Winter Policy Update from Jack West

Published 12/18/2020  |  Alabama Rivers Alliance

POLICY UPDATES

from Alabama Rivers Alliance

We’ve almost made it to the end of 2020! What a year. This was not a year that “flew by,” and it showed us, painfully at times, how much our health and safety depends on clean water.  Despite the year’s disruption and disturbance and discomfort, we have stayed focused and continued our work advocating for sound policies to protect our waters while resisting the many threats they face.

Since starting with Alabama Rivers Alliance at the beginning of March, I’ve gotten to meet many of you in tiny digital boxes thanks to Zoom, and we’ve already done some terrific work together, but I’m hopeful that at some point in 2021 we’ll be able to venture out safely, reconvene in person, and continue to move the environmental, climate, and justice agenda forward together. What a fun party that will be!

STATE LEGISLATIVE & POLICY UPDATES:

BIOSOLIDS REGULATORY CHALLENGE AND COALITION

Our challenge to ADEM’s unsound biosolids regulations continues, alongside our partners at Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Southern Environmental Law Center. The land application of biosolids (a term generally understood to refer to sludge from wastewater treatment plants, but under Alabama’s regulations can also include industrial byproducts, chicken sludge, coal combustion residuals, and other nasty substances) in our state continues, with more communities experiencing the stenches and polluted runoff that come with this practice.  Our administrative appeal of the regulations is now set for June 2021, but in the meantime, we are helping  build a coalition of communities concerned about biosolids. Local activist and new member of our Board of Directors, Julie Lay, is spearheading this effort. Please click here to join the coalition.

And don’t forget to watch SOILED, the Southern Exposure film we produced this summer about this issue.

NEW REGULATIONS FOR CONCENTRATED ANIMAL FEEDING OPERATIONS (CAFOs)

In November, we submitted comments on the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s proposed revisions to its CAFO regulations weakening inspection requirements for CAFOs and creating a state-level permitting program that could allow some CAFOs to avoid registration. Prior to these revisions, all CAFOs in Alabama were required to apply for NPDES permits (water pollutant discharge permits), but under the revised regulations a new state permitting scheme would be enacted that could exempt some CAFOs from NPDES permit requirements.

A big thank you to board member (and SELC intern) Charles Miller for his work on our comments, and thanks to our partner Lake Watch of Lake Martin for alerting us about this issue and commenting upon the revised CAFO regulations.

THREE PROPOSED MEGA-PRISONS IN ALABAMA

In September, Governor Ivey announced proposed site locations for three new mega prisons in Bibb, Elmore, and Escambia counties. These facilities are to be built by private prison developers and then leased to the state. The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigations in 2019 and 2020 documented atrocious and unconstitutional conditions in Alabama’s prisons, and the DOJ has recently sued the State of Alabama over its overcrowded and unsafe prisons.

A coalition of civil rights groups, environmental organizations, and community activists are resisting these prisons because expanding the nation’s worst prison system will not bring about the meaningful criminal justice reforms needed. Additionally, construction of these massive facilities in small communities unequipped with the drinking water supply and wastewater infrastructure needed to support them could have severe environmental consequences.

To learn more about the problems with these proposed prisons, click here to read this report from our partner Alabama Appleseed. Stay tuned for an op-ed about this issue from us soon.

WATER UTILITY SHUT-OFFS AND RELIEF FOR LOW-INCOME CUSTOMERS

We have been working throughout the pandemic with our partner organizations, water utilities, and the Governor’s office to get relief for low-income customers who struggle to pay water bills and face losing access to clean water amid a public health crisis. In September, we sent a letter to the Governor’s Office, along with 14 partner organizations, asking the state to direct CARES Act funding to water utilities to help avoid shut-offs and forgive delinquent customer accounts. We continue working with water utilities, the Governor’s Office, and the state Department of Finance to source relief funding for these impacted communities.

GULF SOUTH FOR A GREEN NEW DEAL

Alabama Rivers Alliance is participating in the Gulf South for a Green New Deal movement, a multi-state effort to address the impacts of the climate crisis in our region. Anchored by the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, Gulf South for a Green New Deal  unites groups across the five Gulf South states that are working towards climate, racial, environmental, and economic justice. In October, ARA participated in the Gulf Gathering 2020 conference and will be a co-lead on identifying policy recommendations involving the water aspects of climate policy in Alabama in coordination with our friends at Hometown Action, Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, and GASP.

ALABAMA COAL ASH (ALSO SEE FEDERAL UPDATE BELOW)

Throughout the fall, ADEM issued draft permits that would approve “cap-in-place” plans for addressing coal ash waste at Alabama Power’s Plant Miller, Plant Greene County, and Plant Gadsden. We signed on with our riverkeeper partners to comments by SELC disputing the effectiveness of this “pollute-in-place” approach. Many thanks to SELC and our Riverkeeper friends for leading the charge and turning out people to comment and protest at the public hearings held about each site.

Five more state draft permits for coal ash disposal remain to be issued for TVA, PowerSouth, and Alabama Power ash ponds. Additionally, the state’s coal ash permitting program was recently revised and is still awaiting EPA approval.

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

In late July, the Alabama Department of Public Health released its Fish Consumption Advisories for 2020 showing the locations and species of fish that are unsafe to eat due to contamination by mercury, PCBs, PFAS, and other pollutants. This year there were 213 fish consumption advisories issued across 98 waterbodies in Alabama. That’s a lot of polluted fish!

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 Southern Exposure film A FISHER’S RIGHT TO KNOW, which was accepted into the national Wild and Scenic Film Festival taking place this January!

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.  Many of the following updates are from our national partners.

WATER RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT ACT

WRDA is a biannual water resources bill, usually (but not always) focused on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After months of negotiations, Congress released the text of the bill, as well as a section-by-section summary.

The bill focuses entirely on the Army Corps of Engineers: project authorizations, approval of reports and studies, as well as process and policy reforms related to construction of water resource projects by the Corps.

Accordingly, the bill doesn’t have any amendments to the Clean Water Act, has no state revolving fund reauthorizations, nor any other water quality or drinking water provisions which we saw from earlier, more expansive drafts of the bill.

There are still a number of environmental community priorities which made it into the final bill related to green infrastructure, resilience, and flood control incentives in US ACE policy. There are also some great provisions related to environmental justice and US ACE, specifically improving consultation processes for economically disadvantaged communities and tribal communities.

COAL ASH

EPA finalized the Financial Assurances rollback withdrawing the Obama administration’s plan to establish a requirement for coal plants to set aside funds to clean up coal ash spills. Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine public advocacy groups against the EPA, challenging the Part A CCR rollback, which illegally extends the operating lives of unlined, leaking coal ash ponds.

NATIONWIDE GENERAL PERMITS

Nationwide General Permits are issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for activities that are similar in nature and supposed to cause only minimal adverse environmental impacts to aquatic resources, separately or on a cumulative basis. The idea is that these activities are similar, common, and harmless that uniquely project-specific permits are not needed, and instead permittees can get a “general permit” for a particular activity that is easier to obtain. These general permits for different activities are reissued every five years, and the Trump Administration is trying to ram through a new set of them which would weaken clean water protections and violate the Clean Water Act.

LEAD AND COPPER RULE

The LCR regulates how EPA monitors and remediates lead in drinking water, and has not been updated since 1991. EPA’s proposed rule makes some improvements to the LCR, but does not go far enough to protect public health. Unfortunately, the proposal also takes some steps backwards to be less health protective, steps that in some instances likely violate EPA’s duties under the law.

GUIDANCE RELATED TO THE SUPREME COURT’S DECISION IN MAUI CASE

Environmentalists won an unexpected victory in the Supreme Court earlier this year, when SCOTUS concluded that point source discharges to navigable waters through groundwater are in fact regulated under the Clean Water Act. Click here to read more and get all the details about the case from Earthjustice. Earlier this month, EPA released a guidance document that will narrowly interpret this decision and try to limit when indirect groundwater pollution requires EPA permits.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION NOW!

NEIGHBORHOOD PRESERVATION COALITION FORMS TO OPPOSE VULCAN QUARRY IN CLAY

We are thrilled to welcome the latest community group to join the Alabama Rivers Alliance, the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition! NPC formed earlier this year to oppose a proposed limestone quarry on Butler Mountain (Jefferson County’s highest peak and the headwaters of three major watersheds). Gurley Creek, Dry Creek, Turkey Creek, Big Canoe Creek, and the larger Black Warrior, Cahaba, and Coosa watersheds all could be impacted by this quarry.

To learn more about the proposed quarry and NPC’s efforts to fight it, visit “Quash the Quarry” and sign NPC’s petition. Are you interested in joining or helping this group directly? Would you like to share your insights from other quarry battles with this group? Fill out this form to contact them directly!

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT LISTING FOR THE CANOE CREEK CLUBSHELL 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a public comment period on its finding to list the Canoe Creek clubshell (a freshwater mussel) as endangered and to designate critical habitat for the species.  The Friends of Big Canoe Creek, Alabama Rivers Alliance, and other environmental groups support this listing and look forward to working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect this important species. Comments can be submitted until January 4th, either electronically or by mail. More information on the listing and how to submit comments can be found here.

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. Thank you for caring about Alabama’s rivers and streams! Click the icons below to share this policy update on social media or via email.

VIRTUAL ALABAMA WATER RALLY

Save the date for Alabama Water Rally 2021:  March 18 – 21! Stay tuned for more information coming soon.

Water Is Life,

Jack West

Policy & Advocacy Director

Alabama Rivers Alliance

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