Author: Maggie Andrews

A Big Blue Dot in a Sea of Red. But Jefferson County’s Presidential Vote Tally Masks Deep Community Divisions

(As the nation inaugurates a new president this month, BirminghamWatch will look at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the first of the stories.)

Hillary Clinton was the clear winner in Jefferson County on election-day, besting Donald Trump in the race for president by more than 7 percentage points.

But that result doesn’t mean the county escaped the polarization of the 2016 presidential election nationwide or the potential for conflict over public policy in the county and the region.

Clinton won the county with 51.07 percent of the vote, or 156,873 votes, according to certified vote results from the Alabama Secretary of State. Trump took 43.87 percent of the vote, or 137,768 votes. Other candidates and write-in votes accounted for 12,550 votes, slightly more than 4 percent of the ballots cast in the county. Read more.

Dakota Pipeline Stalled by Protests While Another Begins in Alabama

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.

Calm Before a Storm? Election Workers Prepare for Alabama’s Biggest Voter Turnout

The ballots are stacked, pens gathered, poll workers trained and rolls of “I Voted” stickers ready to go.

Election workers this weekend were taking a “deep breath before the plunge,” as Barry Stephenson, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Registrars, described it. They’ve been working seven days a week since Labor Day to prepare for what could be historic turnout at the polls, he said.

The state has topped 3.3 million registered voters, Secretary of State John Merrill said last week, surpassing the state’s highest registration by 584,252 registered voters.

Likewise, Jefferson County has set a record for registered voters, with 456,000. Before this, the record was 435,000 for the 2012 election, when 302,000 people voted in the county. Stephenson said the county is expecting more than 300,000 voters to show up at the polls Tuesday.

In preparation, the Jefferson County has increased the number of precincts and added an extra 150 poll workers, bringing the total number to 1,900. There will be more voter sign-in books at the polls in an attempt to avoid long lines, but Stephenson warned, “It still may not be a quick process.” Read more.

Report Criticizes Work of Pipeline Safety Agency  

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.

Know Before You Go: State, Local Offices and Issues on November 8 Ballot

For months the spotlight has been on the race for president. But voters on November 8 will also find a robust ballot of offices and issues closer to home. To be decided are an Alabama Senate seat and seats in Congress, presidency of the Alabama Public Service Commission and membership on state and local boards of education. County offices and a slate of amendments also will be decided, along with control of the state’s judicial system, from justices on the state’s Supreme Court, to district attorneys, to judges on the bench throughout the state.

BirminghamWatch – in partnership with Weld, WBHM, Starnes Publishing, B Metro, Trussville Tribune and the Birmingham Public Library – gives information on all of that in this Alabama Voter Guide. You’ll find sample ballots for Jefferson and Shelby counties, biographical information about candidates on each of those ballots and a rundown of the amendments you’ll be asked to decide. There is also a package of resources to help you navigate election day, from verifying your polling place and registration to researching the issues and the candidates more deeply.

There’s a lot to decide in one 12-hour window at the polls between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 8. Read more at AlabamaVoterGuide.org.

Contaminants Remain at Limit For Gadsden-area Water Systems Using Coosa Water  

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.”

Destination of Graduates: Chart from PARCA shows where 2015 Alabama grads headed after high school.

Most Alabama Students with a High School Diploma Go To College, but More Than a Third Do Not.

There were more Alabama high school graduates in 2015 than the year before, and the class sent more students to college as their next step. Still, more than 17,000 state students with a 2015 diploma did not continue their schooling immediately.

Within that picture were disparities: Systems with low poverty rates sent most of their graduates on to four-year colleges and universities. Systems with somewhat higher poverty percentages still sent a large percentage of graduates off to college. However, more of those graduates start at a community college.

The top four Alabama high schools in terms of college-going rate are magnet schools: three in Montgomery and one in Birmingham.

These highlights come from a new report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama that uses more extensive data now available from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. The full report lets you search for information by school systems and individual high schools. Here’s PARCA’s full report.

A New Little Cahaba Bridge: Will it Open Traffic Route, At Cost of Water Quality?

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.”

New Gas Pipeline Coming to Alabama. Brings Jobs, Tax Revenue, Environmental Questions

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.