Over the next year, BirminghamWatch will visit places in Alabama where ways of life have been affected as climate changes and look at what’s being done to mitigate or avoid the effects. This is the first in a series of four stories from Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Next week, read about the impact climate change is having on Dauphin Island.
Alabama’s a long way from the South Pole, but Jim McClintock knows the places are connected. For decades, the UAB researcher has been witnessing effects of climate change on the polar region. He sees that his state is starting to feel the impacts, as well, and predicts greater changes ahead.
From his vantage point as a UAB polar biology researcher, McClintock has seen the future in vast chunks of ice breaking off from the southern continent and he’s seeing how it affects sea levels on the Alabama coast.
He sees how some small and large flora and fauna that used to thrive in the polar cold are suffering as temperatures rise. They either adapt to the warming waters and atmosphere or give way to others that expand their habitat southward.
Scientist Ken Heck not only sees the sea rise onto beaches near the Dauphin Island Sea Lab he directs, but also watches the movement of subtropical species such as mangrove trees into the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Parrot fish, black snapper and green sea turtles also are extending their range northward, and with the intrusion comes change. Read more.
A government panel of air pollution experts, including one from the Jefferson County Department of Health, will gather for public meetings in North Carolina later this month to hear comments and review a draft report on whether the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for carbon particles in the air are stringent enough to protect human health.
Politico Pro recently reported that the draft document, the Policy Assessment for Particulate Matter, questions whether the current standard for particulate matter in the air is adequate to protect public health. Read more.
On a recent sunny Saturday, Dwight Cooley and some friends spent four hours at north Alabama’s Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area looking for different kinds of what an online dictionary defines as “a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, and a beak and (typically) by being able to fly.”
In other words, they were birding.
Cooley, the former manager of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, has been bird-watching and doing bird counts since the 1970s, and what he and the others saw on that recent Saturday was not encouraging. In their four hours in the field, they saw dozens of birds, including 16 representing five species of warblers. Four decades ago, under similar conditions, Cooley said, the group not only would have seen more warblers, but also more species of them.
“You just don’t see the number of birds that we used to see, and you don’t see the diversity of birds out there,” Cooley said. Read more.
The EPA and Department of the Army announced Thursday that the EPA’s proposal to roll back protections under the Waters of the U.S. rule had been finalized.
The change eliminates federal jurisdiction over headwaters, ephemeral and some intermittently flowing streams, and wetlands that do not abut surface water, among other waters.
Environmentalists have warned that more than 80 percent of Alabamians receive their drinking water from such sources. Business owners, farmers and developers have said the change would save them money and allow them to complete projects more quickly.
The rule change has been discussed for months. Read Birmingham Watch’s earlier coverage of the proposal and its potential effects in Alabama:
Local and State Springs, Tributaries, Wetlands May Suffer From Pollution if Proposed Rule Is Finalized
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
ABC Coke’s hopes for renewal of its operating permit for another five years are now in the hands of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Jefferson County Department of Health submitted a proposed draft to the EPA for the permit renewal March 1, it announced today. Read more.