ADEM, Northern Beltline, Clean Power, State Parks: Alabama Environmental Issues in 2016

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.

ADEM Funding

The Legislature last year drastically cut funding to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and transferred money from ADEM accounts to fund other state agencies.

With another tight budget year looming, legislators are expected to revive a proposal to end all state funding for ADEM. Already, the state’s Environmental Management Commission, which oversees ADEM, raised permit fees in reaction to the cuts, leading at least one commissioner to question whether the state was putting the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse.

“I see an agency whose primary function is to manage the environment for the people of this state, more and more being funded by the people we’re managing or protecting this environment from,” al.com quoted Commissioner Terry Richardson as saying during a meeting in December. “It almost seems that it makes us more beholden to these industries and these permit holders. It’s not uncommon for people to get into situations like that and not be willing to bite the hand that feeds them.”

ADEM’s funding has landed it in court already. Environmental groups had asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take over issuing water discharge permits in Alabama, citing in part inadequate funding to support the program. The EPA delayed a final decision on the question and said it would work with ADEM to address the concerns. The environmental groups appealed. A federal judge rejected those claims last month, but it left the door open for the groups to refile the suit in the future.

ADEM’s budget in the 2015-2016 fiscal year was cut to $280,000, and it was required to transfer $1.2 million to the general fund to support other government functions. The Legislature will take up the budget after starting its session Feb. 2.

Northern Beltline

Construction is continuing on the first phase of the Northern Beltline after a judge in January threw out an environmental group’s challenge alleging the state had not thoroughly analyzed the environmental effects of the project.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed suit to block the project, saying the state Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed the environmental impact of each phase of the project separately, without assessing the potential impact of the road and its construction overall.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper contends the project will alter tributaries of the Black Warrior and Cahaba rivers, affecting two sources of drinking water as well as endangering fish and wildlife in the area.

The 52-mile Northern Beltline is designed to connect Interstate 459 in Bessemer with Interstate 59 in northeast Jefferson County. It is estimated at this time to cost $5.4 billion and take 40 years to complete. The project made gobankingrates.com’s list of the top 10 construction boondoogles in the country last year. Advocates, however, argue the road will open huge swaths of land in northern Jefferson County for development. Black Warrior Riverkeeper is considering options for appealing the ruling as work continues on a 1.34-mile segment connecting Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 near Pinson.

Clean Power Plan

Alabama is among the states that have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

The plan aims to cut carbon emissions by about a third as part of President Obama’s climate change initiatives. Coal-fired power plants are among the biggest producers of carbon emissions, as well as being among the biggest producers of electricity in Alabama.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a press release that the new rule could shutter coal-fired power plants across the country, resulting in higher electricity costs and fewer jobs. The states challenging the rule contend that such sweeping regulations should not be made through executive action, but by Congress.

If the Supreme Court does not block the rules, states have until September to file plans for reaching the new carbon emission targets or to seek extensions. States would have to begin cutting emissions by 2022.

Other new EPA rules could force power companies to dramatically change the way they store coal ash and process water from coal-fired plants. The new regulations, aimed at the potential for water pollution from the power plants, most likely will force the eventual closure of ash ponds at Alabama Power facilities, the company has said.

State Parks

A scene from Alabama's largest state park, Oak Mountain near Birmingham Photo: www.outdooralabama.com
Cyclists at Oak Mountain state park, Alabama’s largest. Photo: www.outdooralabama.com

Budget cuts forced three Alabama state parks to close in the past few months and fees to be increased at other parks. After this fiscal year’s budget was finally adopted in the fall, five parks were on the chopping block, but the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources negotiated agreements to hand operation of two of those parks over to local governments to keep them open.

The closure and fee increases came after the department had to transfer $3 million to the general fund to support other state functions. At one point, the proposal was to transfer twice that amount, which could have meant the closure of as many as 15 parks. In the past five years, more than $30 million has been transferred from the department to the general fund.

Conservation Alabama in January launched a pre-emptive campaign to try to hold off more cuts in the 2016-17 budget, preparing an email for Alabama residents to send to the governor and their representatives.

The email states that Alabama’s state parks are a safe haven for wildlife as well as providing recreational opportunities for residents. “Perhaps most importantly of all, state parks provide a connection to our state, and a place where our families can experience nature firsthand,” the email states. It cites a University of Alabama study that estimated the parks have an estimated $375 million economic impact in the state and support 5,340 jobs.

The Legislature will be debating park funding during budget negotiations in the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 2.