Something is very wrong in the Land of Cotton



Dr. Robert Bullard
Environmental Justice Movement Founder

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Earthjustice August 2011 Report on Coal Ash Toxicity--"State of Failure"

Despite the Alabama legislature's attempts to appear like they were doing something beneficial for the citizens of Alabama's health and environment, with the passage of SB80, a bill designed to regulate dry coal ash disposal, it's a 'dam' shame the wet coal ash storage ponds, maintained at APCO utility plants around the state, remain unregulated. Was the exclusion of these dams that by accident or by design?

APCO registered twenty-six lobbyists for 2011, according to figures with the Ethics Commission, and they all worked hard on our lawmakers to pass the coal ash bill despite the impassioned outcries from the citizens of Perry County, Alabama. Those citizens have served as a test case of what SB80 will do to our communities, but no one on Goat Hill listened to their pleas--choosing instead to do what they were told to do on behalf of the small army of APCO lobbyists.

Landfills are a toxic soup in and of themselves. Adding coal ash to our landfills and promising that regulations from SB80 will safeguard our communities and groundwater from any untoward effects of that action is hubris personified, with a stench of possible payoffs and corruption wafting from the inception and process of that bill that's hard to ignore.

Our laws and regulations in Alabama were woefully lax on landfill monitoring, inspections and enforcement before this bill, and passing SB80 won't change what's inherently wrong with ADEM--their utter failure to protect the citizens of this state from big polluters and their waste products. Particularly the low income and minority communities where most of these industries and waste dumps are located.

Conspicuously absent from this legislation was any language to tighten controls on the existing wet coal ash ponds, and the problematic dams that surround them, located around Alabama and almost exclusively at the state's electric utility sites.

Wet coal ash storage remains unaffected and practically unmonitored and regulated, with the exception of the Rattlesnake Dam at the APCO Gorgas Plant. The EPA has that site on its radar, and APCO is employing its usual stance of we-would-rather-fight-than-comply to back them off of any future scrutiny, in addition to blocking the release of more detailed data by claiming CBI--confidential business information.

According to the EPA's website the final decision on whether to allow APCO's CBI request  is still in process. 

We noted at last count, the Southern Company, (SOCO) had spent at least *26,670,000 for the combined years of 2009-2010 on lobbying in Washington. Tracking their expenditures in Alabama is made more difficult by the unlimited contributions corporations can inject into Alabama's political system, combined with a non-requirement of lobbyists expenditure reporting.
*page 20 "Leadership We can Live Without" The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for Southern Company--May 2011, Green America

It boggles the mind that SOCO and APCO spend so much on lobbying and corporate legal attack dogs, but when they are asked to spend some of their enormous profits to upgrade their plants and reduce the overall risk *(est. to be $9 billion in increased health care costs) to hundreds of thousands of people from their toxic emissions, they complain 'if you make us improve we'll have stick it to the ratepayers' and "compliance costs jobs."
*pg 16 of Green America Report

It's a scare tactic argument that's successful on the masses who simply don't know any better and blindly accept the well-honed propaganda machine messages of these corporate behemoths.

Our state regulatory agency, ADEM, functions more as enabler than regulator by their refusal to enforce strict guidelines on APCO. They have grown dependent on the money they take in from the numerous fees they levy against APCO to operate. On smokestack emissions, ADEM charges APCO between $33-$37.00 per ton. The typical emission total per year is in the range of 180,000 tons, and frequently higher. More emissions equals more money. It's a diabolical arrangement in the best of circumstances.

ADEM also does not require any groundwater monitoring (GWM) at APCO's sites despite the enormity of their coal ash storage ponds and their close proximity to our rivers and groundwater supplies.

Dry coal ash is also stored at their sites in quantities that can only be estimated through aerial satellite photos because no records of any actual measurable amounts are available for public examination. It is entirely possible that no one but APCO really knows.

Alabama Power's Gaston Plant Wilsonville, Alabama. The Coosa River is on the right, one of the two wet coal ash ponds is wider than the river. Additional dry coal ash waste areas are in the immediate foreground.
 The state of Alabama set up ADEM in this manner with huge involvement from the utility giant in writing the rules. They hold onto this archaic arrangement in the same way aided and abetted by like-minded politicians eager to sweep the only thing green about APCO, their monetary influence, into their campaign coffers. This too is a diabolical arrangement that ends in predictable outcomes.

We suspect the utility companies, anticipating future problems from the EPA, sought the passage of SB80 to allow them to clean out their nearing capacity wet storage ponds, dry the waste, and ship it to landfills statewide, in addition to recycling the product for everything from road building to kitchen counter tops:
"This is a classic leap-before-you-look EPA initiative, where health and safety questions get asked only after the fact." Through Freedom of Information Act requests, PEER also recently found that the EPA had allowed the coal industry to edit information regarding coal ash use in products, including promoting "beneficial uses" while downplaying or completely eliminating mention of possible risks.
Burning coal for electricity generates more than 100 million tons of coal waste a year, but about half of that winds its ways back into consumer products, on food crops, or in structure- or road-building materials. Coal ash is routinely mixed into cement, drywall, kitchen counters, and carpet backing, and used in retaining walls and as ground fill. Because it is often laced with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals, many toxicologists say more research is needed about what we're putting in the ground (and potentially the water supply) and in our homes. But as of now, industry is running wild—and making a pretty penny—possibly at the expense of our health. "We cannot and should not view agricultural lands as suitable waste-disposal sites for industrial or societal pollutants, just because it's cost-effective in the short term."
Earthjustice lays out the existing problems in their latest report appropriately entitled "State of Failure." Tables 2 & 3 (ppgs. 10 & 11) contain data detailing the failure of strict supervision and safeguards that should be required by our state regulatory agencies on coal ash disposal.

Page 14, in the report, labels Alabama the "worst of the worst" when it comes to coal ash disposal:
Alabama represents the worst of the worst when it comes to coal-ash disposal. 
First, Alabama has no laws or regulations on the books to specifically ensure the safety of the state’s coal ash dams.
It is the only state in the country without such laws. 
Because there are no federal laws to ensure dam safety, this essentially means that Alabama dams are completely unregulated. Until 2011, Alabama also completely exempted coal ash disposal in landfills. Consequently, coal ash from its ten coal-fired plants has been dumped mostly in unlined, unregulated, and unmonitored ponds and landfills. Given the historical absence of controls on coal ash disposal, it is outrageous that more than 5 million tons of ash from the Kingston TVA spill was shipped to Alabama for disposal.

State oversight of Alabama’s dangerous dams is also totally missing.

None of the state’s 15 coal ash dams have been subject to state regulatory inspections in the past five years. After inspections by the EPA and TVA contractors in 2009-2010, five of the dams were given poor ratings and two had to make immediate repairs to improve stability. Alabama dams are, on average, the tallest and largest coal ash dams in the 12 most dangerous states. The average height is nearly 7 stories tall (over 66 feet), and the average surface area is greater than 192 acres (about 151 football fields) more than twice the average of coal ash ponds in the other nine states. These large ponds pose high threats—two of Alabama’s dams are high hazard, and 11 are significant hazard dams. Lastly, these ponds are old-the average age of an Alabama coal ash pond is 40 years. According to the EPA, that’s the estimated lifespan, but Alabama utilities have announced no retirement plans.
Alabama’s coal ash ponds disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color. The EPA statistics show that more than 40 percent of the citizen’s living near coal ash ponds in Alabama is non-white. Also, about 25 percent of nearby residents are below the poverty line, which is more than twice the national average poverty rate of 11.9 percent.
The facts and statistics are a sobering eye-opener into the serious risks that Alabama's governmental agencies and lawmakers stubbornly continue to ignore in favor of big business wants. A grim picture emerges of a system completely devoid of stringent accountability coupled with a total lack of consistent oversight. We, as citizens, have no choice but to live in a "state of failure" when it comes to the protection of our communities from corporate and political Alabama, and it's a risk we should not be forced to accept.
State of Failure

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Mudd " Slinging--William Bell vs Bill Mudd

Birmingham Mayor William Bell is on the attack against Birmingham lawyer and business owner William "Bill" Mudd over the Birmingham Barons $60 million dollar Baseball Park project. Bell descended into street thuggery with a direct insult to Mudd that hints at Bell's real feelings about businesses who don't belong (which Mudd does not) to his favorite private cartel--the Birmingham Business Alliance. Their mantra seems to be if you aren't with us, you're against us, and we'll threaten eminent domain as a necessary tactic.

This is a deal about baseball alright--the inside kind.

Mudd's B&A Warehouse would be a perfect segue into the entertainment district that is a part of Bell's, and the BBA's, plan for downtown Birmingham. Perfect unless Mayor Bell and private real estate developers cannot cut a deal with Mudd, who isn't really interested in selling his successful event/venue business to the city of Birmingham just so they can level the building in favor of something else. Mudd would rather have his business incorporated with the ballpark.

But the Mayor refuses to negotiate with Mudd, instead he has Jeffrey Bayer and another private real estate investor, Alan Engel, contact Mudd to 'lightly' pressure him to sell his property. Mudd mentioned he was curious, after those two phone calls, why private real estate investors were calling him instead of the Mayor. It's a great point and we wonder ourselves what the answer is.

Bell then called after the two developers and promised to call Mudd back and discuss the proposal further. It was an empty promise that Bell never intended to keep. What he did instead was ratchet up the specter of eminent domain and embark on strong-arm tactics against Mudd.

It's noteworthy that the BBA isn't living up to its name and supporting Mudd's existing business.

Bell's bully remark on a Fox 6 segment transforms any future meaningful dialogue into a non-productive, mud-slinging pr contest with the first fistful of useless nonsense thrown by the Mayor himself:
Mayor Bell voluntarily pulled the B&A warehouse out of a package of properties that the city will use eminent domain on to assemble the land for the stadium because most of the council wants to continue negotiating with owner Bill Mudd, who says he wants the project built around his property and doesn't want to sell.

Bell says the city will continue negotiating but he thinks this is about one thing: "Money, money, money, money," Bell said.

To which Mudd responded, "I don't want his money, and I don't need it. And it's insulting for me to hear that. And if he wants to come down here, walk across the park and talk about it, I'll tell him that."
Is this the same Mayor who praises economic development and claims to be supportive of all businesses in his not so fair city? The same Mayor who wants to run off Mudd's business in favor of the Negro Baseball Museum, a worthy enough project admittedly, but there's not one word in a 400 page document from the Mayor's office on how it will be paid for.

Taking into account that the notorious Walter Energy sponsored an April 2011 event in conjunction with the city of Birmingham, the Barons baseball team, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, earlier this year for Jackie Robinson Day, is it a stretch to imagine Walter may be involved with the Museum funds?

Would that explain the absence of any information on the funding for the museum, given the recent black eye Walter has gotten for the north Birmingham contamination? Have they offered to fund the project to placate city leaders and the Mayor? Would they contribute to appear racially sensitive after they have allegedly committed terrible transgressions against minority residents in Birmingham?

We'll never know until the Mayor decides to provide information on the funding, but one thing we can count on is that Bell doesn't care about fair and open communications with Mudd and B&A.

His latest salvo against Mudd is reprehensible, irresponsible and unbecoming the office of the Mayor in a city the size of Birmingham. He should be ashamed of himself, but he isn't because he knows the local paper will side with him on the issue.

It didn't take long for that to happen. In a recent Birmingham News editorial the "Our View" ED board claimed Mudd was "wrong" to "hold the city hostage" over the deal. In typical one-sided fashion and probably in anticipation of future advertisement dollars, the News acts as the go-to water boy for Bell's schemes yet again.

Shame on them too.

Mudd was interviewed on WAPI's morning show August 23rd. Judge for yourself who's really holding who hostage: (mp3 sound files)
Mudd Interview Part I
Mudd Interview Part II

Bill Mudd conducted himself as a gentleman in that interview. We certainly cannot say the same for the Mayor of Birmingham.

So Say We The Opinion Board Of The Vincent Alabama Confidential
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Monday, August 15, 2011

In a League of His Own--Mayor William Bell

Birmingham Mayor William Bell is doing his level best to sidestep any taint from the Walter Energy contamination in north Birmingham by claiming that “until spring of this year he’d never been notified of soil contamination.” Bell’s coziness with the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA), the entity who lured *Walter Energy away from Tampa where they had been headquartered since the end of WW II, makes us wonder if he’s being truthful about what he knew and when, or slyly covering for the generous corporate campaign and event sponsor at the direction of the BBA.
*entry #243--"I wish they were all this easy," said a beaming Jim Searcy, vice president of business and industry retention at Birmingham Business Alliance.

William Bell has always been a team player, but it's questionable whose team he has been a member of all these years--the one that benefits him or the one that steps up for his constituent's interests. Why isn't he going to bat for his citizens in north Birmingham? All we're hearing from him is excuses of why no one should put the bead on him for any responsibility in the toxic mess.

(On a side note, Walter Energy is up for takeover after their CEO of three months decided to call it quits. Watch for the next corporate owner to be hailed as yet another big bucks entity coming to Birmingham.)
In a recent CBS 42 “Deadly Deception” clip, Mayor Bell incredulously claimed that he was not permitted to even communicate with the EPA about the decades-old issue in north Birmingham or anything else EPA related:
“The EPA still had the Mayor of Birmingham, not William Bell, but the Mayor of Birmingham listed as being banned from being able to communicate any form, way shape or form, with the federal government, in particular the EPA.”

What Mr. Bell was referring to, and twisting to suit his purposes, is a move by the federal government in 2009 that came after former Mayor Larry Langford was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges, which placed him on a federal “Excluded Parties List:”
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford no longer has the authority to sign federal grant applications or enter into agreements that involve federal money as a result of his indictment on bribery and conspiracy charges.
Langford's name was placed on the federal government's Excluded Parties List -- a list of people and organizations barred from conducting business with federal agencies -- by the Environmental Protection Agency in March. Langford received a notice of the action in late February.

That action by the feds was to prevent Langford from having any more authority over federal grants and monies. It did not mean that Bell was "barred" from communicating with the EPA like he would have everyone believe with his recent statements. Unless he wants us to think that the EPA would not be willing to take a call from him that should have gone something like this:
‘I need help over here in my city Region 4, my residents are sick and dying because of a nearby coal plant. I'm hearing from them every day. We have three schools in the area and I am really worried about the children. Could you please send someone over here to do some testing and let’s see what we have going on over here?’

Bell never made that call and he’s never shown any concern for those residents until CBS 42 pulled back the curtain on the whole deal through their investigative reporting. Has anyone with CBS 42 put two and two together and questioned, among themselves, the validity of what Mayor Bell is now offering as an excuse?

Giving Bell the benefit of the doubt, that he really didn't understand, is not any more comforting because it suggests he isn’t sharp enough to comprehend the 2009 decision. The leader of a large metropolitan area should be quick on their feet in the critical thinking department and possess an ability to fully understand the detail and meaning of any federal actions directed at his city.

Blaming his inaction on Larry Langford's misdeeds is a lame ploy. And Bell knows it. He's a savvy political player who's well-versed in the game of misinformation and distraction.

We think he's playing the ‘I didn’t know’ card for political duck and cover in a publicly embarrassing situation while following the scripting of certain corporate interest coaches.

Much like the Birmingham News, who won't break themselves of the habit of protecting Walter Energy's misdeeds by continuing to use words like "voluntary cleanup," in addition to allowing Walter to continue the incessant parroting of their "good neighbor" and 'not our fault' nonsense.

We also find it ironic that Walter Energy teamed up with the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for Jackie Robinson Day earlier this year. The Mayor has an on and off reputation for favoritism to minority rights and figures when it seems to suit his own agenda, financial interests and publicity stroking.

It’s a proclivity he often forgets when it comes to the Big Mules and the BBA’s pie-in-the-sky ideas. He’s way too caught up in his chameleon-like changeability of ‘I’m for my people until someone else has an economic scheme that will bring in the money and elevate my importance.’ Luring the Barons to Birmingham is high on Bell's list of importance.

With the Robinson tribute he got the trifecta--he appears (albeit selectively) racially sensitive, Walter Energy grateful and Birmingham Barons bone-throwing all rolled into one. But what has he done for those north Birmingham residents who have been suffering for years so far? Absolutely nothing, because there's no glory in it for him, and he knows he'll get a sackful of angry corporate cats (aka Walter Energy and the BBA) if he gets too involved with the little people.

It's a shame really, because he could have had his own Robinsonesque moment, if only he'd managed to call up enough courage to get on the right team just once in his long and often controversial political career.

Jackie Robinson’s contribution to baseball and his people deserved to have that honor in April, we won’t disagree with that, but of all the sponsors who could have been approached for the event the city chose Walter Energy. The same company who is the number one alleged suspect primarily responsible for the toxic poisoning in the minority neighborhoods of Collegeville and Harriman Park since 1989.

What would Jackie Robinson have said about that choice?

He would have called it what it is: foul ball.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hell No--We Won't Go

The purpose of this site is to expose corruption and injustice in forms that affect the lives of many. Sprinkled in-between is strong opinion on matters of public interest, in addition to stories that the owners of this site feel are important to offer to our wide, global audience of readers.

We exist to level the playing field and to try and fill the void that the mainstream media cannot or will not report on for a myriad of reasons: laziness, conflicts of political and advertiser interests, a lack of time and workforce power, and sometimes the deliberate suppression of information the public should know about.

This site has been successful in its purpose if our readership and traffic are indicators of the popularity of truth-telling.

But someone is really upset with us, enough to make threats that wade into the area of a federal crime. They want us to shut up, go away and stop talking about what we cover. Maybe they are uncomfortable with having their misdeeds on the worldwide web for a mass audience to peer into. Maybe they're just too accustomed to getting away with 'it' as a matter of the accepted norm.

They shouldn't be, but that's what the state media has allowed them to do for years--operate right out in the open without harsh examination no matter how much they do to the regular folks. Or the environment. We think that's wrong on so many fronts it's hard to know where to end that miles long list of egregious, and sometimes criminal behavior.

'Let's lean on Max and his gang a little harder so they'll be quiet.'

We've upset the usual suspects with some of our reporting and commentary. We've upset some in the media who sit on lofty perches and sneer down on bloggers as ankle biters outside the realm of "serious journalism." How dare anyone have an opinion, and dare to write about it, unless they are reporter with a mainstream media outlet.

We dare to.

And we'll continue to do it.

As long as there is corruption and injustice to write about it, we'll write about it.

No amount of threats or pressure will silence what we have committed to do in the name of exposing wrongs.

Would you expect any less from us our readers?

What say you to those who hide behind anonymous threats of "homes are so fragile....you're debt is now due and payable isn't it?"

Doesn't it sound similar to the the old capos who would send their henchmen into a place of business, in an attempt to intimidate a reluctant-to-being-shaken-down owner: "You have such a beautiful store here, it would be a shame to have it burn to the ground."

Yes, it kind of does sound somewhat similar. The intent is clear.

And to them we say: not just 'no' but hell no, we won't go.
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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CBS 42 "Deadly Deception" Documentary August 9, 2011--9:00PM CST

From the leaders in environmental news we can use, CBS 42, Sherri Jackson and Ken Lass bring us full circle with the pervasive contamination in north Birmingham and beyond in their upcoming summation documentary on "Deadly Deception."

In what should be a contender for a well-deserved RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award, this groundbreaking series from CBS 42 proves that one state media organization understands the concept of being unafraid and bold.

For decades the minority population in the Collegeville area of Birmingham have been the victims of toxic secrets, secrets that have cost them not only their health, but many have lost their lives for nothing more than just trying to live their lives. It didn't have to happen to them. The state knew the risks. The EPA knew the risks. Many people in positions of authority knew the risks. The citizens directly affected by the contamination were willfully kept in the dark while the profits poured into everyone else's pockets. 

It's happening all over Alabama: a flippant attitude of "better dead than unprofitable" permeates the economic development platform of this state. Jobs and profits trump clean air, clean water and the rights of citizens to exist in communities with a reasonable expectation that they will be safe from exposures that can kill them.

Years have passed, and many Alabamians are just now learning their right to live safely in their neighborhoods has been taken away from them by corporate Alabama. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that it's taken death after senseless death for these people to find out what they have been living with.

Why has it taken this long and why did so many have to die? How many more will?

Don't we have a Dr. "in charge of Alabama now" sitting in the Governor's mansion? Has he cast aside his Hippocratic Oath in favor of a monetary oath owed to his BARD benefactors and similar corporate campaign contributors? The same question stands for our lawmakers: where do their true loyalties lie?

There must be an end to this "deadly deception" and the paying to pollute mindset before any more lives are lost, communities are irreversibly ruined and more schoolchildren are sickened from the complete lack of responsibility by those charged with supposedly keeping us all safe. 

Anything less is not just a "troubling situation"--it's a fatal vision.

CBS 42 Deadly Deception Documentary-1

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