Jack’s Winter Policy Update

Published 12/7/2021  |  Alabama Rivers Alliance

POLICY UPDATES from Alabama Rivers Alliance

Leaves have fallen, special legislative sessions have come to an end, and as we enjoy the holidays, I give thanks for the restorative powers of Alabama’s marvelous creeks, streams, rivers, lakes and bays. Last month, I was generously gifted a visit to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on Alabama’s coast, and the beauty of the rolling pine and oak woodlands leading to the serenity of an undeveloped white-sand beach reminded me of how much we have to treasure and protect and restore.

In this season of rest and reflection, I give additional thanks for all of our hardworking, water-protecting partners and members who understand the value of these waters and embrace the responsibility we have to steward them. I hope you enjoy my recap below of many of the encouraging legal and policy developments we’ve contributed to over the past six months, and I look forward to making even greater strides together starting in January!

– Jack West, Policy & Advocacy Director

STATE LEGISLATIVE & POLICY UPDATES:

REFORM OF WASTE SLUDGE REGULATIONS

The practice of spreading waste sludges from wastewater treatment plants, poultry processing facilities, and industrial sources onto farmland continues to plague Alabama’s lands and waters, particularly in the northern half of the state. Contaminated runoff from these waste sludges threatens nearby creeks and streams, and the staggering stenches from these materials afflicts rural communities.

Together with our partners at Southern Environmental Law Center and Black Warrior Riverkeeper, we continue work to improve the state’s regulations governing the spreading of waste sludges on agricultural land as a “beneficial” soil amendment. Though the Alabama Environmental Management Commission sided with ADEM in our administrative challenge, we have appealed this decision to state court while continuing to provide ADEM with stakeholder input as the agency revises its regulations. A “Fact Sheet” released by ADEM indicates it is considering modifications to the regulations which would adopt many of the changes requested in our administrative challenge. A new proposed rule should be available for public comment before the year’s end, and we will be encouraging members to submit comments to strengthen the regulations and will continue uplifting the voices of people who have been exposed to this foul practice.

We recently supported a community meeting in North Alabama held by Alabama Waste Sludge Awareness for concerned residents to share their experiences with waste sludge practices and to help them be prepared to comment on the upcoming proposed rules from ADEM. This coalition of communities concerned about waste sludge is growing, and our board member, Julie Lay, is spearheading this effort. If you would like to join this group, please sign up here

If you want to learn more about this issue, please take a moment to watch the 2020 Southern Exposure Film, SOILED.

HYDROPOWER RELICENSING OF HARRIS DAM ON TALLAPOOSA RIVER

 

It has been a marathon year in the relicensing of Alabama Power’s Harris Dam on the Tallapoosa River. After the utility filed it’s Preliminary Licensing Proposal over the summer, many individuals and stakeholders filed comments with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) asking for natural flows and water temperatures, better river recreation access, and increased public safety and notification protocols. You can view ARA’s comments on the Preliminary Licensing Proposal here.

In November, Alabama Power filed its Final License Application for the Harris Project, and now the ball is in FERC’s court to signal when the agency is ready to begin its required environmental analysis. The utility’s Final License Application documents are available here, and there will be more opportunities to get involved in 2022.

Also, if you haven’t seen it already, check out the Southern Exposure film, HEAL THE RIVER, our recent Southern Exposure film which explains why the relicensing process is important for the future of the Tallapoosa River.

CHANDLER MOUNTAIN PUMPED-STORAGE HYDROPOWER PROJECT

In July, Alabama Power filed a preliminary permit application to explore developing a large pumped-storage hydropower project on Chandler Mountain in the Coosa watershed. This proposed project threatens the health of the mountain itself, Jake Creek, Gulf Creek, Little Canoe Creek, and Big Canoe Creek, as well as the aquatic creatures that call those streams home. Little Canoe Creek is home to one of the two remaining populations of the Canoe Creek Clubshell, a critically imperiled freshwater mussel that has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

We filed to intervene in the permit application docket before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and were joined by our partners at Coosa Riverkeeper, Energy Alabama, and the Friends of Big Canoe Creek. A project of this magnitude would drastically change the character of Chandler Mountain and degrade aquatic habitat for delicate mussels and other aquatic critters. And more affordable, less destructive energy storage alternatives exist!

WATER EQUITY IN ALABAMA

Over the past several years as the folks in the river and water protection movement have awakened to water crises like the one in Flint Michigan and wastewater injustices like those that are happening right here in Lowndes County, Alabama, we have learned that our work to protect water has been one-sided. While we have always worked to protect the sources of our water, our rivers and streams, we have not always engaged in the conversation and efforts to ensure that water is protected all the way to the tap.

The U.S. Water Alliance, a national nonprofit, identifies the three tenets of water equity as ensuring all communities:

  • Have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services;
  • Share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems; and
  • Are resilient in the face of floods, drought, and other climate risks.

To this end, we at the Alabama Rivers Alliance have been working to better understand water equity issues in Alabama and to participate in efforts to ensure that water resources are shared equitably.

In collaboration with several partners around the state, including Alabama Arise, Cahaba River Society, Gasp, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and SWEET Alabama, we commented on the development of the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) – a new program temporarily funded by the federal government to help customers pay overdue water bills as a result of the pandemic. You can read our comments and learn more about the program by clicking here. The program is still awaiting HHS approval.

Additionally as part of this work, we collaborated with partners to participate in recent meetings surrounding a water rate increase by the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB). You can read our joint statement by clicking here.  We will continue our efforts to communicate with BWWB and other water utilities across the state around water equity issues.

Check out our Special Giving Tuesday Water is Life Zoom Talk with Majadi Baruti (Greater Birmingham Ministries), Rob Burton (SWEET Alabama) and Frances Wallace (community activist). Click here to watch!

LITTLE RIVER WILD AND SCENIC DESIGNATION CAMPAIGN

We are making progress on our campaign with Little River Waterkeeper to designate Little River as a national Wild and Scenic River and preserve this jewel for future generations. We have continued to work with state officials, county tourism boards, economic development organizations, and federal and state agencies to build momentum for this designation. Our most recent letter of support comes from the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development.

Since getting a river studied and included in the national Wild and Scenic River system takes federal legislation, we have also been meeting with members of Alabama’s Congressional delegation to explain the benefits of having more Wild and Scenic rivers in Alabama and discussing introducing legislation to have the Little River studied to assess its eligibility.

We also participate in the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Coalition to learn from and support other W&S campaigns across the country. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to support our campaign by signing the petition at KeepLittleRiverWild.org and watch the 2019 Southern Exposure film, Something About Little River.

ALABAMA COAL ASH

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is hosting a public hearing about Plant Gorgas coal ash on December 16 from 6 – 7:30 pm at Parrish Town Hall. The hearing will focus on Alabama Power’s closure plans for coal ash waste being stored in a massive unlined, leaking pit next to the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. You can view more details about how to attend the hearing and/or submit written comments ahead of time and share your opinion on the need for Alabama Power to excavate and remove its waste.

Also, don’t miss the excellent national coverage on the threat to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta posed by the coal ash pond at Plant Barry. The recent article from CNN, Gambling ‘America’s Amazon’, features our partners at Africatown CHESS, Mobile Baykeeper, and SELC.

Learn more about coal ash problems in Alabama at AlabamaCoalAsh.org.

Watch our 2018 Southern Exposure film, Ashes to Ashes, by clicking here. 

UPCOMING LEGISLATIVE SESSION (2022)

We are gearing up for the 2022 Regular Session of the Alabama legislature beginning on January 11 and keeping an eye on any pre-filed bills that may affect our rivers and other water resources. Next year is a big election year for Alabama, so legislators will be trying to deal with the basics only and then focus on their campaigns. We continue to assess the priorities developed by our conservation community and published by Conservation Alabama in the Conservation Policy Guide to determine if there are opportunities for action in the upcoming session.

Please join us for our monthly Water is Life Zoom Talk on January 4 from noon to 1 pm to hear more about the upcoming legislative session. Click here to learn more and register.

FEDERAL POLICY UPDATES:

The Alabama Rivers Alliance participates in a number of national coalitions, including River Network, the Clean Water Network, and the Clean Water for All Campaign. We sign onto 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.

WATERS OF THE U.S.

In August, environmental advocates from Earthjustice won the case they argued on behalf of six tribes before the US District Court for the District of Arizona requesting vacatur of the “Dirty Water Rule” nationwide! The court decided that the former Administration’s “Dirty Water Rule” has the potential to cause serious harm if it remains in place while EPA drafts a new rule.

EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers announced in October that they will hold 10 “regional roundtables” to inform their development of a new definition of the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS), which spells out the kinds of water bodies protected by the pollution control programs in the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water for All Coalition has worked to collect names of people to recommend to participate in these roundtables, which will be occurring in December and January.

SECTION 401 OF THE CLEAN WATER ACT

At the end of October, a federal court vacated the former Administration’s harmful and illegal rule reforming regulations related to section 401 of the Clean Water Act that allowed polluting industries to permit harmful projects more quickly, thereby reducing the input of local communities, states, and tribes. Under Section 401, states and tribes retain the authority to certify that federally approved projects like pipelines and dams comply with local water quality standards. Tribal communities in particular depend on Section 401 certification as one of the few processes where they can have input on permitted projects impacting their water. The judge in the case issued a ruling rejecting EPA’s request to keep the prior rule in place while EPA reviews section 401 regulations and considers whether to revise them, meaning the former rule is off the books nationwide!

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT AND JOBS ACT

Last month, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal.” The legislation includes approximately $50 billion for water infrastructure, and $13 billion for resiliency programs (those numbers are over 5 years). The Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) received $11.7B each, 49% of which must be grants, negative interest loans, or principal forgiveness, with reduced state match requirements. There is also $15B to EPA through the Drinking Water SRF for lead service line removal, and $10B for PFAS through both SRFs and the Disadvantages Communities Grants program. Lastly, the bill also fully funds the Indian Health Service, a critical component of improving tribal water access, for the first time.

For more information on what is in the bill related to water, check out this blog from our partners at River Network.

REVERSING NEPA ROLLBACKS

In October, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued a proposed rule as the first step in a two-phase rulemaking process to reverse drastic National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) rollbacks.

NEPA is the foundational law for ensuring that people have a voice in federal decision-making, guiding the environmental impact review process for major federal activities that impact the environment, public health, and livelihoods around the country. In 2020, the former Administration drastically rolled back NEPA regulations, undermining public input and scientific integrity while ignoring climate impacts in such major federal decisions. The current proposed Phase 1 rulemaking is a limited rulemaking to restore some key NEPA protections. Phase 2 is intended to be a more comprehensive rule to address additional key concerns like ensuring strong public participation.

“BUILD BACK BETTER” ACT / BUGET RECONCILIATION

Members of Congress continue to negotiate a second large bill dealing with social programs, infrastructure, climate change, and more. Draft versions of the text have been released, and signs indicate that water provisions would likely remain unchanged from that text should the bill make it across the finish line. Highlights would include $9B to EPA for lead service line removal, ~$970M for lead service line removal in rural areas through USDA, $1.85B in grants for combating sewer overflows, $150M for decentralized wastewater systems, and $225M for water bill assistance through EPA.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION NOW!

PLANT GORGAS COAL ASH Submit your written comments by 12/23 and plan to attend the in-person hearing on December 16 at the Parrish Town Hall from 6 – 7:30pm.

LITTLE RIVER WILD AND SCENIC – Support our efforts to designate Little River as a national Wild and Scenic River by signing the petition at KeepLittleRiverWild.org

WASTE SLUDGE AWARENESSJoin the coalition, stay in touch with Alabama Waste Sludge Awareness, and be notified when new proposed rules from ADEM are available for public comment.

WATCH THE 2021 SOUTHERN EXPOSURE FILMS!

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