In the days before the Clean Air Act, if you hiked up to the Vulcan statue and looked down the side of Red Mountain, you would see a cloudy city choked in smog. The hazy soot that we now call “air pollution” was as much a symbol of Birmingham’s industrial progress as the smokestacks that emitted it. The original Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution formed as local activists’ response to this dangerous situation. Half a century later, our skies are clearer but harmful pollutants still enter our lungs. GASP exists now to continue the fight for healthy air, because “better than it used to be” is not a health standard.
This is why we care about the Regional Haze Rule (RHR), a regulation created by the EPA to improve air visibility, specifically in certain national parks and wilderness areas. The EPA calls these “Class 1 areas”. The RHR requires states to develop and implement “State Implementation Plans” (aka, SIPs) to reduce the kinds of air pollutants that create haze in these natural environments, many of which harm human health. Since air pollution travels widely and across borders, the government needs to regulate these pollutants by region rather than by state.
In Alabama, the RHR applies to only one area: Sipsey Wilderness, an area of the Bankhead National Forest known for its hiking and waterfalls. The rule requires the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to submit a plan to the EPA identifying the polluting facilities in the state that have an impact on visibility in Sipsey Wilderness and other Class 1 areas nearby like the Great Smoky Mountains. The plan must also outline how ADEM intends to regulate those facilities. Although the deadline to send this plan to the EPA was in July 2021, Alabama is among the 39 other states that have not yet submitted anything.
Our concern is not just that ADEM has missed its due date on this important project. Our concern is also that ADEM is using flawed methods and modeling to create a bar so high for regulation that it is easy for polluters to slip under it.
Here’s what I mean by that: ADEM is using the methodology of a regional planning organization called Visibility Improvement State and Tribal Association of the Southeast (VISTAS). This organization is supporting ten states in the southeast as they develop their SIPs. However, a report by the National Parks Conservation Association found that the VISTAs models and methods would ignore more than 300 sources of pollution.
In Alabama, a state that ranks in the top 10 states with worst air quality, the Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) claims that only one polluting facility, the Lhoist minerals plant in Montevallo, needs to be considered for this rule. At GASP, we have identified 12 facilities of specific concern to our work that affect Sipsey — five of which are in environmental justice communities that are disproportionately low-income and/or people of color.
For the health of our communities, our state and federal governments must use their powers to regulate polluting industries. We need Alabama to protect those who live, work, and recreate here, and we need the EPA to hold Alabama accountable when it is not doing so. That is why we signed onto a letter, along with 38 other environmental organizations across the country, to tell the EPA to hold states accountable for dragging their feet on the RHR. If ADEM does unveil its plan to comply with the RHR, we will push for it to be accurate and comprehensive.
We all deserve the right to air that is clear, clean, and healthy. We demand that EPA and ADEM respect and protect that right.