contained a number of positive provisions and hopefully will continue to build momentum for Congress to address water infrastructure.

The legislation contained a number of wastewater funding provisions: A $40B reauthorization for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund; $2B for sewer overflow and stormwater projects; $2.5B for state water pollution control programs; codification of the clean water “green reserve” to prioritize funding for green infrastructure; funding for technical assistance for small, rural, and tribal communities; and establishment of a program to invest in communities with failing septic systems.

On drinking water, the legislation provides: a $53B reauthorization for the Drinking Water State Revolving funds, $45B for full replacement of lead service lines, permanent creation of drinking water assistance programs at HHS and EPA, drinking water customer debt relief provisions authorized at up to $4B, and more.

 

NEXT STEPS FOR WATER INFRASTRUCTURE

With the House passing the INVEST in America Act, and the Senate passing the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act earlier this year, the two halves of Congress will now head to “conference,” where a select group of elected officials will try to negotiate legislation which combines and also reconciles differences between the House and Senate bills. The Administration and a bipartisan group of elected representatives have a loose framework for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would then theoretically be followed up by a more expansive, Democrat-only infrastructure and climate bill passed through the “reconciliation” process which requires only 51 votes. That being said, negotiations and plans are very much in flux, so advocates can and should continue pushing members of Congress to prioritize equitable, robust water infrastructure investment.

 

LEAD AND COPPER RULE REVISIONS

EPA continues to host community roundtables on the lead and copper rule, and also announced the date of their national stakeholder roundtable (July 21st). As a reminder, anyone can submit comments as a part of their revision and evaluation process, and the deadline for those comments is July 30th.

 

HOW TO TAKE ACTION NOW!

 

DIRECTOR OF ADEM JOB PERFORMANCE EVALUATION

The Alabama Environmental Management Commission is soliciting written comments from the general public concerning ADEM Director Lance LeFleur’s job performance as part of its yearly evaluation. The comment period is open now and closes July 30, 2021. You can find more information about how and where to submit comments here.

We urge everyone with an opinion of Director LeFleur or ADEM—and especially those who have been personally affected by environmental issues this year—to file comments with the Commission.

While there are still no official criteria to gauge the Director’s performance (despite ARA’s requests for criteria to guide public comments), we recommend basing your comments on ADEM’s legal duties and responsibilities. ADEM’s purpose is “to respond in an efficient, comprehensive and coordinated manner to environmental problems, and thereby assure for all citizens of the state a safe, healthful and productive environment.”

As Director of ADEM, LeFleur is responsible for advancing the agency’s duties, which include providing for timely resolution of permitting actions, improving services to the citizens of the state, protecting human health and safety, and ensuring the agency is responsive to the needs of the people.

 

TRIENNIAL REVIEW OF WATER QUALITY STANDARDS

The Clean Water Act requires states to periodically review and, as appropriate, adopt new or revised water quality standards to meet the requirements of the CWA. As part of this process, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is soliciting public input and comments on water quality criteria and use classifications for surface waters. You can view the notice and submit comments by August 19.

 

PETITION TO DECLARE A CLIMATE EMERGENCY

Climate change is threatening our state with rising sea levels, extreme heat, and more frequent and severe storms that hurt people and places we all cherish. The changing climate is also taking a toll on our rivers and the aquatic life that depend on them for survival. Please take a moment to sign this petition from our partners at GASP calling on the State of Alabama and each of its major cities to declare a climate emergency and take action to expand clean energy and protect vulnerable communities.

 

SUPPORT ALABAMA RIVERS ALLIANCE

Support our policy and advocacy work by joining as a member, making a donation, taking actions when asked and sharing our updates with your family and friends. If you are already a member of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, keep an eye out for you renewals arriving in your mailbox this month or save a stamp and renew online! Click the icons below to share this policy update on social media or via email