Proposed reforms would help ADEM

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 14, 2002

More power to the newly formed ADEM Reform Coalition, an alliance of about 15 environmental groups that seeks an overhaul of the much-maligned Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

The new group levels an old charge - that ADEM favors development at the expense of the environment. Members of the reform coalition include a broad spectrum that ranges from the Alabama African-American Environmental Action Network, which says ADEM fails to protect poor black communities from environmental racism, to the American Lung Association.

At the same time that the reform group announced its formation last week, Gov. Don Siegelman was proposing similar changes to make ADEM more accountable to the public, with tougher laws and more money to make sure they are enforced. One of his key recommendations is an independent appeals review process, overseen by the Alabama attorney general, for industry permits.

The rising concern over ADEM's performance came, coincidentally, during a week when state environmental officials made one of its most unpopular decisions in years. Disregarding objections from the governor, hundreds of Lee County residents, even former Auburn head football coach Pat Dye and the Alabama Environmental Management Commission voted to allow a Florida company to operate a granite quarry near Opelika that residents say will pollute Saugahatchee Creek.

The commission, ADEM's parent organization, voted 3-1 to let Florida Rock Industries mine the area for road surface material.

The Florida firm has assured the state it will meet all environmental regulations. Yet with two miles of the quarry fronting the rural east Alabama creek, critics say it is only a matter of time before a disaster occurs.

Possible fissures in the granite on the property leased by Florida Rock, runoff from storms, erosion from site preparation, siltation from retention pond overflows and accidental leaks and spills of ammonium nitrate, fuel oil and diesel fuels all threaten the creek, opponents say.

At the same time, they say, the quarry operation will expose workers and nearby residents to the threat of silicosis, a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by crystalline silica resulting from quarrying.

The quarry will add significantly to traffic hazards in the area, they contend. The roads in the vicinity are not designed for heavy truck traffic. Finally, they note, in exchange for the 30 jobs the quarry will create and the $120,000 in estimated annual taxes it will pay, Florida Rock will haul away 2.4 million tons of Alabama.

Dye, whose Crooked Oak lodge and hunting preserve is downstream from the blasting zone for the quarry, has fought the project tooth and nail. So have the canoers, fishing enthusiasts, hunters and outdoors lovers who fought to protect the creek and its wildlife populations.

Joe Turnham, a lifelong Lee County resident who founded the Alabama League of Environmental Action Voters, noted that in an essay about the creek two years ago that when residents rise to fight what they see as environmental crises, they are often "flabbergasted" to find state laws have not been designed to protect them.

"To the contrary," Turnham wrote, "Alabama environmental laws crafted by well-funded lobbying interests are designed to facilitate the permitting industries."

Reforms are needed, and Siegelman and the new coalition have targeted good places to start. The key will be a diligent follow-through in the Legislature, where reform is certain to be opposed heavily. Any change for the better will be difficult.

Yet unless the pressure for that change continues, Alabama will continue to suffer from the outrages like the one in Lee County.

- The Tuscaloosa News,

Oct. 14, 2002