Environmental issues have made headlines throughout 2018, and 2019 promises to be no different.
Decisions will be made that affect the cleanliness of the state’s waters, air and land. Issues that will affect recycling, coal mining and solar, nuclear and hydropower generation also are looming on the horizon.
Here are a few of the issues to watch in 2019.
Alabama Resources Water Management Plan
Environmental groups will keep up the pressure on Gov. Kay Ivey to insist that a comprehensive water management plan contain legal teeth.
Millions in public funds have been poured into developing scientific assessments to undergird the plan, they say, but a framework for the plan sent to the governor in November would only compile existing laws and policies and maintain “an inadequate status quo.”
Nonprofit water protection organizations want the final plan to change state statues needed to manage water resources better and protect the state during water crises such as major droughts.
The Alabama Rivers Alliance said the state currently “has no meaningful oversight of water use or supply,” with time-consuming lawsuits the only way to settle disputes. A statewide water plan written using scientific expertise could proactively manage water resources, the ARA said in a letter to Ivey. Without a formal plan, the state continues to be on unequal footing with neighboring states in legal disputes over shared waters.
ARA partner Southern Environmental Law Center says it will continue to advocate for a water plan “that emphasizes conservation and efficiency and establishes flow standards to maintain healthy waterways.”
Waters of the United States
Legal battles will continue over which streams rivers, and wetlands will be defined as “navigable” waters and therefore fall under the federal Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction.
In November the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to roll back an Obama-era rule that provided a broad definition of what are called Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, under the water act. The Southern Environmental Law Center, with offices in Birmingham, is promising court challenges to the Trump EPA’s narrower definition and urging citizens to comments against the effort.
Cahaba Beach Road
Clean water advocates and other protectors of the Cahaba River watershed are keeping a close watch for any changes in the status of a proposed extension of Cahaba Beach Road. The Alabama Department of Transportation, backed by Shelby County engineers, have spent years trying to connect the road from U.S. 280 across the Little Cahaba River to Sicard Hollow Road via a new bridge.
Led by the Cahaba River Society, the Cahaba Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, multiple citizens groups, elected officials and residents in the area have linked arms against the project in public forums, fearing it might open the watershed to development and cause unwanted traffic congestion. The cities of Birmingham and Vestavia Hills have joined the resistance, and a survey of people living in the Liberty Park development in Shelby County showed about 90 percent opposed to connecting the two roads.
The proposed road would pass through land purchased by the Birmingham Water Works Board with taxpayer money to preserve the pristine forest area, reducing sedimentation and other pollution that would dirty the Little Cahaba and the Cahaba rivers and make the region’s drinking water more expensive to treat. The Little Cahaba carries water from the Lake Purdy reservoir to a water works board intake pipe a short distance downstream from the proposed road and bridge project.
Early in the new year the BWWB is expected to consider passing a resolution against the road connection.
Birmingham Water Works Board
Developments at the water works board are being closely watched as a rate hike for customers is in the offing. One wild card is a recent change in the board’s leadership as longtime general manager Mac Underwood left the board in December. Who replaces him will be closely watched.
In addition, a cloud hovers over the organization as former board chair Sherry Lewis, who is still a member of the panel, faces an uncertain future in Jefferson County Circuit Court after being charged on multiple counts under the state ethics laws, including using her office for personal gain. She maintains her innocence but would lose her seat if convicted. Mayor Randall Woodfin would then be able to name her replacement.
Lewis, appointed by former Mayor William Bell, was elected chair in January 2017. Before losing that position upon her indictment, she frequently voted with non-Birmingham members following a controversial expansion of the board.
PFOA, PFOS Pollution
A lawsuit filed by a north Alabama water utility is pending against the 3M Company for polluting the Tennessee River, the source of its drinking water. The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority settled a similar case last year against Daikin for $4 million.
The companies were asked to pay for filtration systems to remove toxic chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS in the authority’s water treatment facility, which serves about 20,000 customers. The toxins were discharged over many years as the result of the manufacture of nonstick materials and other processes.
Similar lawsuits are pending against manufacturers whose plants have polluted the Coosa River.
Power companies continue their march toward an April deadline to close coal ash ponds and cover them in place. Recent data showed almost all active ash ponds are too close to groundwater reservoirs.
Environmentalists are keeping an eye on the development of a state permitting program meant to control pollution from toxic material as stricter rules are rolled back by the current EPA administration. They are monitoring the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s proposal, which they say has significant shortcomings.
Citizen groups and communities near the ash basins are expected to continue to prod Alabama Power, PowerSouth, and TVA to move the toxic coal detritus to upland, lined-and-covered locations away from waterways. Extreme weather events, such as the 2018 hurricane season, add to concerns about effects if the utilities’ plans fail.
ALABAMA POWER RATES
Customers using 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month will pay an extra $4.49 monthly to Alabama Power in 2019 despite the final $50 million credit from the 2017 federal tax reform act. The company’s rate stabilization and equalization and fuel-related costs will stay flat for the next year.
Alabama Power connects the cost of electricity in part to its expenses for meeting environmental mandates, which it says will cost it an average of $250 million per year for the next five years.
The air permit for Drummond’s ABC Coke facility in Tarrant is expected to be finalized by the Jefferson County Department of Health in 2019. During the public comment period that ended in November, environmental and neighborhood groups had filed written and verbal objections to terms of the proposed permit.
Meanwhile, progress continues on cleaning up neighborhoods in the North Birmingham 35th Avenue Superfund site, where land has been contaminated by years of industrial air pollution. Completion of the remediation effort is expected in two more years. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents and nonprofits continue to lobby state regulators to back an effort to prioritize the area under a federal program.
Climate Change, Global Warming
After a year of unprecedented extreme weather, recognition of the human role in global warming solutions seems to be growing. Even some oil giants such as ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil are lobbying for a tax on carbon emissions, and progressives on Capitol Hill are backing a plan called the Green New Deal.
But first out of the congressional gate is carbon fee-and-dividend legislation introduced in the lame duck Congress. The Birmingham chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby plans to seek local leaders’ endorsement for the bills that will be reintroduced in the new Congress.
Public Service Commission
Watch for progress in a pending request to the Alabama Public Service Commission to hear a complaint filed in April that Alabama Power Company’s monthly fee on customers who install and use rooftop solar systems is unlawful and contrary to public interest. The power company moved to dismiss the complaint, and in a separate filing in an informal docket proposed to increase the solar charge. Clean-air advocacy group Gasp, along with private citizens and business concerns, answered with amended filings.
Alabama Power’s fee on rooftop solar is one of the most regressive in the region, diminishing half of savings the typical homeowner could see over their system’s lifetime, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. The law center recently established a website showing and comparing solar policies of utilities in the Southeast.
The South is seen as prime territory for residential and business solar projects, but the fee and other policies are seen as holding back Alabama’s potential. Cost-savings and job-creation in the state are moribund compared with sister states Georgia, Tennessee and Florida, as well as regional leaders North Carolina and South Carolina.
In addition, nonprofit Energy Alabama expects a push for the PSC to formally allow third party ownership of renewable energy such as solar. This would be a major change benefiting nonprofits, churches and local governments to fully access solar energy. Such action would let customers buy energy from a renewable energy provider rather than going through a utility for permission to use the sun to power their own properties.
‘Smart Neighborhood’ Programs
After opening its first Smart Neighborhood program in Hoover, Alabama Power is looking for similar opportunities elsewhere. A solar microgrid is the main feature of these new developments, which also incorporate multiple energy efficient elements.
The company has partnered with builders planning three new residential communities as part of its Smart Neighborhood Builder program. While solar microgrids are not part of these projects, the houses otherwise will have smart and energy-efficient similarities to the Hoover development.
Alabama Power is analyzing proposals for about 70 renewable-energy projects that include solar, wind and biomass. The proposals are being studied to determine whether they are viable for the company to pursue in the near future. Results of the analysis are expected in several months, a spokesman said.
Improvements in failing water, well and wastewater systems, particularly in Uniontown and other rural areas of the state, are expected with congressional passage of the Farm Act in December. Formally called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, it includes the Rural Septic Tank Access Act.
Scrap Metal Processing
Expect another challenge to the business license of a scrap metal processing facility in the Acipco-Finley neighborhood. Last year, the Birmingham City Council initially denied permission for Jordan Industrial Services to operate in the area due to concerns over noise and pollution, but the company was granted a license after Judge Carole Smitherman notes that similar licensed businesses were operating in the area. Neighborhood activists are scheduled to meet in January to seek a path for overturning the decision.
Paper, Plastics, Glass Recycling
When China closed its doors last year to the import of most mixed paper and scrap plastic materials, it caused massive disruption in the U.S. recycling industry. Recycling prices dropped precipitously. This caused the Alabama Environmental Council to close its center in Avondale, saying it could no longer subsidize the drop-off location. The decades-old center in Avondale was one of the few places area residents could recycle material that curbside programs would not accept. It was the only center that still accepted glass bottles. What’s ahead is anybody’s guess as markets attempt to find ways to survive.
The China effect caused changes elsewhere in Alabama as documented by Waste Dive, a newsletter of Solid Waste and Recycling News. Enterprise ended curbside recycling, and Dothan closed four drop-off locations but kept two staffed facilities.
The fate of the Bellefonte nuclear facility in north Alabama will be known soon. The conditional purchaser of the unfinished plant recently challenged the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision to pull it off the market, saying a crucial deadline had been missed. A federal court hearing is expected soon on a lawsuit filed by a corporation led by developer Franklin Haney. The corporation claims TVA illegally blocked its purchase. A Memphis utility previously declined to sign a contract to buy energy from Bellefonte if it were completed and began to operate.
A pending question: Would Alabama be willing to provide about $1 billion as an incentive to complete the plant? It ostensibly would bring in numerous $100,000-a-year jobs and revitalize Jackson County in the northeastern corner of the state.
The Legislature is expected to consider a tax on gasoline to fund road and bridge improvements. One proposal would be environmentally counter-productive by levying a fee on electric and hybrid vehicles, which produce few or no emissions. The Southern Environmental Law Center will be monitoring legislation to avoid a law that would require oversight of ALDOT and transparency. Safety, maintenance and traffic congestion, as well as cost effectiveness, also should be considered, law center officials said.
An April 15 trial is set in a federal lawsuit against Drummond Company alleging its Maxine Mine site is allowing continuous, unpermitted pollution into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. The mine ceased operating about 20 years ago but runoff and seepage from the underground mine continuously enter the tributary. The Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Public Justice joined the environmental law center in seeking to have the mine waste removed, contaminated streams restored and other measures required of Drummond to stop the pollution.
The lawsuit, if successful, could establish a precedent for cleaning up hundreds of similar sites across Alabama.
Alabama Power Dam Licensing
A federal court in July tossed out Alabama Power Company’s license to operate its seven Coosa River hydroelectric dams on grounds that the license violated multiple federal statues by not providing adequate environmental studies and not maintaining required minimum dissolved oxygen levels in the waters.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has authority over dam licenses, said in October it would prepare an environmental impact statement for the Coosa River projects and outlined its recommendations for what it would include. Alabama Power recently said it is awaiting further instructions about how to proceed with developing information for an impact statement. The energy regulatory commission has said it expects a final statement, which will help guide its decision on granting a new license, to be filed late in 2019.
Meanwhile, the power company continues to operate the Coosa dams under the old license, and securing a new license is at least a year away, possibly several years.
Other Alabama Power Dam Projects
The power company is preparing to relicense Harris Dam on the Tallapoosa River in Randolph County. That license expires in November 2023.
In another project, Alabama Power is in the process of replacing a turbine at Bankhead Dam in Tuscaloosa County and improving the spillgate at Thurlow Dam in Elmore County.
More of What to Watch in 2019
A gasoline tax increase to fund road improvements is expected to be a major topic of the 2019 Alabama legislative session. Legislators also are expecting several hundred million more dollars to spend in the education budget and will be debating raises, a child literacy program and other education improvements. Other issues include funding improvements in prisons and a possible lottery proposal. Read more.