Alabama PSC’s Unconstitutional Media Policy Must Be Changed

Alabama PSC’s Unconstitutional Media Policy Must Be Changed

Alabama PSC’s Unconstitutional Media Policy Must Be Changed

Alabamians have the right to know what is going on at their Public Service Commission

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — On Friday, May 15, a broad group of advocates filed joint comments challenging the legality — including the constitutionality — of the Alabama Public Service Commission’s proposed Media Coverage Plan, which would grant Alabama Power enormous power to control what the public knows about its operations in the state. The coalition, led by Gasp, Sierra Club, and Energy Alabama, was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, Alabama Arise, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Faith in Action Alabama, among others.

The PSC’s media policy would create severe limitations for public access to hearings and other proceedings before the PSC. It requires five days’ prior consent for any recording of hearings, but also grants the PSC the power to rescind consent for recording at any time, and for any reason. Additionally, the policy mandates that the PSC revoke licenses provided to persons or media outlets upon the request of any party, attorney or witness, giving broad power to special interests. Such restrictions contravene the state’s Open Meetings Act and the U.S. Constitution’s protections for free speech, and are wildly out of step with neighboring states like Georgia and Mississippi, where similar proceedings are open to public recordings and live streamed.

Michael Hansen, executive Director of Gasp, issued the following statement:

“The Alabama Public Service Commission’s mission is right in the name: they serve the people of Alabama, not corporations. Open, transparent, and accessible government is not an option, but a requirement for the Commission to operate in the best interest of all Alabamians. Utility bills are a kitchen table issue, and Alabama’s families deserve to see how the decisions that impact them are made.”

Daniel Tait, Chief Operating Officer at Energy Alabama, issued the following statement:

“Sunshine is good, both for transparency and power production. Alabamians deserve to know how their utility bills will be affected by their elected officials. There’s simply no common sense reason to limit public access to decisions worth billions of dollars.”

Stephen Stetson, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, issued the following statement: 

“Everyone’s got utility bills and everyone should be able to easily observe PSC proceedings. It’s the public’s right to know what decisions are being made that will affect their lives. This policy erects a barrier to entry for information that should be freely available, and topples the scales in favor of powerful entities like Alabama Power at the expense of regular folks.”

For more information, contact Michael Hansen ([email protected]), Emily Bosch ([email protected]), or Daniel Tait ([email protected]).

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Now Is Not the Time for Petty Political Grievances

Now Is Not the Time for Petty Political Grievances

Now Is Not the Time for Petty Political Grievances

Wake. Coffee. Email. Zoom. Email. Zoom. Email. Dinner. TV. Bed. Sleep.

Repeat.

That’s more or less a typical workday during this pandemic. And I have to admit that I’m fortunate to still have a job in a time when 1-in-5 Americans have filed for unemployment over the past several weeks. I’m also lucky that I love my job. I don’t have to go to work, I get to go to work. Even if “going to work” just entails sitting at my dining room table for the time being.

Anyhow, this past Wednesday morning started normal enough. That is, until I got an email alerting me to a statement from Secretary of State John Merrill attacking Gasp and the Sierra Club. Merrill was “shar[ing] support for Plant Barry of Mobile County.” This was allegedly prompted by a lawsuit we filed last month over expired air and water permits at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry, a dirty coal-fired power plant near Mobile.

In his screed, Merrill made several inaccurate, inflammatory statements before finally concluding, “This is a time to work together to address issues and solve problems, not to promote extreme political issues.” Project much?

I won’t give his false statements more exposure here, but the hypocrisy was loud enough to get my attention. It also made me realize that we hadn’t put out a press release or any kind of public announcement. Merrill’s misguided rant is an opportunity to do just that.

As mentioned above, Gasp and Sierra Club on April 2 filed a writ of mandamus petition with the Circuit Court in Montgomery regarding expired permits for Plant Barry. Alabama Power, to its credit, has fulfilled its duty to submit renewal applications for these permits. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), the state agency responsible for air and water permits for facilities like Plant Barry, has failed to act on those applications. In other words, the state — by way of ADEM — is the subject of the lawsuit. The kind of permits in question are a Title V air pollution permit that expired in 2015 and an NPDES water pollution permit that expired in 2013.

In asking ADEM to officially renew these outdated permits, we argue that ADEM must ensure they comply with current pollution limitations, which have been updated since the permits were last issued and since the plant’s emissions were last evaluated. And, of course, we requested that the court compel ADEM to issue public notice and public comment periods for the permit renewals as required by law.

We’ve asked for this to happen by September 1, 2020. That is by all accounts a very reasonable timeframe. ADEM has said that it hopes to have a new air permit in place by July 1 and a new water permit by September 1.

Are you bored yet? Have your eyes glazed over? Are you not entertained?

Well, that’s kind of the point. This is pretty boring stuff. But it’s very necessary stuff. You see, Plant Barry is one of the state’s largest point sources of air and water pollution and the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act provide for citizen enforcement. Groups like Gasp and Sierra Club play a crucial role in making sure the agencies charged with implementing those laws are doing their jobs.

What is out of the ordinary, however, is for the Secretary of State to weigh in on a rote lawsuit over air permits, especially one involving the very executive branch of government he works for. His job, as a reminder, is to oversee free and fair elections in Alabama. We would all be better served if Merrill focused on protecting voting rights and ensuring safe and secure access to the ballot box.

The point is this: Don’t be fooled by John Merrill. He has no business inserting himself into lawsuits over environmental permits. His infamous online behavior may get him the attention he craves, but it is a distraction.

Gasp and Sierra Club are simply daring to defend every Alabamians’ right to healthy air to breathe and clean water to drink. There’s nothing radical about that.

If you agree that everyone deserves clean, healthy air to breathe, now would be a great time to support our work with a tax-deductible financial contribution. Click here to donate online.

Report: Exposure to Air Pollution May Make COVID-19 Deadlier

Report: Exposure to Air Pollution May Make COVID-19 Deadlier

Report: Exposure to Air Pollution May Make COVID-19 Deadlier

A new study suggests that people diagnosed with COVID-19 who are exposed to high levels of particle pollution, or PM 2.5,  are more likely to die from the disease. A team of researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health collected data from 3,080 counties in the United States, accounting for 98% of the nation’s population. Specifically, they found that “an increase of only 1 g/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”

That communities exposed to higher levels of air pollution are more vulnerable to the coronavirus should come as no surprise. Just like air pollution, COVID-19 significant impacts the body’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Individuals who breathe more air pollution are more likely to have the same pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death from the coronavirus.

“The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” the researchers said. “These findings align with the known relationship between PM2.5 exposure and many of the cardiovascular and respiratory comorbidities that dramatically increase the risk of death in COVID-19 patients.”

This research comes on the heels of Andrew Wheeler, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announcing what is in effect a moratorium on federal  enforcement of environmental policy. “This policy allows power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution,” Staff Attorney Haley Lewis wrote last week in a blog post.

“The results of this study also underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis,” researchers wrote. “Based on our result, we anticipate a failure to do so can potentially increase the COVID-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our healthcare system and drawing resources away from COVID-19 patients.”

We cannot let this public health and economic crisis become an excuse for lax enforcement of life-saving environmental protections. In fact, this pandemic is a reminder that environmental protections save lives. Now more than ever, the work of Gasp is vital to the long-term health of all Alabamians.

Victory: Alabama Power Agrees Not to Disconnect Service, Charge Late Fees During COVID-19

Victory: Alabama Power Agrees Not to Disconnect Service, Charge Late Fees During COVID-19

Victory: Alabama Power Agrees Not to Disconnect Service, Charge Late Fees During COVID-19

Energy Alabama and Gasp Appreciate Alabama Power’s Belabored Decision Not to Disconnect Service or Charge Late Fees During COVID-19 Crisis

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (March 19, 2020) — On Friday, March 13, Governor Kay Ivey declared a State of Emergency as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Alabama. That evening, in response to this crisis, Gasp and Energy Alabama called for Alabama Power, the largest utility in the state, to put a moratorium on service disconnections and late fees until at least May 1. By last weekend, most investor-owned utilities across the country had made meaningful moves to suspend shutoffs.

Unfortunately, Alabama Power was unwilling to issue a full-throated public statement or even a clear announcement on its website about its intentions. Language matters. Instead of decisive language, Alabama Power made ambiguous statements claiming they had “no plans” to disconnect service “for those impacted by COVID-19” and, later, “customers financially affected.” 

We continued to take the company to task this week. We wrote a letter to the Public Service Commission, along with 12 other organizations, asking it to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and the accrual of late fees for all regulated electric, gas, water, and telecommunication utilities for all customers. 

Yesterday, it appears Alabama Power agreed to the terms we set for the people of Alabama: no disconnections, no late fees. They published an article on their company-owned website, Alabama News Center, stating that “Alabama Power has pledged not to disconnect customers or charge late fees for those affected* by the COVID-19 crisis.”

This afternoon at 4:35 p.m. Central Daylight Time, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson posted to Twitter confirming that pledge and, perhaps, going even further. He said Alabama Power, Mobile Area Water & Sewer System, and Spire “will suspend all cutoffs of service for people who cannot pay their bills during #COVID19.”

It does appear that customers in jeopardy of missing a payment must still contact Alabama Power’s customer service line. On their company-owned news website, they say “customers that need our help to let us know by contacting Customer Service at alabamapower.com or 1-800-245-2244.” We still believe this is an unnecessary step and it should be removed.

We further believe Alabama Power should update its corporate website homepage to reflect the straightforward text of today’s announcement: that the company will not shut off any customers and will not charge any late fees until after the COVID-19 crisis.

This was never a political issue. Asking the largest utility company in the State of Alabama to be super clear about its intentions was and is justified to protect basic human needs during this pandemic. Calling for the Alabama Public Service Commission to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and late fees for ALL utilities (electric, water, sewer, telecommunication) under its jurisdiction  was and is essential to protect all Alabamians. 

Gasp and Energy Alabama are appreciative of the thousands of dedicated Alabama Power employees still going into work, day in and day out, to keep the lights on. The company would be better off if its C-suite were as reliable and clear-eyed as their workers.

*This is not just a public health crisis. It’s also an economic and social crisis. Everyone is affected.

13 Organizations Call for Alabama PSC to Halt Disconnections, Late Fees

13 Organizations Call for Alabama PSC to Halt Disconnections, Late Fees

13 Organizations Call for Alabama PSC to Halt Disconnections, Late Fees

Today, 13 organizations formally requested the Alabama Public Service Commission issue an emergency order to halt utility shutoffs and late fees for all customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yesterday, Alabama Power issued a statement that it “had no plans” to cut off service for “those impacted by COVID-19.” That’s not good enough. This is a matter of life and death for some people, especially those we serve. We have members with COPD, asthma, cancers, and heart disease — serious health conditions that are exacerbated by Alabama Power’s pollution.

Since last Friday, we have been asking Alabama Power to make an official statement that it is company policy not to disconnect any customer’s service during this public health and economic crisis and not to charge any late fees. Because their statements have been half-measures, we felt we needed to go one step further.

In this letter, we are asking the Alabama Public Service Commission to issue a decisive order suspending shutoffs and the accrual of late fees for all regulated electric, gas, water, and telecommunication utilities. 

Cutting off power in the midst of a global pandemic could be deadly. Folks aren’t online refreshing Alabama Power’s twitter feed to see what most recent tweak they’ve made to their statements. Our members certainly aren’t looking at the PSC website to see what Twinkle has said. They need across-the-board, decisive action. 

The co-signers of the letter are: Gasp, Energy Alabama, Alabama NAACP, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, Cahaba River Society, Faith in Action Alabama, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, and Birmingham Indivisible. 

Read our statement here: Letter-to-Alabama-Public-Service-Commission-to-Suspend-Shutoffs-and-Late-Fees