Gasp, Environmental Defense Alliance Allege Alabama Officials Violated Open Records Act

Gasp, Environmental Defense Alliance Allege Alabama Officials Violated Open Records Act

Gasp, Environmental Defense Alliance Allege Alabama Officials Violated Open Records Act

Complaints stem from federal corruption case related to the North Birmingham Superfund Site

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Gasp and the Environmental Defense Alliance today filed joint complaints against Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) Director Lance LeFleur, Environmental Management Commissioner (EMC) Lanier Brown, and Attorney General (AG) Steve Marshall.

The complaints allege that LeFleur, Brown, and Marshall violated the Alabama Open Records Act by knowingly and without authority withholding public records lawfully requested by the organizations pertaining to the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in the North Birmingham community (35th Avenue Site).

The two organizations requested various records from LeFleur, Brown, and Marshall before, during, and after the 2018 federal trial of former Drummond Company executive David Roberson and former Balch & Bingham partner Joel Gilbert, both of whom were found guilty of multiple corruption charges.

In 2013, Drummond was identified as a “potentially responsible party” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for contamination in the 35th Avenue Site. In 2014, the EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue Site to the National Priorities List and began investigating potential contamination in the Tarrant and Inglenook communities. Together with Balch & Bingham, Drummond sought to influence public officials — including LeFleur, Brown, and then-AG Luther Strange — to oppose the EPA’s cleanup activities.

“LeFleur, Brown, and Marshall declined to disclose many governmental records that EDA and Gasp believe should be made public,” said EDA attorney David Ludder.  “These records may reveal new evidence of collusion between State government officials and Drummond or its agents to protect Drummond’s wealth at the expense of the community’s health,” Ludder said.

“Gasp has for years been working to ensure that air pollution in the area is reduced and that any cleanup includes long-term remediation that benefits the residents of the impacted neighborhoods,” said Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen. “To that end, we have tried to use every tool in the toolbelt, including the Open Records Act, to make sure residents get a fair shake. Alabamians deserve a government that works to protect them and not wealthy special interests.”

For more information, contact Michael Hansen, ([email protected]) or David Ludder ([email protected]).

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Gasp’s mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the Greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. gaspgroup.org

The Environmental Defense Alliance strategically uses law and policy to protect human health and the environment. environmentaldefensealliance.org

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.

The Science Behind Satellite-Based Air Quality Monitoring

The Science Behind Satellite-Based Air Quality Monitoring

The Science Behind Satellite-Based Air Quality Monitoring

By Ben Moose, Gasp Spring Intern

In my last blog post, I provided an overview of the concept, methods, advantages, and disadvantages of remote atmospheric monitoring. In this post, I will describe, in more detail, the techniques satellites use to detect air quality – how instruments can measure the concentration of gases and pollutants remotely. I will focus specifically on the TROPOMI device to illustrate the capabilities and recent advancements in the field, as it is one of the newest and most effective devices for air quality measurements.

How does TROPOMI measure pollutants?

As noted in my last post, TROPOMI allows beams of light reflected off of the atmosphere to enter the device. Instruments in the device then determine the wavelength of the measured light using wavelength detectors. As different gases in the atmosphere absorb light at different wavelengths, TROPOMI can determine the concentration of different gases in the atmosphere by comparing the wavelengths of reflected light to sunlight. For example, ozone absorbs light energy at wavelengths of approximately 500 – 700 nanometers. TROPOMI compares a sample of light directly from the sun to a sample of light reflected through the atmosphere, and the difference in light energy at wavelengths of 500 – 700 nanometers illustrates the concentration of ozone in the atmosphere. This process is called spectrometry, and the instrument used in TROPOMI is a multispectral imaging spectrometer, as it can detect a variety of wavelengths of light across different spectrums.

Why is TROPOMI so useful compared to other satellites?

Range of measurement: TROPOMI, unlike other satellites used to detect air quality, can measure wavelengths in multiple different spectrums. Specifically, the device can detect wavelengths in the ultraviolet, visible, near-infrared, and short-wave infrared spectrums. TROPOMI’s access to a variety of different wavelengths allows it to simultaneously detect multiple gases that absorb different wavelengths of light, allowing the device to measure a wide range of pollutants and indicators of air quality that other devices cannot measure. The image on the right illustrates TROPOMI’s measurement capabilities.

The bands of wavelengths at which different gases or pollutants absorb light energy are visualized with white bands on the chart, and the measurement abilities of different satellites are included at the top and bottom of the image. As shown in the chart, TROPOMI can detect substances in the atmosphere that absorb light at wavelengths of approximately 250-500 nm, 700-800 nm, and in a narrow band above 2000 nm.

Accuracy and resolution:  As the above visualization of the satellite ranges illustrates, other devices such as SCIAMACHY and GOME have very large ranges of wavelength detection, allowing these satellites to measure more indicators than TROPOMI. However, the main factor setting these devices apart is the resolution. While TROPOMI can measure pollutants and gases at a 7.0 km x 3 km resolution for most scans, SCIAMACHY’s resolution, for example, is about 200 km x 30 km. This huge difference in resolution allows the newer TROPOMI device to more accurately measure air quality with local measurements, despite its lack of ability to measure some air quality indicators. The visualization below illustrates the  resolution of the four satellites included in the above chart, centered around the Amsterdam area.

 

Useful additional resources

This World Meteorological Organization site provides information about the different measurement capabilities of the TROPOMI device, as well as other satellite devices. It includes a list of different air quality and atmospheric indicators (gases, pollutants) and the satellite’s  effectiveness at measuring each one, along with the measurement method. 

This page of the Delft University of Technology’s website outlines the benefits of TROPOMI when compared to other satellites, and is the source of the images used in this post.

 

EPA Rolls Back Standards for Mercury Pollution from Coal- and Oil-Fired Power Plants

EPA Rolls Back Standards for Mercury Pollution from Coal- and Oil-Fired Power Plants

EPA Rolls Back Standards for Mercury Pollution from Coal- and Oil-Fired Power Plants

On April 16, 2020, in keeping with its deregulatory agenda, EPA finalized the supplemental cost finding and Risk and Technology review for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were finalized in 2012. Put simply, while EPA is downplaying the significance of weakening MATS, there are several ways in which this is incredibly concerning for our health and environment.

First, just a refresher on MATS: the rule was finalized in 2012, and the EPA under the Obama administration found that it was “appropriate and necessary” (also called the “A&N finding”) to tally benefits of reducing mercury pollution and co-benefits of reducing sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter and other pollutants. The analysis also included benefits to health in dollar amounts. For example, driving down mercury emissions alone would yield a $6 million dollar annual benefit. This was increased to an $80 billon benefit over five years when factoring in gains in avoided heart disease, asthma attacks and other health problems.

Then EPA lost a legal challenge on MATS in 2015, when in Michigan v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court found that EPA was also required to consider costs when determining whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), also known as air toxics, from power plants. If you’re interested in reading more about the court challenges to MATS in the past, you can read older blog posts here.

It’s worth noting that the now-bankrupt Murray Energy CEO, Robert Murray, who is also a major fundraiser for President Trump, personally requested that MATS be rolled back in a “wish list” submitted to top Trump officials shortly after Trump took office. So, amid a pandemic, Trump’s EPA decided to deliver on this request.

EPA says all their rollback amounts to is “correcting the previous Administration’s flawed cost finding in the original rule.” They then go on to downplay mercury emissions for the U.S., while at the same time stating that EPA has determined it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAP emissions from power plants under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act. Under the Residual Risk and Technology Review, EPA found that HAP emissions have been reduced such that residual risk is at acceptable levels, and made no changes to MATS.

What does all of this actually amount to? First, co-benefits are no longer calculated with the abandonment of the A&N finding. Where power plants have already complied with MATS, some might shrug their shoulders. However, as is often the case in this Administration, if you look only at the smoke and show, and not behind the curtain, you might miss the real problem. The real issue here is that by abandoning the “appropriate and necessary” finding for MATS, the door has been open for the fossil fuel industry to justify no or very weak regulations for any pollutant because it is “too costly.”

Finally, since MATS became final, it drastically reduced mercury and other air toxics, which are linked to respiratory issues, heart disease and cancer. MATS is credited with saving as many as 11,000 lives a year. During a health crisis (a PANDEMIC), especially where heart disease and respiratory issues are co-morbidities for COVID-19, and exposure to air pollution also increases risk of death from COVID-19, it is unconscionable that EPA would weaken MATS and abandon the A&N finding.

My Approach to Handling the COVID-19 Crisis

My Approach to Handling the COVID-19 Crisis

My Approach to Handling the COVID-19 Crisis

It has been a little over a month since I worked in the Gasp office. Like many of you, I am yearning to know when we will resume being in one another’s physical presence. Meanwhile, the Gasp staff is adjusting because our work continues. If you haven’t already, check out Earth Month 2020: Rising Tide for Climate Justice on Facebook and recent blog posts on our website.

It is interesting to read about what others are doing during these unprecedented times. Here is a glimpse into what my month has been like (outside of work) and how I’m coping with this new normal.

Practice Gratitude

To me, the most important variable dictating how you navigate this stressful pandemic is whether or not you can provide for yourself and your family. My husband and I have not lost our jobs. We come from a privileged background. We can provide for our kids. For this, I am grateful. Soon after I had my first child (who is now 18) and became a stay-at-home mom, a dear friend gifted me the book, A Simple Abundance. It changed my life. Since reading it, I have drawn on the principle of gratitude when I think I’m having a bad day, or living through a pandemic.

Cooking

It is helpful that I enjoy cooking given that our 16 and 18 year old boys are home 24/7 now. Developing and executing a meal plan for our house (a task I willfully reign over) is my third part-time job. Given that our 6’5″, 18 year old (temporarily home from college) is an intense exerciser, he is consuming a vast amount of calories daily, adding to the challenge. At times, meal preparation, and all that accompanies it, does take on a chore-like feeling. However, having an appreciation for both the food itself and cooking for my kid who has been gone for the past 9 months, brings me joy.

Walking

I am continuing my daily practice of walking. After a cup of coffee early in the morning, I walk our dog about 2-3 miles. I don’t listen to anything except the morning birds and try to keep my mind clear. (I say try because it’s not always easy!) These walks are a form of meditation for me. Check out the science behind the mental health benefits of exercise.

Gardening

Exerting energy and keeping my hands busy (other than on a keyboard) brings some peace. I have enjoyed tending to a vegetable and herb garden since my late grandmother-in-law taught me how to garden after my husband and I bought our first house in 1996. Typically, I end up putting plants in the ground around the end of April, but was inspired to plant seeds this year in early March (thanks to my sister-in-law for sharing seeds), right before the pandemic hit. The Seeds of Sovereignty campaign serves as an inspiration — I hope you’ll check it out!

Sewing

Due to how shockingly unprepared our country was for this pandemic, the need for PPE (personal protective equipment) has become painfully obvious. A group of amazing local women formed a Facebook group called Bham Face Masks.

They’re encouraging sewers of all levels to jump in and fill the gap. They provide videos, technical tips and endless support. They’re even working with the Jefferson County Department of Health to provide masks to health care providers across the county. They inspired me to dust off my sewing machine.

After troubleshooting thread nests and poorly wound bobbins I finally started making masks. Listening to the humming of the machine, ironing a crisp double hem, and knowing that my finished product might help someone, is extremely satisfying. 

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.