This op-ed was submitted to the Montgomery Advertiser by GASP Communications Specialist Michael Hansen. Here it is in its entirety.
I made Birmingham my home in 2008 when I moved here to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Alabama. Though it took some getting used to, I quickly fell in love with Alabama’s natural beauty, passionate people, complex history and rich food culture. And most importantly, I know Alabama has the potential to be great.
The sad reality, though, is that we are not great. Alabama ranks at or near the bottom of nearly every measure of quality of life: pollution, poverty, literacy, obesity, diabetes and cancer, among others. There is good news: With a little hard work and courage, we can live up to our potential.
I joined the fight for clean air a couple of years ago, inspired by those who came before me. Birmingham has made strides in reducing harmful air pollution since the middle of the last century, thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act. Back then, groups like the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution — a movement recently reinvented as a nonprofit organization called GASP — set the stage for current generations to fight for a healthier Alabama.
Jefferson County fails American Lung Association’s State of the Air report every single year, and we should be deeply concerned. One in five high school students has asthma, well above the national average. Ground-level ozone pollution, one of the measures Alabama failed in the ALA study, is highly correlated with asthma. Since moving to Birmingham, I have suffered frequently from bronchitis and upper respiratory infections; I am not alone.
Our priority as Alabamians should be to take care of the least among us and to look out for our families, friends and neighbors, not to defend the “right” of industry to contaminate our air and make us sick unnecessarily. The problem is deeply rooted in a political system wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Alabama Power, the state’s largest regulated utility and a subsidiary of Southern Company, is resisting choices that would save their customers both energy and money. Are we a society that robs the poor to give to the rich, sacrificing our health and precious natural resources to do it? Or is Alabama a place where we, the people, can get a fair shake?
The Alabama Public Service Commission turns a blind eye to Alabama Power’s political influence by avoiding formal evidentiary rate reviews since the early 1980s. In doing so, the PSC has essentially endorsed a policy that says the power company’s profits trump our health and economic well-being.
They have no reason to change course, either. The status quo is too lucrative for those in power. In other states, public utilities like Alabama Power must participate in transparent and open processes. Because, you see, energy planning is everyone’s concern. It’s about what kind of home we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.
Polluted air is not only damaging our health, but also our economy. The greater-Birmingham area has been classified as a nonattainment area for most of the past two decades, meaning that pollution levels exceeded federal standards and new industries were prohibited from coming to town. Alabama Partners for Clean Air estimates that this designation cost the area “15 major manufacturing facilities, 11,000 jobs and nearly $5 billion worth of investment” in the 1990s alone.
Recently, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management announced that Jefferson and Shelby counties tiptoed into attainment based on outdated, soon-to-change standards. That happened largely because Alabama Power’s James H. Miller, Jr. Electric Generating Plant (above) in western Jefferson County was forced to implement pollution control measures. (Previously, the Miller Plant emitted more mercury — a dangerous neurotoxin — than any other plant in the United States.)
Five ways to create change:
1. Write letters to the editor of local newspapers.
2. Write your elected officials and tell them what’s on your mind.
3. Talk to your friends online and in person about these issues.
4. Volunteer for organizations dedicated to a cleaner, healthier Alabama.
5. Live a cleaner, greener life by following energy efficiency best practices.
Now, despite being in attainment, Jefferson and Shelby counties still cannot locate new manufacturing in the area without falling back out of attainment, continuing to cost the area much-needed jobs and economic growth.
Clean energy has the potential to create a jobs boom in the Southeast. Not only does clean energy investment offer the possibility of new jobs and economic growth, but renewable energy offers a promising future of cheaper energy whereby consumers can eventually produce their own energy, independent of a government-supported monopoly like Alabama Power.
Let’s not let the powerful stand in the way of greatness. Let’s demand proactive leadership.
The Alabama I know and love has a champion’s mentality. Why not harness all of the energy spent defending the status quo and put it to good work advancing a more stable energy future, better choices, a transparent government, common-sense economic policies and a cleaner, healthier place to live?
GASP is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to reduce air pollution, to educate the public on the health risks associated with dirty air, and to encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy production.