• Environment

    Judge in Historic Ruling Says Drummond Violating Clean Water Act Because of Ongoing Discharge From Closed Mine

    The acid coal mine drainage at Maxine Mine on the Locust Fork is ugly, with discordant orange, yellow, red and purple hues that contrast with verdant spring growth on adjacent riverbanks and bluffs.

    Nearby residents of this Black Warrior River tributary in north Jefferson County, close to the community of Praco on Flat Top Road, call the abandoned mine “a mess,” a place devoid of fish and most other aquatic life and given a wide berth by boaters and swimmers. It’s where algae blooms proliferate in a slough rife with sediment washing from the mountain of mine waste that has accumulated since the early 1950s.

    And it’s a site that made Alabama history May 7 when a federal judge ruled that its owner, Drummond Company, was in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act for continuously polluting the Locust Fork with acid drainage. In a suit brought by nonprofit Black Warrior Riverkeeper, U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon issued a summary judgment against Drummond, dismissing the coal company’s assertion that the law does not apply to pollution from waste after mine operations ended.

    It was the first time the federal act was used to successfully sue the owner of an abandoned mine for polluting an Alabama waterway. Read more.

    The River ‘Flows Through My Veins:’ Voices From the Locust Fork Tributary of the Black Warrior River

    Funding to Make Abandoned Coal Mines Safer Could Disappear Soon

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  • Education

    Rural Counties’ Vaccination Rates Highlight Need for More Access to Care

    Multiple times in the past four years, three rural Alabama counties — Perry, Pickens and Russell — have reported having students without immunization documents at more than four times the statewide rate.

    Health providers say a main reason for that gap is a general lack of health care in sparsely populated areas. Those counties are short on health care providers, and county health departments are understaffed. A lack of knowledge about the need for vaccines also is a factor.

    Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 764 cases of measles were confirmed this year across 23 states. According to the agency, that’s the highest number since 1994 — for a disease that was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000. Read more.

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  • General

    Chris McNair, Former Local Official and Father of One of the ‘4 Little Girls,’ Dies at 93

    Chris McNair, a former legislator, Jefferson County Commission member and father of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 93.

    The family in a statement called McNair a “devoted husband, father, brother and friend.”

    “We are grateful for the life and legacy of our father, J. Christopher McNair. He was a man who loved his family and this community. We ask for prayers and privacy as we prepare to lay him to rest,” the family said in its statement, released by McNair’s daughter Lisa.

    Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin shared some of those thoughts in a press release he issued with condolences for McNair’s family.

    “Mr. McNair and his family are forever tied to our country’s civil-rights legacy,” Woodfin wrote. “When he tragically lost his daughter Denise in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, his courage and fortitude fueled our march for peace. He was the consummate family man, showcasing an unconditional love for humanity that paved the way for social justice in Birmingham and in our nation.” Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Higher Education Looks to Fix ‘Egregious Inequities’ in Funding for Some Universities

    The record $7.1 billion education budget approved in the Alabama Senate last week contains at least 5% increases for the state’s public four-year universities, but a formula to get more money to underfunded institutions met with some concern.

    “I represent an institution that feels like they were not made whole in the budget,” Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said in a budget committee meeting last week.

    His complaint was about the Alabama Commission of Higher Education’s attempt to address what it says are “the most egregious inequities in funding” at some universities.

    The proposal would increase funding to some universities where the funding doesn’t match up with that of other schools across the nation that have similar missions, student bodies and degree production. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Bill Would Protect Forest Owners From Fire District Fees

    Disputes between timberland owners and some fire districts have resulted in statewide legislation to prohibit any district from assessing fees or dues on timberland.

    “We have, unfortunately, local fire districts throughout the state and some of them, we feel like, have been taking some measures, i.e., issuing some costs, on their own,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said. “The (Alabama Forestry Association) and such have felt we have to do something to protect the landowners.”

    Senate Bill 282 would leave fire protection on privately owned property used for timber production to the Alabama Forestry Commission, a state agency. The bill, which would affect money paid to Jefferson County fire districts including the one in Center Point, was given a favorable report on a 11-0 vote in the Senate Forestry, Conservation and Agriculture Committee earlier this month. The next stop is a vote in the Senate.

    Fire district fees as high as $8 an acre per year have been reported in Jefferson County.

    “I don’t want to call out folks, but it is my understanding that most of the issue has been raised in the northern part of the state,” Albritton said.

    Gene Necklaus, president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs, said the issue appears to be between a few holding companies and one or two fire districts. Read more.

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  • Economy

    Bassmaster Classic Returns to Birmingham and Lake Guntersville

    Eleven days after announcing a name for the new downtown stadium, the executive director of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center was again at a podium, this time announcing that the 50th Bassmaster Classic presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods will be in Birmingham and on Lake Guntersville on March 6-8, 2020.

    “I want to have announcements every day. I’ll never complain about that,” Snider said after an afternoon press conference. “But yeah, this is exciting.”

    Bruce Akin, CEO of Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, said it is more than appropriate for the company to bring its “super bowl of fishing” to Alabama, the state where B.A.S.S. was born. This year’s announcement is a bit later than normal, he said, as organizers wanted to be sure construction on the Interstate 59/20 bridge through downtown Birmingham would be done in time.

    This will be the 13th time that Alabama has hosted this event out of 50. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    In Teacher Shortage, Educators Support Bill for Non-Certified Teachers

    Roanoke City Schools Superintendent Chuck Marcum needs more teachers.

    Specifically, he needs more educators who are certified in the subjects they’re teaching. But during a teacher shortage that some say has reached a crisis level in parts of the state, Marcum and others hope lawmakers will let them keep non-certified educators in their classrooms longer.

    “The education colleges are turning out great teachers, just not enough of them,” Marcum said Friday. “Even if we hired all of them, it wouldn’t be enough.”

    Hundreds of schools each year hire educators on a one-year emergency contract. The educators must have a bachelor’s degree, but no education training or experience. After that year, the individual can’t have another emergency contract with a school anywhere in the state.

    Senate Bill 304 would change the word “emergency” to “urgent” and allow the contracts for up to six years.

    Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, said he sponsored the bill after watching his daughter’s high school struggle to fill a physics teaching position.

    His bill would make it easier for professionals with real-world experience and ability, but not a certificate, teach for longer, Chambliss said. Read more.

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  • Reading Birmingham

    Doug Jones’ story about the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the prosecution of the Klansmen who did it, provides perspective on the past and present.

    “Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Civil Rights” by Doug Jones with Greg Truman (St. Martin’s Press, 2019)

    “Maxine McNair’s screams were primal,” Doug Jones writes in Bending Toward Justice. As McNair searched for her daughter Denise in the rubble of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church she knew, the way a mother would know, that the unthinkable had finally happened.

    The 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins happened because white Americans were angry. Birmingham’s public schools were integrated the week before the bombing, and as whites saw dents and cracks appearing in the wall that separated them from black Americans they became resentful and afraid. And a few whites, bitter losers clinging to the bottom rung of the white racial hierarchy, were willing to do more than just gripe about it. They were willing to commit murder.

    “Bending Toward Justice” accomplishes what good history should accomplish. The book helps readers understand the past and the present. And the events of 1963 are relevant now because sometimes history does backflips. That’s not to say that history repeats itself, because it doesn’t really. But occasionally, without looking where we’re going, we jump back to a spot we thought we had left behind. And then we have to retrace our steps to see how it all turns out this time.

    Read more.

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  • Environment

    After 14 Years, Dovertown Community Is Weary, but Still Fighting Strip Mining

    For 14 years, residents of the Walker County community of Dovertown, near Cordova, have lived under a cloud. Coal companies have been wanting to strip-mine a nearby area along the Black Warrior River’s Locust Fork tributary.

    The threat to the 200 people who live there is existential, they believe, as they’ve seen other small towns nearly fade away once the ground around them was shoveled away to get at a seam of coal.

    At issue is whether the Alabama Surface Mining Commission will issue a new five-year permit to Mays Mining Inc. for the No. 5 Mine. Some of the people of Dovertown plan to speak in opposition at an informal public conference called by the commission for Wednesday, April 17. Read more.

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  • Education

    Birmingham Event Spotlights Preserving LGBTQ History, Collects Memorabilia Such as Videos, Banners, Photographs and Clothing

    More than 150 scholars, archivists and historians will come to Birmingham over the weekend to discuss how to best collect, preserve and research the history of the LGBTQ community in the South.

    It’s the first year for the conference, called Queer History South, but organizer Josh Burford, a historian and archivist, said there’s resounding support for the event that helps researchers facing a hard task.

    “If it’s there at all, it’s hard to find,” Burford said of the materials they look for. Digging into the history of a traditionally marginalized group can be difficult, Burford said.

    Speakers at the event will include representatives from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

    Queer History South is part of the Invisible Histories Project, of which Burford is the director of community engagement. The project is a Birmingham-based nonprofit group that connects universities and libraries with LGBTQ groups and people to help preserve their histories. Read more.

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  • Economy

    Majoring in the Minors: Birmingham’s Booming With New Pro Sports Teams

    The arrival of the Birmingham Iron, the city’s entry in America’s newest pro football league, marks the latest in a series of franchises that have plied their trade at Legion Field. But they are not the only game in town.

    Birmingham has gone from just one minor league team two years ago — the Barons, who have played baseball here since 1885, with a few breaks along the way — to four. In another year or two, that number is scheduled to increase to five, marking the first time Birmingham has hosted professional teams in the five major sports, according to BirminghamProSports.com, a site that documents Birmingham teams throughout the city’s history.

    That’s a milestone for a place long known for its love of all things athletic. Before this, teams with the strongest claim to professional status were those sponsored by industries in the early 1900s. The Iron have gotten off to a fast start in the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football, winning their first three games before losing two. Read more.

    More stories in the package

    Another Pro Football League Takes the Field in Birmingham. Will This One Stay Afloat?

    Fútbol Capital of the South? Birmingham’s New Pro Soccer Team Sells out Its First Match

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Alabama Lawmakers’ Pay up 4% in 2019

    Alabamians’ median household income increased in 2017, which means Alabama lawmakers received a corresponding 4.03 percent pay increase this year.

    Their annual salary is now $48,123. This is the third raise for lawmakers since 2014, when their pay was tied to household incomes through a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

    “If legislators want a raise, we need to get the median household income up, and if we can get that up, we’ll deserve a raise,” said state Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. He sponsored the legislation that led to the constitutional amendment in 2012. The amendment went into effect after the 2014 election with lawmakers earning $42,849.

    The latest raise, $1,866, went into effect Jan.1, according to the Alabama Personnel Department memo, which cites 2017 Census data. Read more.

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  • Environment

    North Birmingham Neighborhoods ‘Have Taken a Beating,’ Work to Unite Over Pollution Concerns

    The EPA Superfund cleanup and ABC Coke’s proposed air emissions permit have dominated health concerns of residents in northern Birmingham neighborhoods for months. Now officials and residents of several neighborhoods there are attempting to form a coalition to broaden the concerns to other sources of possible pollution.

    The flash point of the new effort is a scrap metal processor’s business license. The license was denied by a unanimous Birmingham City Council vote in March, but the owner successfully appealed the case in Jefferson County Circuit Court, which compelled the city to grant the license.

    Catherine Evans, president of the Acipco-Finley Neighborhood Association, and City Councilman John Hilliard led a meeting Saturday of about 30 people, including officers of some other neighborhood associations, to discuss how to proceed after the court decision and how to meet concerns over respiratory illnesses and other health effects possibly related to industrial pollution throughout the largely African-American and low-income area.

    Several people at the meeting called attention to the negative health effects of living in the North Birmingham community.
    Gwen Webb, president of Inglenook Neighborhood Association, said, “I don’t care what side of town you live on, what organization you belong to, what neighborhood you’re in, we all are affected (by polluted air). I can tell you when I start smelling it, I cannot breathe, and pollution is injustice.” Read more.

    EPA Studies Find Air Pollution Is Particularly Dangerous to Vulnerable Populations Such as People of Color and Children

    See, Smell Air Pollution? Document and Report It.

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  • Education

    First Class in More Than Name Only: Why Alabama’s Preschool Program Is Best in the Country on National Standards

    https://birminghamwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Hufman-Dr.-Stephanie-Parker-begins-the-class-day.jpg

    A new PARCA report shows kids who attend Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program are more likely to be proficient in reading and math, an advantage that continues through their middle school years. Read the report.

    The excitement in the room is hard to miss – and it’s coming from the kids as well as the teacher.

    “Kiss your brain for knowing that!” Dr. Stephanie Parker exclaims to her students at Huffman Academy Pre-K this cool December morning in Birmingham. The class is part of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program.

    Surrounded by colorful charts, educational photos and pictures of kids and their art, Parker takes her eager students through a recitation of the previous day’s Gingerbread Man story, as part of their “morning meeting.” She’s sitting in her wooden rocker at eye level with the kids, who talk and shout excitedly in answering her questions.

    When they get something right, she applauds them with either a “kiss your brain,” or after a particularly significant achievement, encouragement to do a “standing Saturday Night Fever,” – with more than a dozen kids mimicking John Travolta’s hand-across- the-body dance move.

    In the classroom next door, Denise Dennis’s preschoolers, after their morning meeting, are putting together gingerbread houses, some sitting at a small round table with their teacher, others at another table with her auxiliary teacher Wyesha Pullum.

    There are two teachers in each pre-K class at Huffman Academy, and that is just one of the reasons Alabama’s public pre-K program got high marks in July from the Rutgers University-based National Institute for Early Education Research. NIEER ranked the efforts of 43 states and the District of Columbia to provide quality instruction for kids before kindergarten age.

    For those who expect Alabama to be at the bottom of the list in educational achievement, the NIEER report may come as a surprise.

    “I think if you look at this report, the conclusion would be Alabama’s the national leader here,” says Steve Barnett, the founding director of NIEER and a member of the team that put together the report, “Implementing 15 Essential Elements for High-Quality Pre-K: An Updated Scan of State Policies.”

    Breaking down the rationale behind the 15 essentials, Barnett says: “They’re the result of a project which was developed to reverse engineer successful preschool. … Rather than saying ‘On average how much do any of these things matter?’ the question was ‘Well, if we focus on the programs that seem to have succeeded in doing great things for young children, what do they look like? What do they have in common?’ … What is it that seems to have to be in place to really have a high-quality preschool program that delivers excellence?” Read more.

    This article was published in collaboration with 100 Days in Appalachia, a digital news publication incubated at West Virginia University in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Daily Yonder.

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  • Economy

    Ready, Set, Action: Birmingham’s Become a Film-Making Destination That Brings Jobs, Millions of Dollars to Economy

    The Magic City is not quite Hollywood, yet.

    But Birmingham’s economy is getting a show business-sized boost with millions of film dollars flowing into the local economy. The city’s Red Mountain substituted for the Hollywood Hills, wearing the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in “Bigger,” one of dozens of films made in metro Birmingham in recent years.

    Capitalizing on Alabama’s incentive program for film productions, the city is recruiting a growing number of projects, said Buddy Palmer, president and CEO of Create Birmingham and its offshoot Film Birmingham.

    From 2016 to 2017, the number of film projects in metro Birmingham increased 200 percent, he said. Three feature films and 24 other projects, including commercials and videos, were produced in Birmingham in 2016. By 2017, when Film Birmingham officially began recruiting projects with support from the city and other sponsors, Film Birmingham assisted 55 projects. Of that total, 30 film productions were completed in Birmingham, including eight feature films.

    “In 2016 and 2017, about $32 million in film production activity translated into, conservatively, a $10 (million) to $12 million impact on the local economy,” Palmer said.

    In 2018, Film Birmingham assisted 67 projects, including 30 productions, of which nine were feature films, said Jessica Moody of Film Birmingham. Read more.

    Grip, Gaffer, Best Boy – Movie Job Titles Have Joined the Scene in Birmingham

    Birmingham builder Victor Sellers and fellow stage hand Kevin Sappington didn’t start out to be in the movie business. But with experience in more than 10 made-in-Birmingham movies, the two Jefferson County natives are among hundreds of area residents who find challenging work, good pay and benefits, and chances for new avocations working as crew on the scores of films being made here. Read more.

    A Growing List of Movies Have Been Made in Alabama

    Film-making is booming in Birmingham and across the state since Alabama began its film incentive program. The movies are as varied as the locations where they were shot. One is a real-time suspense film with chase scenes filmed on Morris Avenue; another is the story of brothers who created Mr. Universe and a fitness empire, filmed in several locations across the city. Then there are family dramas and stories about dirt track racing, football, ultimate fighting and music. See the list of films made in Alabama.

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  • Environment

    County’s Major Air Polluters Concentrated in Low-Income, Minority Neighborhoods

    BirminghamWatch Graphic: Clay Carey

     

    The Oliver Robinson bribery trial, in which guilty verdicts were issued for officials of Drummond Coal Co. and its law firm, Balch & Bingham, revealed a gritty episode about avoiding environmental cleanup in North Birmingham. But there’s a bigger dirty picture.

    The vast majority of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.

    The findings show 71 percent of the major pollution sources are in areas with incomes below the median income for the county.

    Only one primary source of pollution is in a neighborhood with a median household income greater than 110 percent of the county median.

    Residents of the same low-income areas also often are largely African American. Research has shown that economically depressed populations can be more heavily affected by the negative health effects of air pollution.

    Poor air does not equally strike everyone in the Birmingham area, raising issues of environmental justice. Read more.

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  • Economy

    The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.

    In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.

    Big-box retailers come in several types and brand names. The biggest of them all, though, is Walmart. The largest private employer in the world, Walmart grew from its roots in Arkansas to be a major force in virtually every part of the United States. In Alabama alone, 38,000 people are employed by Walmart.

    Tens of millions of customers across America walk through the doors of the company’s stores every day. In Alabama, cities that have a Walmart get taxes on sales to those customers, which helps pay for services such as police and fire protection. Walmart’s website states the company collected $684.6 million in sales taxes and fees in Alabama for the fiscal year ending in 2017 and paid another $92.1 million in its own additional taxes and fees.

    Dependence on sales taxes is unusual compared to most other states and harkens back to Alabama’s early days as a state that was almost entirely rural and dependent on the production of cotton and timber. Property taxes are lower than in other states, in some cases much lower, especially on agricultural and forest lands. Read more.

    A Tale of Two Jefferson County Cities: Sales Tax Comes and Sometimes Goes

    By Robert Carter
    Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland is one of the city officials who work to attract retailers of all shapes and sizes – and their sales taxes.

    He said he spends time trying to bring in retailers “every single day.” According to figures provided by City Clerk Melissa Honeycutt, Gardendale derives 70 percent of its tax receipts from sales taxes.

    It’s a different story in Fairfield, about 20 miles away. Fairfield was once a thriving city and home to a massive U.S. Steel factory complex and numerous shopping centers. After the factory closed, the stores followed. When the Walmart there closed, it took about a third of what was left of the city’s tax revenues, according to the mayor. Read more.

    BW Expands Economic Development Coverage

    Robert Carter covers economic development in Birmingham and Alabama, a new assignment in 2018. He is a veteran journalist, both with newspapers and in radio. A Kentucky native, Carter began working at his hometown Glasgow Daily Times straight out of high school. He also worked with Christian Family Radio in Bowling Green and with Western Kentucky University’s public radio service. In Alabama, Carter has worked at The Birmingham News and The North Jefferson News in Gardendale.

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  • BirminghamWatch

    The Best of BirminghamWatch in 2018

    Air pollution in low-income areas, the economic rebirth of the western area, the last white Democrats in the state’s Legislature, these are just some of the stories BirminghamWatch developed this year. Here’s a sampling of BirminghamWatch’s best work in 2018. Read more.

    County’s Major Air Polluters Concentrated in Low-Income, Minority Neighborhoods

    Seventy-one percent of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.

    U.S. Attorneys: Leading the Justice Department on the Ground in Alabama

    BirminghamWatch interviewed the three U.S. Attorneys appointed by Trump, who all said violent
    crime would be a priority during their tenures.

    Trump’s Budget Wish List: What It Could Mean for Alabama

    BirminghamWatch took a look this year at a number of the programs on President Trump’s chopping block and asked, “What If.”

    Written in Black and White: In Alabama’s Statehouse, the Parties Are Split Almost Entirely by Race

    When newly elected Neil Rafferty takes his place in the Alabama House of Representatives next year, he will be the only white Democrat in the 105-seat chamber With one other white Democrat in the Senate, the Alabama Legislature’s two parties are almost entirely divided by race. An all-white GOP has a supermajority

    Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them

    Update: The debate about making prisons better – and safer – has been simmering for years. But because of more violence in the prisons, look for the Legislature in 2019 to consider multiple bills aimed at the prisons, including one to significantly increase the number of correctional officers. A recent report showed that south Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility was functioning with only 40 percent staffing. The governor also reportedly is considering moves to pay private companies to develop prison space and lease it to the state. Also on the table for prisons, a federal judge is considering whether Alabama prisons should be held in contempt for continued shortages in mental health staff.

    The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.

    In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.

    Coal Ash Ponds Leach Toxins into Alabama Groundwater, Waterways, Analysis Finds. ADEM Fines Power Companies, but Route to Remedy Uncertain.

    Significant levels of toxic materials are leaching into the state’s groundwater and waterways from the millions of cubic yards of coal ash stored in massive, unlined storage ponds adjacent to six electrical power generating plants, including plants in Shelby, Jefferson and Walker counties.

    In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters

    A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.

    Ready, Set, Action: Birmingham’s Become a Film-Making Destination That Brings Jobs, Millions of Dollars to Economy

    The Magic City is not quite Hollywood, yet. But Birmingham’s economy is getting a show business-sized boost with millions of film dollars flowing into the local economy. The city’s Red Mountain substituted for the Hollywood Hills, wearing the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in “Bigger,” one of dozens of films made in metro Birmingham in recent years.

    All’s Not Quiet at Birmingham Public Library: Board Surveys Employees after Criticism of Director

    Update: The Birmingham Public Library Board has set out a “corrective action plan” for library Executive Director Floyd Council.
    A survey asking the Birmingham Public Library’s 285 employees about staff morale was conducted in the spring amid growing concerns over employee dissatisfaction and public criticism of the library’s new executive director. One staff member said discontent is high and morale low among many library employees because of what some employees called Council’s belittling comments, lack of appropriate communication, disrespect, micromanagement and a growing “environment of suspicion” at the library.

    Amazon’s a Big Deal, but West Jefferson’s Economic Rebirth is Bigger and Broader

    The television cameras were in action and the local politicians were all smiling at the recent announcement of a huge new distribution center in Bessemer for Amazon, the online retail behemoth. It’s a project that will bring an estimated 1,500 jobs, and it makes for a great picture of a down-on-its-heels part of Alabama that is remaking itself for the digital age. But in fact, the Bessemer Cut-Off area — the traditional name for the separate division of Jefferson County that has its own courthouse and other separate government functions — has been in transformation from steelmaking, mining and heavy manufacturing for the past decade or so.

    As Alabama’s Unemployment Rate Decreases, Medicaid Enrollment Does Not

    Alabama’s unemployment rate hit record lows in the past year, falling below 4 percent, but the number of people enrolled in Medicaid hasn’t decreased. Medicaid, the health care provider for the state’s poor and disabled, has higher enrollment now than when the unemployment rate hit nearly 12 percent in 2009. While more people are working, not all of them are in jobs that pay enough to get their families off Medicaid, advocates say.

    Amid Immigration Controversy, More Hispanic Students Arrive in Alabama Classrooms

    Lipscomb Elementary School, tucked away on a quiet neighborhood street, does not draw a lot of attention to itself. Its enrollment numbers, however, show a dramatic story of Alabama’s growing Hispanic population.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Compromise Medical Marijuana Bill to Get House Committee Vote

    MONTGOMERY — After the House Rules Chairman said a Senate-passed medical marijuana bill wouldn’t advance in the House, lawmakers were working on a compromise Wednesday that takes a more incremental approach and keeps an existing experimental treatment program in place.

    Bill sponsor Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, told Alabama Daily News that a substitute bill to create a state commission to regulate medical marijuana will get a public hearing and committee vote Tuesday. If the bill is approved in the remaining week or two of this legislative session, that commission will make recommendations to lawmakers next year about medical marijuana laws. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    BPD Chief Briefs Council on Crime

    Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith presented the City Council with an update on violent crime Tuesday, sparking a discussion that delved into poverty, youth initiatives and some councilors’ dissatisfaction with Mayor Randall Woodfin’s proposed FY 2020 budget.

    Smith began his presentation by looking at the recent history of crime in Birmingham, which he said dramatically spiked between 2014 and 2018. “In 2014, the city of Birmingham had only 51 homicides within the city,” he said. “But in 2015, we moved up to 78. In 2016, we went to 92. In 2017, 99. In 2018, we reached 100.

    “So somewhere in there, something happened and we didn’t make the turn to make changes in what we do, make changes in our policing patterns and what we needed to improve the city … . We’ve got to do more to reach out, to help people, to save people in our community.”

    Smith added that 2019 was so far on par with 2018’s homicide rate, and he warned that summer months — June through September — would likely be the “most violent time of the year,” based on precedent. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Budgets, Education Reform Among Bills Pending in Final Stretch of Legislative Session

    Alabama lawmakers this year have approved a statewide gas tax increase, told sheriffs they can’t keep money meant for feeding jail inmates and said they want a shot at the U.S. Supreme Court with the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban.

    The Legislature has two to three weeks remaining in its 2019 session, and a lot of legislating is left to do. Still on the table are proposals for a lottery, the state’s budgets, education bills and medical marijuana, to name just the tip of the iceberg.

    For a look at some of the major bills that are pending and what might get punted to a special session later this year, Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    House Passes Reading Proficiency, Third Grade Holdback Bill

    MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House of Representatives on Wednesday night passed a bill to require schools to hold back for another year third-grade students who are not reading on grade level.

    The bill was debated for more than two hours as Democrats questioned the ability of the bill to solve reading problems in failing schools and voiced concerns about the retention component of the bill. Some also cited the expected costs as a concern. The Alabama State Department of Education estimates literacy education requirements in the bill will cost $90 million annually.

    In the end, the House voted 92-3 to pass House Bill 388, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur. Collins consulted with the Department of Education and said the bill could see additional changes as it moves to the Senate. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Woodfin’s Budget: Money for Pensions, Paving; Changes for Education, Discretionary Projects

    Mayor Randall Woodfin presented his proposed FY 2020 budget to the Birmingham City Council Tuesday, pointing to changes in city funding for education and councilors’ discretionary projects. At $451 million, the budget is the city’s largest to date — although, as Woodfin emphasized, several major financial requirements resulted in a “lean” approach to appropriating funding.

    Speaking to reporters on Friday, Woodfin highlighted what he called the “moral obligations” of the budget — fully funding the city’s long-underfunded pension liability and dedicating $8 million to street paving in all nine council districts. “The only disappointment I’ve had so far in this budget was that I wanted $10 million (for street paving),” Woodfin said. “But the pension said no, so we got to $8 million.”

    At Tuesday’s meeting, Woodfin spent significant time explaining to councilors his decision to cut certain “pet project” line items from the budget, arguing that this would be offset by $50,000 increases to their individual discretionary funds.

    Woodfin’s proposed budget cut funding to a handful of organizations and events, including the Agape House, Children’s Village, Shadowlawn Cemetery, Magic City Smooth Jazz, the Ballard House, Bride Ministries, Red Mountain Park, Build Up Ensley, the Northeast YMCA and the Joseph House, among others.

    But Woodfin specifically chose to focus on District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt’s Party with a Purpose, an annual event held in Ensley since 2007 that offers health, recreational and entertainment resources to residents. That event has typically received $50,000 from each year’s general fund; in the FY 2020, it receives nothing.
    Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Water Water Everywhere … Unless It Hasn’t Rained Lately: Legislators Debate Bill to Govern Water Use During Droughts

    River advocacy groups are promoting passage of a bill that would provide clear standards in times of drought for the state to step in to allocate use of water for agriculture, recreation, drinking and other uses.

    The bill, HB 476, also would set up a system of “conservation credits” for agricultural and other large water users who institute water-saving measures before periods of drought.

    Under the bill, when water flow in a river or stream falls below predetermined, science-based levels, state agencies could more quickly impose limits on usage to protect the health of the waterway. That would impact the quality of water for drinking, recreation and aquatic life, advocates say.

    Meanwhile, farmers are concerned that the bill could let the state cut back on their water use just when they need it most.
    The bill is awaiting action in a committee. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Looks at Limiting Dollar Stores, Easing Restrictions on Other Food Vendors as Way to Battle Food Deserts

    A new ordinance proposed by Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin looks to combat the city’s food deserts by loosening regulations on farmers markets and mobile grocers, while simultaneously limiting the spread of dollar stores in low-income neighborhoods.

    The proposed ordinance would establish a “healthy food overlay district” over areas of Birmingham defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “low-access census tracts,” which are areas where “a significant number (at least 500 people) or share (at least 33%) of the population is greater than half a mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store.”

    According to that data, 69% of Birmingham residents live in a food desert — a figure often cited by members of the Woodfin administration as motivating the new healthy food ordinance.

    The council is expected to vote next week to set a public hearing to discuss the ordinance. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Mr. Hoyt Goes to Australia. City-Paid Trip Takes Him to Sports Business Convention

    Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt and council administrator Cheryl Kidd will leave Birmingham on Wednesday to attend the Sport Accord Gold Coast 2019 Summit in Queensland, Australia.

    The city will pay $8,930.07 for each of them to attend, making it the most expensive city-funded trip, per person, than any city employee has taken since at least November 2017. The trip also lasts several days longer than the convention.

    Hoyt and Kidd will be part of a delegation representing the 2021 World Games, which will be held in Birmingham. Read more.

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  • 2020 election

    Jones and Byrne Have Stacked Up Millions to Lead Fundraising in the US Senate Race.

    Incumbent Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Bradley Byrne already have millions of dollars in their campaign accounts as the field begins to form for Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate race.

    In reports filed this month with the Federal Election Commission, Jones listed a cash balance of $3.09 million at the end of the first quarter of this year. Byrne, the congressman from Mobile who is giving up his House seat to run for the Senate, reported a balance of $2.04 million.

    Candidates are required to file quarterly financial reports with the FEC once they raise $5,000 in contributions. Byrne and Jones are the first to file in the Senate Race. Others have filed in the race for each of Alabama’s seven U.S. House districts. Read more.

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  • Government

    Could Cooper Green Employees Stay in the Retirement System if They Went to Work With a Health Care Authority? Maybe.

    The executive director of Jefferson County’s General Retirement System has softened her stance concerning eligibility of employees of Cooper Green Mercy Clinic to remain in the county pension system.
    The issue arose when Jefferson County commissioners brought up a proposal to study partnering with UAB to form a health care authority.
    In a letter last week, Amy Adams wrote that current pension law would not permit Cooper Green employees to participate in the county’s pension if they were “terminated.” A day later, she clarified a point and said it might be possible under certain conditions. Read more.

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  • Crime

    Crime Wave Highlights Barriers Between Police and Hispanic Community

    Luis, who asked us not to use his last name, had just gotten off work one Friday night late last year. He and his family were making dinner outside at their trailer park in Pinson.

    “We were heating up the food, a few tacos, when two African-American men arrived with assault weapons,” Luis says. “They threw us to the ground. I have it all on video. My wife was pregnant. They threw her on the ground. No one could do anything.”

    It was payday at work and Luis had about $1,200 in cash on him. The men robbed him and fled. Luis was one of several residents who recently shared their stories at a forum at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. The event was organized in response to a recent surge in robberies targeting the Hispanic community in Birmingham.

    Police officials from Birmingham and Jefferson County were also in attendance. They say there is a pattern to these crimes, which are often armed robberies that take place on the weekend in trailer parks. They say criminals may target Hispanic residents because they are more likely to have cash on hand and they are less likely to call the police. A law enforcement officer at the meeting asked residents not to be afraid. Read more.

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Formerly Imprisoned Lawmaker’s Campaign Finance Report Raises Questions

    State officials have questions about a campaign finance report filed this month by former Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, who spent three months in federal prison last year for using campaign money on personal expenses.

    On April 2, Hammon turned in late his 2017 campaign finance report, a document required of public officials that details spending from their campaign funds. The report lists one expenditure: $52,533 to Hammon in January 2017. Under the explanation of expense section of the form, “to be determined” was typed.

    “That’s a problem,” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told Alabama Daily News when asked about the report. He said his office would reach out to Hammon.

    Hugh Evans, general counsel for the Secretary of State, said he is attempting to speak with Hammon’s attorney.

    “I don’t know what the story is, but you can’t use campaign funds for your personal use,” Evans said. Read more.

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  • Birmingham City Council

    Referendum on Renewing Property Tax for Birmingham Schools Possible, Up for Discussion Next Week

    Next week, Birmingham’s election commission will meet to discuss a potential citywide vote to renew a soon-to-expire ad valorem tax that provides Birmingham City Schools with approximately $27 million in yearly revenue. But that proposed election would have even wider ramifications, putting three city council seats — Districts 1, 6 and 7 — up for a vote. Read more.

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  • Government

    All Aboard!: JeffCo Will Pay to Start Bus Service to Several Small Cities

    Jefferson County is picking up the tab for bus service for some unserved areas through the end of the current fiscal year.

    Commissioners passed a resolution at their meeting on Thursday to provide transit for people living in Adamsville, Forestdale, Brighton, Lipscomb, Fultondale, Gardendale and Fairfield.

    “This isn’t about MAX (Metro Area Express),” Commission President Jimmie Stephens said. “This is about citizens and being able to serve the citizens. These citizens in these communities have been bypassed and the doors were shut. We’re going to give them the opportunity to receive the benefits from MAX to go to the doctor, to go to and from work, and to go to and from getting their medication. If they utilize this, it will be $100,000 very well spent.” Read more.

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  • Economy

    Birmingham‘s Technology, Start-up Scene Thrives, ‘Innovation District’ in Development Spotlight

    Metro Birmingham’s powerhouses of tech and innovation – including the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Southern Research and Innovation Depot – are among dozens of businesses and organizations that believe the time has come to put a fresh focus on the city’s tech savvy and its Innovation District.

    The amped-up effort to establish Birmingham as a Southern tech hub intersects with a plethora of mostly homegrown tech companies already setting up shop in downtown and Southside and coincides with new Opportunity Zone incentives for investors.

    Innovation District plans also benefit from increasing national attention for its tech scene, said Birmingham Business Alliance’s Lauren Cooper, who noted that metro Birmingham being called a possible Southern Silicon Valley boosts momentum for the idea of the Innovation District.

    “A defined home for technology and innovation around Innovation Depot will allow more companies to easily access the resources needed for growth, including collaboration, funding research and workforce,” said Cooper, who is vice president for communications at BBA.

    The official roll-out of new branding plans and strategies for metro Birmingham’s Innovation District is planned for summer 2019. An updated City Center Master Plan will be revealed later in the summer, said Josh Carpenter, director of economic development for the city of Birmingham.

    The Innovation District will include established high-tech employers UAB and Southern Research and the city’s business incubation nonprofit Innovation Depot, home to more than 100 startups and 1,000 employees, plus a growing number of startup companies establishing offices in downtown Birmingham. Read more.

    Is Technology Any Match for a Dog’s Nose? This Project is Trying.

    ‘Milk the Moment’ Fights That Phone Habit

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  • Government

    Jefferson County Approves Working With UAB on Health Care Authority Agreement as Opposition Effort Dies

    A last-ditch effort by Jefferson County commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson to delay a vote on an authority to govern indigent health care in Jefferson County failed today.

    Commissioners Jimmie Stephens, Joe Knight and Steve Ammons voted to approve the resolution to enter a due diligence period with UAB Health System to negotiate an agreement to create a University Healthcare Authority.

    Scales and Tyson voted no.

    “Today was unfortunate for the poor people, the vulnerable folks of Jefferson County as well as the employees of Jefferson County,” Scales said. “Employees are devastated. Employees feel the county has turned its back on them.”

    Stephens viewed the action differently.

    “It’s going to be a great day for our indigent in Jefferson County,” the commission president said. “They will be able to receive state-of-the-art care from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. And from what I’ve heard today, I’m very much encouraged that our employees will be taken care of in this process also. Read more.

    Earlier this week:

    Scales, Tyson Seek Delay in Vote Over Giving UAB Responsibility for Indigent Health Care

    Jefferson County Commission Will Take Up Health Care Authority in Thursday’s Meeting Despite Concerns

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  • Alabama Legislature

    Literacy Bill Focuses on Early Reading, Holding Back Third-Graders With Poor Skills

    Updated — Alabama public school third-graders who don’t have sufficient reading skills will not move on to fourth grade under proposed legislation that will dedicate more time, training and financial resources to early elementary literacy.

    “If a child can’t read by third grade, their chances for retention later go up, their chances of not graduating go up,” Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News on Monday. She plans to file legislation called the Alabama Literacy Act this week. Read more.

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  • Education

    “This Report Will Be Hard to Read:” Jefferson County Memorial Project Puts the Spotlight on Lynchings, and There’s More to Come.

    Updated – Thirty people were lynched in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940, victims of racial terror in the segregated, postwar South. Now, a new report will tells the story of each of those victims, with the goal of fostering dialogue about racial violence and its connection to present-day injustice.

    The “Jefferson County’s 30 Residents” report, released Wednesday night, was compiled by the Jefferson County Memorial Project, a citizen-led cooperative working to spark conversation around the county’s history of racial violence.

    The project was sparked by the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in April with the stated goal of placing America face-to-face with its history of injustice.

    JCMP organizers said that their report will place Jefferson County at the forefront of a national movement sparked by the EJI’s monument, making the county a model for others looking to create a dialogue and advocate for change. Read more.

    Read more stories in the package

    Researching Birmingham’s Lynchings was Disturbing, Eye-Opening for College Students Who Took on the Project

    How They Did It: College Students Were Trained in Research Techniques to Tell the Stories of Jefferson County’s Lynching Victims

    Jefferson County’s 30 Victims


    This map links to a live interactive map on the JCMP’s website.

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  • Congress

    Jones Has Introduced a Bill He Said Would Incentivize States to Expand Medicaid

    Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, is sponsoring a bill that would incentivize states such as Alabama to expand Medicaid.

    The States Achieve Medicaid Expansion Act would provide states that choose to expand Medicaid after 2014 the same level of federal matching funds as states that expanded earlier under the terms of the Affordable Care Act.

    In an interview with Alabama Daily News, Jones said he hopes this bill will incentivize states such as Alabama that haven’t expanded Medicaid to do so soon.

    “Even though I can’t vote to expand Medicaid, I can do things that I hope will give the states the incentive to expand Medicaid because I truly believe it’s in the state’s interest and the people of the state’s interest,” Jones said. Read more.

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  • Education

    One-Third of Alabama’s Failing Schools Are in the Birmingham Metro Area

    The Alabama State Department of Education has posted its list of the state’s failing public schools, and 25 Birmingham metro-area public schools are on it. Statewide, 76 public schools are on the list.

    The list is based on standardized test score performances and compiled yearly as a requirement of the Alabama Accountability Act. The law requires that schools with scores that fall into the lowest 6 percent be designated as failing schools.

    Birmingham City Schools comprise 26 percent of the failing schools, with 20 schools on the list. That number is up from the lists released in 2018 and 2017, when 14 and 13 schools, respectively, were designated as failing. Read more.

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  • Education

    Alabama School Report Card Shows Mostly Improvements, and Some Big Leaps, by Birmingham-Area Schools.

    Several schools in the Birmingham metro area show significant improvements in achievement in this year’s Alabama State Report Card, which grades the performance of public schools.

    In the report, issued by the Alabama State Department of Education on Dec. 28, far fewer area schools received failing grades, compared to last year.

    The Bessemer, Midfield, Fairfield and Jefferson County school systems had no failing schools this year — an improvement over three failing schools each in Bessemer and Fairfield and one failing school in Jefferson County last year.

    While the Birmingham City Schools maintained a grade of D, the system saw the number of failing schools drop from 22 last year to only five in the new report.

    Read more.

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  • Environment

    Under Fire for Potential Bias, Panel Starts Vetting Soot, Smog Standards for EPA Political Leaders

    Local air pollution expert Corey Masuca is in Washington, D.C., this week as a new member of an EPA panel charged with advising the government on whether new scientific studies warrant maintaining or lowering current standards for acceptable levels of air pollutants known to cause harm to public health.

    The EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is tasked with assessing the health risks of breathing fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, or soot, one of six pollutants for which it sets national standards under the Clean Air Act. Even at current standards, PM2.5 can negatively affect many people with lung and cardiovascular problems, but recent studies have found it also can raise the risk for dementia, kidney disease and other health problems.

    CASAC also is responsible under a separate timetable for reviewing recent science that might affect standard changes for ground-level ozone, or smog. Read more.

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