If a tanker truck overturns and spills a load of petroleum on a roadside or into a creek, local governments likely will have to cover the cost of the clean-up.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management used to set aside $500,000 to help counties and municipalities with disaster response. That went away with state budget cuts last year, and ADEM expects the same this year, according to Director Lance LeFleur. They also are bracing for another financial whammy with the president’s proposed severe budget cuts to the federal Environmental Protection 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. “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. Read more.
Holes are appearing in Alabama’s official safety net for environmental protection.
A consistent loser in recent battles for state funding, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is seeing delays in enforcing regulations.
It also is seeking to hand off to local governments the primary responsibility for emergency response to environmental accidents.
And its lack of matching funds helped dash hopes for federal clean-up of long-standing industrial contamination in several north Birmingham neighborhoods.
A recent sign of the problems came Feb. 10 with landowner James Hodges’s plea to ADEM’s oversight commission for more timely enforcement of regulations to prevent construction runoff from damaging his cypress wetlands in Houston County. Read more.
However temporary it was, the Trump administration’s freeze on federal grant awards at the Environmental Protection Agency alarmed Alabama environmentalists still reeling from a recent gasoline pipeline leak and fatal explosion in Shelby County. The Alabama Rivers Alliance’s program director Mitch Reid said, “Federal money isn’t extra money for us, it’s absolutely fundamental to the maintenance of clean water in Alabama. Any way you look at it, this throws a wrench in the steady state operation of water protection in Alabama.”
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) relies on a suite of grants and contracts from the EPA to carry out its programs in water and air quality, solid and hazardous waste management, and others. The federal government’s contribution to ADEM is about $60 million, or nearly 40 percent of the department’s $154 million budget, for 2016. The Alabama legislature budgeted $280,000 from the general fund in 2016, down from $830,000 in 2015, according to Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2017 Executive Budget.
On Sunday, Dec.4, one pipeline was stopped in North Dakota. On Monday, workers began putting another pipeline in the ground in east Alabama.
That’s where, with little apparent opposition, the 515-mile Sabal Trail Transmission Pipeline will transport natural gas from an existing pipeline in Tallapoosa County through southeast Georgia to supply energy for growing needs in central Florida.
Environmental groups are now assessing whether successful nonviolent protest strategies used at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline might be transferrable to the South.
The Sabal Trail owners have swatted away one legal challenge after another from environmental groups. The court hurdle remaining will come in the spring, just weeks before the pipeline’s announced completion date of June 1. Read more.
The fatal gasoline pipeline explosion that occurred Monday – the second incident in six weeks involving Colonial Pipeline’s infrastructure in Shelby County – came on the heels of a report critical of the federal agency responsible for pipeline regulation and safety.
On Oct. 14, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General released an audit that concluded “insufficient guidance, oversight, and coordination hinder the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) full implementation of mandates and recommendations.”
PHMSA develops and enforces regulations for the “safe, reliable, and environmentally sound” operation of the nation’s pipeline transportation system and hazardous materials shipments. Read more.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is continuing to collect weekly samples from drinking water drawn from the Coosa and distributed by Gadsden Water Works Board.
The average of the most recent four samples was 70 parts-per-trillion, according to State Toxicologist John Guarisco, of the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Still in effect, Guarisco said, is a public reminder issued in September for pregnant women, nursing mothers, formula-fed infants and other sensitive populations “to consider using alternate sources of drinking water.”
A proposal to widen Shelby County’s Cahaba Beach Road, and build a bridge across the Little Cahaba River to connect with Sicard Hollow Road, has prompted outcry and questions from environmental groups and nearby property owners. The undeveloped area protects a source of Birmingham drinking water and is a popular recreational attraction for people of the region who canoe, hike, fish, or seek the solitude of the forested land.
Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society (CRS) said, “We are deeply concerned about this project’s potential impacts to the region’s drinking water, habitat for federally-listed aquatic species, and the most healthy remaining large tributary in the upper Cahaba watershed.”
Construction is underway on the new 515-mile Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline that will travel about 86 miles through four east-central Alabama counties. The line will also go through southwest Georgia and north Florida to provide natural gas to Florida Power & Light customers in south Florida.
The bulldozers and pipe are on the ground in Tallapoosa, Chambers, Lee, and Russell counties. They are a welcome sight to local officials who see new tax revenues and little concern from Alabama residents.
Environmentalists, however, are continuing a so-far failed effort to stop the pipeline. They say it poses a threat to drinking water sources, environmentally sensitive wetlands and sink-hole prone areas, and has roused public opposition in Georgia and Florida.
The Sabal Trail pipeline is the first major addition to Alabama’s thousands of miles of gas and oil pipelines since the leak of 330,000 gallons of gasoline from an interstate transmission line in Shelby County in early September. That incident brought headlines and new attention to a mostly underground system that stays largely out of sight and mind. Read more.
Southeast Detail: Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines.
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration
Jefferson County Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Trunk Pipelines.
Blue: Gas Transmission Pipelines Orange: Hazardous Liquid Pipelines Source: National Pipeline Mapping System, U.S. Department of Transportation
Gas Transmission and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines Nationally
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration
The Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill in Shelby County was a wake-up call for the public and the government about just how critical oil and gas pipelines are to America’s energy supply needs, and how such an incident could impact the environment.
The Cahaba River Society (CRS), an advocacy and education group for the waterway most threatened by the gasoline spill, said in a statement this week that the spill “very narrowly missed” entering the river, less than a mile away.
CRS field director Randy Haddock, PhD, said pipeline safety isn’t top-of-mind until a significant incident occurs. “As the acute phase of this event ends, we expect to start having conversations” among advocacy groups, industry, government, and others about how to prevent or limit damage when another incident occurs, Haddock said. Read more.
Levels of dangerous perfluorocarbon (PFCs) in drinking water continue to bedevil the Gadsden Water Works and Sewer Board.
Two recent samples from the Coosa River, where Gadsden gets its water, tested above the federally recommended long-term level for two specific PFCs, PFOA and PFOS. That prompted the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) yesterday to remind pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, formula-fed infants, and others sensitive to toxins to consider using alternate sources of drinking water.
Also, the Board has filed suit against more than 30 businesses and industries, many of them carpet mills, for damages from past and present release of toxic chemicals, including PFCs, into the Coosa River. The Coosa is Gadsden Water Board’s source of raw water for the drinking water it processes and distributes. In the filing, the Board says that its current treatment operation cannot remove the PFCs, and it would have to install a new system to do so.
ADPH’s State Environmental Toxicologist John Guarisco said the most recent samples of Coosa River Water used by Gadsden, taken by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), showed levels of 84 and 82 parts per trillion (ppt), above the 70 ppt recommended safe maximum level established in an EPA health advisory in May.
On Thursday, the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water authority announced that Decatur chemical maker Daikin will pay $5 million to settle claims relating to drinking water from the Tennessee River that was fouled by high concentrations of the toxic chemicals PFOA and PFOS.
Almost 10 percent of that, $450,000, will go to reimbursing WMEL customers for water costs incurred when a “do not drink” warning was in effect in early summer.
The settlement, confirmed by both parties but subject to court approval, also includes $3.9 million for a granular activated carbon filtration system that will effectively remove the toxic chemicals “for the next three to four years,” according to a WMEL news release.
There’s a frequently asked question on the EPA’s Web site that would, at first glance, seem almost silly. “Can I tell if my drinking water is okay by just looking at it, tasting it, or smelling it?”
The answer, of course, is no. It goes on to say, “None of the chemicals or microbes that can make you sick can be seen, tasted, or smelled.”
Fair enough. That leaves water testing. And just who is checking drinking water for safety? The short answer is your water system. Private wells are another story. The EPA doesn’t regulate them, and many states and towns don’t require sampling, though the EPA recommends owners test their own water.
Otherwise, most systems use private certified laboratories to analyze drinking water. A few systems operate their own state-certified labs and test themselves. Results from the labs are sent to the water systems and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
In June, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management tested for PFOA and PFOS contaminants in drinking water from three Coosa River Basin water systems and found mixed results: None tested above the safe level for contaminants, one system tested well below the top amount considered safe, and two others were near or at the safe line.
In response to those results, ADEM conducted another four weeks of testing in July for water systems in Gadsden and Centre, where higher levels of the contaminants were detected. No further testing was deemed necessary for the Coosa Valley Water Supply District.
The last of the results from July’s testing is expected next week, according to ADEM.
Drinking water from 12 Alabama water systems has contained more lead than allowed by federal rules at various times since 2010, according to officials with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
Tests on drinking water have shown lead levels of up to 72 parts per billion, more than four times the 15 ppb federal limit. But no water system is currently in violation of federal rules for lead.
A study released earlier this week showed 5,300 water systems across the country were in violation of the federal rules for lead and copper in 2015. The study, conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was spurred by the discovery of widespread lead contamination of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Read more.
Representatives of North Alabama’s West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority met with Gov. Robert Bentley’s staff Friday to request bottled water and other alternative sources of water for its 100,000 customers, who are advised not to drink the system’s water for now.
The system is operating under an advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency that its water has unsafe levels of PFOS and PFOA contaminants. Read more.
UPDATE: The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new health advisory on long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS contaminants in drinking water. Tests of water from the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, featured in this story, showed PFOA and PFOS contaminants above the level that might cause health problems, EPA says.
A new question of safe drinking water is playing out in North Alabama. There, residents and the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against 3M, maker of products from Scotchgard to Post-It Notes, in connection with toxins in the water supply.
The EPA is expected to release new guidelines on safe levels of the contaminants this spring.
There’s conflict brewing over who might foot the bill if a cleanup is in order.Read More.
Major decisions affecting environmental concerns in Alabama this year will be made in the courts and in the Legislature. Up in the air are questions about environmental regulation in Alabama, construction of the Northern Beltline in Jefferson County, the future of the state parks and the future of coal-fired power production here and across the country, among other issues. Here’s a rundown of some of the stories to keep an eye on in 2016.