Category: Environment

With Low-Impact Development, Cities Hope to Better Control Runoff

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Stormwater runoff is what washes off of parking lots, roadways and rooftops when it rains. Eve Brantley, associate professor of crop, soil and environmental sciences at Auburn University, said it may sound harmless, but it has a big impact.

“I just feel like it’s the forgotten pollution,” Brantley said.

She said part of the problem is that stormwater picks up other pollutants like trash and fertilizer. The other issue is the sheer volume of runoff that is discharged into area waterways.

Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler sees the impact on a daily basis.

“So we’re pushing so much water into the river so fast now that, you know when it rains, instead of soaking into the ground, it’s all channeled to the river,” Butler said. “So it rises really quick, falls really quick, and you get a lot more erosion like this.”

He said all along the river, large sections of the bank have collapsed, often during rainstorms. This strips away vegetation that normally acts as a buffer, leaving dirt to erode into the river and fill it with sediment. Read more.

Development Fills the Cahaba River With Sediment

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Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler often has to convince people that sediment can be a problem.

“You know rivers are remarkably resilient,” Butler says. “They can handle a normal amount of mud.”

But he said the amount of mud in the Cahaba is not normal. Walking along a section of the river in Hoover, Butler leans over and scoops up a handful of rocks.

“So if you see how much dirt there is in it,” he says, “there’s not a lot of space in between the rocks for bugs and mussels and snails to live.”

Butler said it is now more common to see large mounds of dirt and gravel that pile up in the middle of the river, the result of sediment pushed downstream. Over the years, he said, parts of the river and its tributaries have accumulated as much as 20 feet of extra sediment.

Ethics Charges in North Birmingham Case Survive Challenge

The Alabama Ethics Commission did not overstep its authority in bringing state ethics charges against Onis “Trey” Glenn and Willie S. Phillips, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge has found.

The cases are related to work by Glenn and Phillips in opposition to the addition of a proposed Superfund site in North Birmingham to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List.

Judge Stephen C. Wallace ruled this week that the state acted properly and in compliance with the Ethics Act, and that the cases should not be summarily dismissed.

Read more.

In Reversal, EPA to Add ‘Very Important’ Expertise to Air Quality Panel

More scientific help is on the way for the committee charged with providing independent advice to the federal government on whether to change its air quality standards.

Local air quality expert Corey Masuca, one of the seven members of the committee, said he “is delighted” with the decision by Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to add consultants for the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, known as CASAC.

CASAC is under a tight deadline to trudge through hundreds of new studies and advise Wheeler on potential changes in National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and, later, for ozone. Read more.

EPA Overrides Civil Rights Complaint About JCDH, Adding to Residents’ Frustration

The Environmental Protection Agency and Jefferson County’s Department of Health have settled civil rights complaints over air permits the department awarded to coke manufacturers in north Birmingham and Tarrant in recent years. But the EPA response has added to frustration over recent environmental developments in the heavily industrial part of Jones Valley, according to residents and officials at Gasp, a clean-air nonprofit group that has been involved in antipollution efforts there for most of the past decade.

“I am totally disappointed. It’s a slap in the face,” said Jimmy Smith of the Collegeville neighborhood, one of the complainants. “It makes no sense that we taxpaying citizens cannot (experience) happiness because we live in a ZIP code (35207) where toxic chemicals and metals poison our air and ground.”

Smith said the community’s relationship with the health department is broken.

“I would trust strychnine poison to not hurt my body more than I’d trust anybody at the health department now,” he said. “They are duty bound to protect citizens’ health, but it’s my experience that, from the head of it on down, they give decisions against us and for big business.”

The “informal resolution agreement” brokered by the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office instructs JCDH to enhance communication procedures and update nondiscrimination processes, but it does not include additional, targeted monitoring of air emissions and reduction in particulate matter and odors, which have been called for by the complainants. Read more.

Read BirminghamWatch’s earlier investigation:

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

Media Criticism Gets Under ADEM Director’s Skin With His Job in the Balance

With his job performance under a microscope, the state’s top environmental regulator has responded to criticism of his handling of a large fish kill on Warrior River tributaries and of 3M Company’s pollution of the Tennessee River.

In a five-page letter sent this month to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, which oversees the Department of Environmental Management, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur defended the response to those and other actions.

The commission provides oversight for LeFleur’s department and has been taking public comments on his job performance through July. Read more.

Energy Storage Research Center Opens in Birmingham

Energy officials from around the country gathered Tuesday on the campus of Southern Research (SR), a Birmingham nonprofit specializing in science and technology, to celebrate the opening of the state’s first Energy Storage Research Center.

In his opening remarks, Corey Tyree, SR’s senior director of energy and environment, told the crowd of company executives, engineers and scientists that the center represents a new era.

“For 100 years in the electricity industry, the model was basically ‘make, move, sell electricity,’” Tyree said. “With the advent of energy storage, you can ‘make, move, hold, then sell electricity.’ Seems like not a big deal. It’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”
Read more.

Putting a Price Tag on a Fish Kill

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At about 10:30 a.m. on a recent Monday in Walker County, Martha Salomaa parks her white pick-up truck, walks to the edge of a parking lot and points to the river below, the Mulberry Fork.

“And so the plant, it’s in Hanceville, which is 28 to 30 miles upstream from here,” she says.

Salomaa is referring to the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken rendering plant. That’s where an estimated 220,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater emptied into this section of the Black Warrior River on June 6th.

“So by June 10th, you could see hundreds of fish, like floating by, either dead or dying,” Salomaa says.

According to state officials, it was Alabama’s largest fish kill in recent years. And Salomaa, who is president of the Walker County conservation group Sipsey Heritage Commission (SHC), said the spill didn’t just kill fish, it contaminated the river with high levels of bacteria. In the days following the incident, SHC and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper found unsafe levels of E. coli almost 30 miles downstream from the site of the spill.

As a result, the Sipsey Heritage Commission cancelled its annual kayak race, scheduled for mid-June, and Salomaa said residents avoided the water for several weeks.

“You know, like, this river is a way of life,” Salomaa said. “You can’t, you just cannot put a price on that.”

But state agencies are tasked with putting a price on it. Read more.

Frustration With Health Department Intensifies as Environmental Groups Seek to Overturn ABC Coke’s Air Permit Renewal

Environmental groups say ABC Coke’s air permit renewal issued in April is flawed and are appealing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to agree that it does not comply with requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.

The groups are asking the EPA to object to the five-year renewal of the permit issued to the coke plant by the Jefferson County Health Department under Title V of the act.

The EPA has until Aug. 13 to respond to the request by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Gasp, a Birmingham-based clear-air advocacy group.

The permit renewal was hotly contested by area residents and organizations at a health department public hearing last year, largely over health concerns in the neighborhoods near the Tarrant facility. Read more.