The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

2 days ago

Despite criticisms, Alabama’s environment is best it’s been since standards were first measured

(ADEM/Contributed, YHN)

As the director of the state agency charged with safeguarding Alabama’s environment, I have great respect for and deep appreciation of our state’s wonderful natural resources and rich biodiversity of species and habitats, including many that are unique to Alabama. Protecting human health and those environmental treasures is precisely the reason the Alabama Department of Environmental Management exists.

That’s why it concerns me when critics take unjustified cheap shots at ADEM and the work it does to protect, preserve and enhance the environment. Some blame “lax enforcement” of environmental regulations in part for the loss of rare species, or attempt to paint ADEM as an underfunded agency under threat of federal takeover by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Those characterizations are clearly and demonstrably wrong. Let’s look at the facts.

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By any environmental quality measure – fewer impaired waters, more waters classified or designated as high quality, exceptionally high-quality drinking water, air meeting all quality standards, extensive remediation of legacy soil contamination – the quality of the environment in Alabama is the best it’s been since environmental quality was first measured. And it’s getting even better.

For example, 82% of the rivers and streams that were listed in 1998 as impaired for any combination of pollutants have since been removed from the list. There are also well-documented significant reductions to pollution impairments of lakes, reservoirs, bays and estuaries in Alabama.

Since 1982, the state has had 805 miles of rivers and streams classified as Outstanding National Resource Waters, 343 miles classified as Outstanding Alabama Waters, and 40,065 acres (Lake Martin) designated as a Treasured Alabama Lake. ADEM had a direct hand in those achievements.

In 2019, less than 2% of the public drinking water systems in Alabama had any health-based water quality violations for the 89 contaminants monitored. Based on EPA data, only one state, Hawaii, had a lower number of violations than Alabama.

With air, Alabama has been in attainment with all National Ambient Air Quality Standards since 2015. Those standards cover particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead. Over the past 30 years, releases of those contaminants have dropped by an average of 83%. That is a collective breath of fresh air for Alabamians.

Since 1989, ADEM’s land division has overseen the closure of all 141 unlined municipal solid waste landfills, the elimination of 1,880 unauthorized dumps and the cleanup of 341 illegal tire dumps containing nearly 10 million scrap tires. Statewide waste reduction through recycling increased from 5% to 25%, more than 11,000 leaking underground storage tanks were cleaned up, and more than 400 of the 611 brownfields (polluted industrial sites) have been cleaned and returned to productive use. ADEM led each of these efforts.

While it’s true that some rare species in Alabama are under threat, it’s also true that in recent years many species have come under more protection and are less endangered than in the past. The bald eagle, osprey, beach mouse, gopher tortoise, salamanders, freshwater mussels, crayfish and darters are among them.

Unfortunately, a lot of what ADEM does to protect the state’s water, air and land goes unnoticed or is misunderstood by the public and the media. Several environmental organizations even sued to end ADEM’s authority to oversee federal Clean Water Act programs in Alabama, falsely claiming ADEM was not tough enough on polluters.

EPA data show a different picture. According to that data, Alabama is consistently among the states with the lowest levels of non-compliance by entities subject to environmental regulation. Yet, despite low non-compliance, total monetary penalties assessed by ADEM have been among the top five in the nation. That is clearly not lax enforcement.

Not surprising to us, the federal court soundly rejected the groups’ claims and maintained ADEM’s authority. We enforce Clean Water rules and other federal regulations – and do it more effectively, EPA data say, than most states.

Can more be done, such as improved local land-use practices and citizen action, to add to the protections we already have in place? Of course. Good environmental stewardship and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive.

But let us not ignore the fact that the state of the environment in Alabama is among the best in the nation and getting better. I can assure Alabamians this department will continue to work to protect human health, the environment and all of our state’s natural wonders.

Lance LeFleur is the director of Alabama Department of Environmental Management

3 months ago

Hearings give public opportunity to weigh in on coal ash plans

(ADEM/Contributed, YHN)

The mission of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is to ensure for all Alabamians “a safe, healthful and productive environment.” It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.

Ensuring a safe, healthful and productive environment means more than simply being the environmental cop, though that certainly is part of ADEM’s job. When the Alabama Legislature passed legislation in 1982 that led to the creation of ADEM, lawmakers’ intent was for the agency to promote public health and well-being.

The term “healthful” in ADEM’s mission statement speaks directly to that. ADEM’s work is to contribute to the health of Alabama’s environment and the health of all Alabamians.

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An example of that work is managing the process that will determine how coal combustion residuals (CCR) – or coal ash – are dealt with in a safe and effective manner. Managing CCR promotes a healthful environment by protecting our land and water.

On Oct. 20, ADEM will hold the first of a series of public hearings on permits drafted by ADEM to require electric utilities to safely close unlined coal ash ponds at their power plants and remediate any contaminated groundwater. The hearings, and the comment periods leading up to them, give the public the chance to provide ADEM input on the requirements in the draft permits.

To understand how we got to this point today, let’s go back to Dec. 22, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. On that frigid night, the containment dike surrounding massive ponds holding decades worth of CCR produced by the coal-burning TVA power plant collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of land.

That spill drew the attention of regulators and the nation to the issue of coal ash storage, for which there was little regulation at the time. It also started the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the road to adopting a federal CCR rule, which took effect in 2015. The Alabama Environmental Management Commission approved a state CCR rule in 2018, patterned after the EPA rule.

The rules address two primary issues: closing coal ash ponds to avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.

Both the EPA and state rules give the electric utility operators two options in closing the ash ponds. One allowable method is to excavate the millions of tons of coal ash and either move the coal ash to a lined landfill or find an approved beneficial use for the ash. The other is to cap in place, where an impervious cover, or cap, is placed over the ash impoundment. Both methods have been used successfully for decades to close some of the most contaminated sites in the nation.

It must be emphasized that the closure method selection is made by the utilities, as allowed by both federal and state rules. Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth all elected to utilize the cap-in-place option.

The permits will also set out the steps to be taken to clean up contaminated groundwater caused by the coal ash ponds. ADEM’s job, in its environmental oversight role, is to ensure the closure and groundwater remediation plans proposed by the utilities and included in the permits meet federal and state standards and protect both waterways and groundwater. The permits provide for regular monitoring to confirm the closure and cleanup plans are being implemented as required. If necessary, the plans will be adjusted to ensure the intended results are being achieved.

Currently, ADEM has scheduled public hearings on the permits for three Alabama Power plants. The first is Oct. 20 for Plant Miller in Jefferson County, followed by Oct. 22 for Plant Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County. Permits for the other five sites in Alabama are in development, and hearings will be scheduled when they are complete.

The purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits. This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plans (including the CCR unit closure component) and answer residents’ questions.

The draft permits, the hearings’ dates, locations and times and other information are available on ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov. The public can also mail or email comments related to the permits, including the closure plans and groundwater remediation plans, directly to ADEM during the proposed permits’ 35-day minimum comment periods, which will run one week past the date of the public hearings. Those comments will be considered in the decisions to issue the permits, and ADEM will provide a response to each issue raised.

For maximum protection of the environment, ADEM encouraged the power companies to go beyond the minimum requirements of the state and federal CCR rules. ADEM’s scientists and engineers who analyzed the plans through an exhaustive review and revision process determined the final plans provide the environmental protections Alabamians expect and deserve. But we want to hear from the public.

Certainly, there are pros and cons of each option in closing the coal ash ponds. The daunting task of cleaning up contaminated groundwater will be undertaken regardless of which closure method is utilized. As one opinion writer recently said, there is no easy answer to the coal ash problem. But this is a matter we cannot duck. We must deal with our coal combustion residuals – by EPA requirement and for the sake of our environment.

Here’s what you can count on from your state agency charged with protecting your environment. ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Ensuring that is our mission.

Lance LeFleur is director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. For more information about the upcoming CCR public hearings, go to Public Hearings on ADEM’s website.