The Danger Downstream

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by Cody Owens, Weld Birmingham


Leaning forward on a plush chair with his hands clasped so tightly his knuckles were white, Mitch Reid wondered aloud what Theodore Roosevelt might think of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which calls for a 31-percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency.

If passed in its current form, Reid said, the budget will be severely detrimental to the preservation of the Alabama’s natural resources — and he is angry about it.

“He’d probably say something like, ‘Bully on you!’” Reid howled, channeling Roosevelt, who established the United States Forest Service and was a staunch proponent of conservation.

“I understand why environmental protection has become so political,” Reid, program director for the Alabama Rivers Alliance, continued. “It’s political because you have people who can make a profit off pollution, and they’ve been able to turn this into a game where it’s one party against another.”

As it stands, the Trump administration has proposed reducing EPA funding from $8.1 billion to $5.7 billion, and his budget would slash 20 percent of the agency’s workforce of roughly 15,000. The EPA is not the only agency that would see a drastic reduction in jobs and funding under the proposed budget, but that cut is certainly the deepest. As it stands, Trump’s budget proposal is merely a wishlist; it will face congressional scrutiny before approval.

Reid considers himself “an old school conservative” and believes the natural resources in the state — and nationwide — are for the people. He admires Roosevelt and his legacy of fierce commitment to the preservation of America’s wilderness. “The idea that we are going to take this already low level of federal oversight and reduce it even more — you’re going to have an EPA that will be hamstrung. And they’re doing it intentionally,” Reid said.

On May 13, 1908, in front of the Conference of Natural Resources in Washington, Roosevelt gave a speech that, given current circumstances might be interpreted as a rebuke to the ‘skinny budget’ drafted by the Trump administration. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt said. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

By contrast, Trump offered this take on environmental regulation during an interview with Fox News: “Environmental protection, what they do is a disgrace. Every week they come out with new regulations … We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

But don’t just take Trump at his word. His actions have showed that his administration’s budgetary priorities are not focused on agencies tasked with protecting natural resources or the environment — a word he has suggested is an impediment to job growth.

In the first two months of his presidency, Trump has taken several steps which have set off alarms among environmentalists:

  • He signed an executive order aimed at rolling back an Obama-era clean water rule known as Waters of the United States, which gives the federal government the ability to limit pollution in major waterways.
  • He flirted with the idea of backing out of the Paris Agreement, signed by the United Nations as a way to cut greenhouse emissions.
  • He appointed Scott Pruitt,  a man who has sued the EPA 14 times, to head the EPA.
  • He announced his intention to roll back federal fuel economy standards.
  • He proposed a 20-percent cut to the budget of the National Institutes of Health and a 21-percent cut to the Department of Agriculture’s discretionary spending budget including funding for water programs.
  • He approved plans to continue the Dakota Access pipeline and Keystone XL pipeline.
  • He signed an order to drop climate change from government environmental reviews.

In other agencies, some of Trump’s appointments seem to be diametrically opposed to the positions they now hold. The Department of Energy, for example, is now headed by Rick Perry, who called for the agency to be abolished during his presidential campaign in 2011. Perry has since walked those comments back.

“It’s astonishing how much damage he has done in a matter of weeks,” Reid said. “Years’ worth of science and work has essentially been undone in less than a week. It’s unconscionable. It absolutely boggles the mind.”


Swamp Regulations

During a recent press conference, Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, defended the environmental proposals, and hearkened back to the language used by Trump on the campaign trail. “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it,” Mulvaney said. “So, I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency. The president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that.”

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, congressional leaders have been trying to reduce the reach of the EPA, an effort that has picked up steam since inauguration day. On January 24, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Alabama) introduced a piece of legislation, HR 637 (“Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017”), which is intended to “prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from exceeding its statutory authority in ways that were not contemplated by the Congress,” as the bill reads.

Perhaps most notably, the bill seeks to remove greenhouse gases from the list of air pollutants that the EPA is tasked with regulating. The bill also calls for an end to government agencies regulating climate change. Palmer’s colleague, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) went a step further, introducing a bill in February that would completely dismantle the EPA. The entirety of the bill reads as follows: “[A Bill] To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.”

In a crowded room of reporters before his town hall meeting last month, Palmer defended his aggressive stance toward the EPA, suggesting that the cuts will have no impact on state and local agencies charged with protecting the environment. “It won’t have any impact on them at all,” Palmer said. “The bill is really about who makes laws, Congress or federal agencies,” Palmer said. “If you read the title of the bill, it’s about stopping EPA overreach, not stopping the EPA. What the EPA has done is usurped legislative authority, which is a huge threat to constitutional government and denies you the right to representative government. When you have agencies making laws, no one is accountable. You can’t vote anybody out of office. You don’t even know who they are.

“The bigger issue here is not how it impacts environmental issues because I believe in sensible regulation,” Palmer continued. “We’ve done a fabulous job. The EPA has served a legitimate and good role in improving the overall air quality and water quality. We’ve made tremendous progress. But we can’t have federal agencies that make laws that impose burdens on the economy and citizens, particularly low-income people, with no accountability.”

Palmer believes that if greenhouse gasses are to be on the list of EPA air pollutants, that needs to be done by an act of Congress, not by agency fiat. “Over the last 30 or 40 years the economy has almost tripled in size,” Palmer continued. “Population has increased by almost 40 percent. But emissions are down almost 50 percent. We’ve done a great job. What we need is a regulatory agency that fits with a 21st-century economy.”

In an interview with CNN, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who once brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in an effort to prove global warming was a farce, defended the proposed cuts to the EPA, despite being informed on air that Pruitt had requested less drastic cuts than those proposed by the president. “We want to deliver the services. We ought to make things clean,” Inhofe said. “But we ought to take all this stuff that comes out of the EPA that’s brainwashing our kids, that is propaganda, things that aren’t true, allegations.”


“Woeful Underfunding”

What will this mean for Alabama? On a state level the agency tasked with environmental regulation, as sanctioned by the EPA, is the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). In recent years, ADEM has not fared well in regards to state funding. In 2016, the money allocated to the ADEM from the state general fund was slashed completely from the state budget, leaving only $280,000, which was earmarked for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) — meaning that the agency relies solely on federal money granted by the EPA and pollution permit fees collected through various industries within the state for funding. For the current budget, CAFO’s funding was increased to $400,000.

According to ADEM Public Relation Officer Lynn Battle, 40 percent of the agency’s funding comes from the EPA, a number that could see a drastic reduction if the budget passes through Congress as is. “The permit fees increased over 100 percent in the last three years in order to make up for the money we were not receiving from the state’s general fund,” Battle said. Does this mean the price of the permits themselves has increased or the number of permits issued has doubled? “I may have known the answer at that time, but I do not remember at the moment,” Battle said.

By her estimate, ADEM could lose up to 40 employees if the cuts to the EPA stand, although the state agency has a plan in place to manage that eventuality, Battle said. “What would happen is that we would use our annual attrition rate as well as negotiate reduced workloads with EPA instead of having layoffs,” Battle said. The cuts would impact all aspects of the environment, including air, land, and water. “We want to be clear that we have faced tough financial times before so we will get the job done. We may have less people and less people with responsibility but we will protect the state of Alabama’s resources,” Battle said.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke monitors for pollution in a body of water that serves as the drinking water for Jefferson County. In recent years, Brooke said he has been disheartened by ADEM’s cooperation over holding polluters accountable. He spoke critically of the agency that he said is “woefully underfunded” by the state legislature.

“That’s why we were formed,” Nelson said over the phone. “To pick up the slack where the state agency wasn’t doing its job. And it seems like it’s getting worse, not better. Rather than having a state agency that’s willing to play good cop/bad cop with us and hold polluters accountable, fine them to deter further pollution and systematically try and clean up the state, they’ve time and again showed they’re only interested in protecting their ‘customers,’ which is what the past director called the polluters they permitted. Enforcement is at an all time low it seems.”

He cited an incident that took place in July 2016 where a large fish kill was reported in the Mullberry Fork of the Black Warrior River, near an Alabama Power coal-fired plant. A rainbow sheen could be seen on top of the water, Brooke said. The incident made headlines but the utility company was found by ADEM to have not contributed to the incident and was not fined.

“Instead of going with what the data was saying and fining the utility for killing all these fish and spoiling the river with a rainbow oil sheen they determined there was no culprit and they couldn’t find the source,” Brooke said. “They didn’t fine them a cent. We see this willingness to look the other way.”

In a letter to ADEM dated July 8, 2016, Alabama Power General Manager Mike Godfrey wrote, “[Alabama Power Company] is confident none of its activities were responsible for the fish kill,” and went on to detail elements of the situation and why he believed the company was not to blame.

When it comes to the work being done by the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, such as filing federal lawsuits under the Clean Water Act, “time and time again the state agency will step in and file a stay of action, whether on their own or in concert with the Attorney General’s Office to block our suit in federal court,” Brooke said. “We’re already in dire straights. This would just be another nail in the coffin. They only seem interested in protecting the status quo of Alabama which is industry and pollution based profiteering.”

In response to Brooke’s assertions, Battle said, “ADEM’s enforcement records speak for themselves. Further demonstration of that statement was recently indicated when EPA denied the withdrawal petition for the [National Discharge Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] program.”

For Battle, it’s difficult to predict exactly how the proposed cuts would affect ADEM’s operations. As of Monday, she said they have not been in contact with the EPA about the situation. “All that we can do at this point would be look at all the possible options… It will be difficult but we will get the job done,” Battle said.

In an interview published by BirminghamWatch (see page 10), ADEM Director Lance LeFleur offered a slightly different take on the ways in which the cuts could impact the agency. “‘Don’t depend on us to be on-site’ for anything other than major disasters such as the recent gasoline pipeline incidents in Shelby County, LeFleur said. ‘Local governments have always had the primary responsibility to respond and they still do. What we are changing is our involvement that supplemented their efforts.’”


Snail Extinction

Speaking before the election in his cluttered office, Randy Haddock, the field director for the Cahaba River Society described the delicate relationship between pipelines and rivers in Alabama and elsewhere.

A week earlier, on September 9, a Shelby County gasoline pipeline spill nearly wiped out an entire species of snails in the Cahaba River — along with other threatened species that call the river home — according to Haddock.

He has spent the last few decades looking after the river. Even now, six months after the initial incident (another explosion on the pipeline in Shelby County killed one and injured several more) he believes that many people still don’t fully realize how close the spill was to being a natural disaster the likes of which the Birmingham area has not seen.

Haddock likened the near miss to “dumb luck” because the gasoline was stopped from entering the Cahaba by empty ponds left over from strip mining operations. He also discussed the inherent environmental dangers of living in a gasoline-dependent society, risks that could be increased exponentially if the EPA is slashed.

“That much gasoline — if the spill was 353,000 gallons, and half of that or a fourth of that got to the river, then it would have created a layer floating on the surface and that could’ve led to the extinction of several species,” Haddock said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. The concern seems to have been, ‘How fast can they fix it so the gasoline prices go back down?’ That’s important to a lot of people, and I understand that, but I think there’s not yet been a recognition of what a close call that was to the health of the river.”

The flat pebblesnail and the Cahaba pebblesnail are a couple of the species that could’ve been wiped out. “As a biologist that is kind of the end all-be all. If you have populations down to a single river, it’s kind of scary because one event can snuff it out just like that,” Haddock said.

Beyond the “dumb luck” of avoiding a near extinction due to the spill, Haddock noted that the process of moving fuel across large swaths of land creates its own dangers. “You could have the same sort of event if a tractor trailer plowed into something near a bridge and it spilled over into the river,” Haddock said. “It could be worse in a place like Highway 280 that has a diversion dam with the drinking water downstream from the bridge. So in effect something could happen when you have gasoline in the drinking water.”


The Air Out There

Water is not the only resource that the proposed federal budget cuts put at risk in Birmingham. Clean air, or lack thereof, has been an issue that has caused serious health complications in City Councilor William Parker’s heavily industrialized district. Black soot covers the homes downwind of some of the facilities such as Walter Coke. He’s made the EPA soil remediation efforts the cornerstone of his office.

In the last two weeks alone, the city council has approved $7,896.53 in travel expenses for Parker to attend various EPA meetings. However, when asked about how, if at all, the proposed budget cuts would affect the cleanup efforts in his district, Parker declined to speak on record. He offered limited thoughts on the subject instead.

“I’m trying to quietly make sure they don’t get the deep cuts,” Parker said, adding he did not want to jeopardize any future grant funding. “I’m trying to make sure the cuts don’t come at all or at least as drastically or draconian as they are now.”

How exactly is he doing that? “We want to leave that up to the congressional delegation,” he said, adding that he has had “a few” conversations with congressional leaders, although he would not offer details as to what exactly was discussed. Parker did say he “was absolutely concerned” and he hopes the final budget will be tweaked by Congress.

Michael Hansen, executive director of the clean air advocacy group GASP, sees these proposed cuts (and other actions taken by the president) as “an all-out assault on environmental protection.” Hansen said it’s difficult to say whether or not air quality in Birmingham’s industrial neighborhoods has seen improvements in recent years. One thing is certain, he said: it will get worse if the Trump administration continues on its trajectory of rejecting science.

“We had more yellow days than green days in February, and that is not good,” Hansen said, referring to the chart they use to track air quality in the city. “This is supposed to be the easy season for air pollution… Just because you can’t see it, just because there isn’t a smog -filled skyline, doesn’t mean the air is clean.”

Hansen worries that funding for the Jefferson County Department of Health could see a reduction under the current budget as well. In a five-year period, Hansen said, the JCDH received $43 million in grant funding, to assist in health complications related to living in close proximity to heavy industry. As for the soil remediation efforts in North Birmingham, “That never would have happened without the EPA or if the funding was cut like is being proposed,” Hansen said. The funding cuts remain a huge concern for GASP. The organization has been in contact with congressional leaders urging them to rethink the budget cuts.

EPA representatives declined to be interviewed for this story.


How Far Back Will We Go?

Roughly 14 percent of the fresh water in the United States flows through Alabama rivers and out into the Mobile Bay. Reid, program director for Alabama Rivers Alliance, has taken issue with the “philosophy” of the current administration and what he describes as the failure to prioritize the protection of clean water and clean air.

“That philosophy is on display with the appointment of Scott Pruitt to the EPA — a man that has admittedly been trying to roll back the reach of the EPA during his time as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma,” Reid said. “The philosophy, even before we start to discuss the budget impact, is that clean water is not priority. In fact it’s something the administration wants to see a reduction of.”

The EPA accounts for .2 percent of the federal budget. In order to pay for a $54 billion increase in defense spending, that already paltry sum (by federal budget standards) is going to be reduced by nearly a third. Without that federal assistance, Reid said, Alabama will not be able to protect those natural resources for its citizens, seeing as though the state currently allocates no money for such work.

Reid believes leaders in Washington are being “extraordinarily shortsighted” when it comes to protecting the American people, and that’s also true, and especially so, for the leaders in Alabama in his estimation. “People are going to get sick. And essentially we’re going to have to redo the work. We’re going to need an EPA. We’re going to have to have federal mandates. The question is how far back do they take us before they realize what a mistake they’ve made?” Reid said.

What’s worse, he continued, is that the people who carried Trump to the White House, rural communities throughout the country, stand to lose the most. He recalled an incident before the election that is seared into his memory.

“The rural communities are going to take the brunt of this,” Reid said. “During the election we were out working with people of Alabama — people that were voting for Mrs. Clinton, people that were voting for Mr. Trump. One of the common frustrations for these was the lack of response by the government to problems these people were facing in their water. I remember a situation where we were out on the Alabama River trying to help a community that had problems with sediment being dumped and it was filling up a slough and they couldn’t get their boats in and out.

“Two of the gentlemen speaking with us were wearing those big red Trump hats and their frustration was that nobody was coming out to listen to them — not the state, not the EPA,” Reid said solemnly. “If that’s the situation we face already, with these cuts you will have people in Alabama and elsewhere not being able to get clean water. As it plays out over time, the people of Alabama are going to demand clean water. They are going to want to eat the fish in our rivers and the oysters in our bay. Those things don’t happen without protections.”