by David Whiteside
Whiteside is the latest in a series of area environmental activists who have contributed articles recently to Birmingham Weekly's Green Space section.
Several of Alabama’s public drinking-water intake sites have recently faced pollution threats, including proposals for the opening of mines and other industrial facilities.
These threats show the need for continued vigilance on the part of both citizens and elected officials regarding the safety of the state’s water supply.
The threats also demonstrate the continued importance of the work being done in Alabama by several non-profit environmental advocacy organizations that are affiliated with the national Waterkeeper Alliance — Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Hurricane Creekkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper and the newly formed Tennessee Riverkeeper.
Elected officials stop proposed Morgan County fuel depot
In Morgan County, state and local elected officials recently fought off a proposal by Teppco Partners LP, a Houston, Tex.-based energy firm, to build a 14-million-gallon fuel depot that would have been located a half-mile upstream from Decatur's only drinking water intake.
Tennessee Riverkeeper worked with Decatur Mayor Don Stanford, City Council President Greg Reeves, state Rep. Micky Hammon (R-Decatur), state Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and officials from Decatur Utilities to stop the project.
The fuel depot would have only created two to five jobs in Decatur, according to Stanford. A spill from the depot, according to Decatur Utilities officials, would have shut down the water intake for two to three weeks, and the utility only has enough water in emergency reserve for 24 hours.
In November 2009, Teppco announced that they would seek another location for their facility. However, Orr proposed a bill in the Alabama Senate in January that would provide a protective zone 5,000 feet upstream and 1,000 feet downstream of any water intake in Morgan County. “This would be a local bill, but I believe statewide that this is a policy measure that we as a state should look into,” Orr told Riverkeeper.
I produced a short video regarding this controversy, featuring interviews from all of these public officials, which can be found at Tennessee Riverkeeper's website, www.tennesseeriver.org.
Black Warrior River threatened by proposed coal mine
In July 2008, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) issued a permit to Shepherd Bend Mine, a 1,773-acre coal strip mine in Walker County. Shepherd Bend, LLC, the operators of this mine, plan to discharge wastewater out of 29 permitted outfalls into the Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork and its tributaries. This mine is located directly upstream and across the river from one of the Birmingham Water Works' major water intakes, which pumps around 35 to 40 million gallons of water to Birmingham every day.
In December 2008, Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court against ADEM, its then-director Trey Glenn (who has since resigned) and Shepherd Bend, LLC. This suit charges that ADEM violated state law and its own rules by issuing the wastewater discharge permit without notifying the public or the parties who had commented on the draft permit, by failing to include a required Pollution Abatement and Prevention Plan in the permit and by allowing pollutant discharge exemptions in the permit that will cause or contribute to violations of Alabama water quality standards. The suit asks that the court declare the permit void and prohibit Shepherd Bend from beginning any activities authorized by the permit.
Forever Wild unable to purchase land from Birmingham Water Works Board
In April 2009, Black Warrior Riverkeeper and a consortium of businesses and non-profits nominated 3,200 acres of land along the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River in Jefferson and Blount counties for protection by Forever Wild, the state of Alabama’s land conservation program. This property is upstream from an intake for Birmingham's water supply.
The Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) had put this parcel up for sale after shelving its plans to build a dam on the river to create a water supply reservoir. A conservation purchase by Forever Wild would have helped the protect the land upstream of the Locust Fork intake valve and become a resource for current and future generations.
The Locust Fork is one of Alabama’s longest remaining free-flowing rivers. It is also a great place to swim, canoe, kayak, fish, take photographs and watch wildlife. The river is also home to a number of rare aquatic species. Protection of this property would have provided watershed protection that is vital for both water quality and wildlife habitat.
However, the Birmingham Water Works Board was in a hurry to sell the property, despite current low land values. Officials at the BWWB refused to allow a few months for the Forever Wild land conservation organization to assess the property and submit their bid. On Aug. 20, 2009, the BWWB sold their Locust Fork property to a private landowner.
Everyone needs clean water
Everyone needs clean water, be they black, white or Hispanic; rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. However, that right is constantly being threatened in Alabama by shortsighted private interests and their political cronies. Alabama’s current and future generations deserve a stronger defense of public water supplies from municipal, state and federal officials. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “We do not build this country for a day, it has to last through the ages.” In addition, the federal Clean Water Act states that if government fails to protect the public's water supply, the citizens have a right to bring suit to protect it.
David Whiteside, a graduate of Birmingham’s Altamont School, founded non-profit Black Warrior Riverkeeper in 2001 and Tennessee Riverkeeper in 2009. He is the godson of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the president and one of the founders of Waterkeeper Alliance.
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