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.


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In asking ADEM to officially renew these outdated permits, we argue that ADEM must ensure they comply with current pollution limitations, which have been updated since the permits were last issued and since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.

Help for Coal Impacted Communities: Congress, Don’t Come Home Without It

Help for Coal Impacted Communities: Congress, Don’t Come Home Without It

Help for Coal Impacted Communities: Congress, Don’t Come Home Without It

Stephen Stetson

Stephen Stetson is Senior Campaign Representative for the Alabama Beyond Campaign of the Sierra Club. Email Stephen

Michael Hansen

Michael Hansen is the executive director of Gasp, a healthy air advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Email Michael

There’s been a lot of talk about Alabama’s recent Senate election, but it’s now time to turn an end-of-year eye to what Congress can do before 2018 is upon us. It’s time to pass the RECLAIM Act. It can happen before the end of the year with just a little direction and focus from the folks in D.C.

The RECLAIM Act is a piece of federal legislation addressing the legacy of America’s coal industry, and it has been stalled since passing the House Committee on Natural Resources in June by a wide margin. It’s hard to understand why it hasn’t moved. The RECLAIM Act has 40 bipartisan House cosponsors, bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, and favorable reviews from coal-impacted communities in states with historic coal mining. We need Rep. Terri Sewell to step up and help Congressional leadership get this bill passed this year, and time is running out.

The RECLAIM Act is a powerful step toward revitalizing communities hit hardest by the coal industry’s downturn. The bill commits $1 billion to projects that clean up abandoned coalmines, and waters polluted by them. It lays a foundation for future economic development and diversification in coal-impacted communities, and prioritizes public input and community participation on which projects are chosen and how they are run.

RECLAIM is a major opportunity for areas of Alabama that have historically depended on the coal industry for good jobs and economic stability to rebuild themselves by creating new, local economic opportunities. Let’s be honest: RECLAIM isn’t a cure-all for the parts of Alabama that have been hit hardest by America’s shift away from coal. However, it is a strong answer to the call for more opportunities in coal-impacted communities and can be a guiding light for future policies to help rebuild.

Our organizations, GASP and Sierra Club, have been working hard to shine a light on the effects of the coal economy across Alabama. We support jobs and economic development, but are also aware of the costs to our health and our land presented by the extractive process of mining. Alabama has an opportunity to make something positive out of the mining sites across our state.

In other parts of the country, abandoned mines have already been leveraged to create jobs in agriculture, recreational tourism, retail, and even renewable energy production through sustained revitalization efforts. But funding has frequently been hard to come by. Bringing more of these opportunities to former coal mining areas across the country can be a boon to local workers and their families looking for jobs.

The funding supplied through RECLAIM isn’t just about cleaning up abandoned mining sites, it’s also about rebuilding communities to be stronger and more resilient in a changing economic landscape through planning and strategies that invest in local assets, workers and businesses, and create shared benefits. What’s needed in these communities is real economic diversity and opportunities that extend beyond coal mining with good family-sustaining wages and gainful benefits.

The RECLAIM Act represents an exciting opportunity to create jobs, empower local communities, and build long-term economic security for working families in communities where coal has historically been the backbone of the local economy. There’s no reason for it to be sitting idle in the U.S. House of Representatives, when it could be easily passed on its merits alone.

We need Rep. Sewell to step up and work with Congressional leaders to get this bill moving before the holidays. They shouldn’t return to their home districts without a signed law.

This essay was originally submitted to as an op-ed.

Show Your Support for the RECLAIM Act

The bipartisan RECLAIM Act would bring $1 billion back to coal-impacted communities. This legislation is a major opportunity for areas of Alabama that have historically depended on the coal industry for good jobs and economic stability to rebuild themselves by creating new, local economic opportunities. Send a personalized letter to your senators and representative saying you support passage of the RECLAIM Act.

President Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement

President Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement

Below is a statement from Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement:

“Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement jeopardizes our role in the world as leaders on climate action. Global problems demand global solutions — and we cannot go it alone. Climate change is real, and it is a health issue that we cannot simply ignore.

“In Alabama this is especially perilous. We have no comprehensive plans in place to mitigate climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies. We barely fund state agencies like ADEM — the lowest funding level per capita in the entire nation. As a result, climate solutions in Alabama are virtually non-existent.

“We lag behind other states in clean energy jobs despite ample land and abundant free fuel (namely, the sun). We rank at the bottom in energy efficiency, resulting in the highest utility bills in the country as a portion of income, which impacts poor and fixed-income households the hardest. Alabama lacks adequate water management policies in the event of droughts. Our infrastructure is not ready to handle extreme weather events, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.

“Former Attorney General Luther Strange literally sued the EPA over climate regulations. That is what we’re up against in Alabama. We are woefully unprepared to deal with the health and environmental impacts of climate change. It is now on us to demand better policies from the our elected officials and agencies.

“Call your mayor and city council and ask them to pass 100% renewable energy standards. Call the PSC and tell them to rescind the regressive solar ‘tax. Call your state legislators and demand responsible action on climate change. There is no Planet B, so we must take action and fight for change.”


Guest Post: Science Education as a Civil Right

Below is the text of a speech given by Kathryn Drago at the “Shelby, show up for science” march April 21. Ms. Drago is a science educator and curriculum developer. She has all but defended her Ph.D. in Science Education from University of Michigan and has M.A. in Research Methods from University of Michigan, an M.S. in Cancer Biology from Stanford University and a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


Central High School Falcons, University of Alabama Tide, citizens of West Alabama, look around you. At this Rally for Science, we have students and teachers; citizen scientists and research scientists, beginners and experts. And we’ve all come together today.

No matter how you identify, I have an important message for you. Every single person in this crowd deserves a high quality science education– that is a solid base of science understanding upon which we can build our careers, support our communities, and enjoy our lives. Exceptional science education is guaranteed to us because it is a civil right. It is no less important than the right to free speech or assembly.

I draw my inspiration for this idea from Bob Moses, the great civil rights activist. In the 1960’s, he registered Mississippi sharecroppers to vote. Later, in the 1980’s, he saw that students in his daughter’s school were not provided with the math instruction in eighth grade that they needed to qualify for honors level math in high school.

Bob Moses asked himself the question: Why do students need to study Algebra? The answer was that mathematical literacy set students up for entrance into college, higher paying jobs, and personal success. And so the Algebra Project was born. Its mission was to grow the math abilities of students who had traditionally been underserved and overlooked. Algebra Project alumni had more possibilities open to them. In that way, access to vote is no different from access to math.

The same is true for science education. It is a civil right, yet it is being denied for far too many youth. Let’s take Tuscaloosa for example. In 2016, 15% of 10th graders scored proficient on the standardized science exam. This statistic shows that we are squandering the talents of untold youth. But even worse, this number is an average. The hard truth is that 42% of White 10th graders scored proficient while only 6% of Black 10th graders did so. These numbers are shocking. But what is even more shocking is the cause of these disparities–segregation in schools, unequal distribution of resources, and uneven support for Black students taking advanced classes have caused this. Systemic racism has caused this.

Like Bob Moses did, we ask ourselves the question: Why do students require science education? The answer is that every student deserves access to the highest paying jobs in America. Black and brown students should grow up to be laboratory managers, computer scientists, and doctors making six figures. They are also the ones whose communities are hardest hit by lead in the drinking water, cement dust in the air, and severe storms brought on by climate change. They must be able to raise the alarm and devise the solutions to these human-made problems. And they too should be able to experience the wonder and joy that learning about and participating in science can bring.

Again, I say top notch science education is a civil right, and as such, the government guarantees each of us that right. Algebra Project founder Bob Moses said that it’s time for us to take responsibility for our government. Not that we are asking the government to do something for us, but that in the end, we are the government. And if we do not take responsibility for the government, it will take us to places we don’t want to go.

This administration is taking science education where none of us want to go. Here’s an example: the White House’s budget cut funding to NASA’s Office of Education from $115 million dollars to zero dollars. And what does that cut save? A half of a percent of NASA’s budget.

But what does this cut cost us? Space camp, curricula for teachers, and scholarships for young scientists. In particular, the Minority University Research and Education Project, which helps fund students seeking STEM degrees at historically black colleges and universities, will be eliminated. So, we have a local system that has not provided equitable science learning opportunities, and our federal government has taken away some of the few precious programs that tried to equalize the playing field. This is a disgrace and a shame.

In the absence of elected leadership, let us be our own government. We will take science education where we want it to go. I’m going to challenge us to achieve three goals to that end.

First, let’s educate ourselves about science education. Investigate your area schools. Don’t be satisfied by averages–dig deep into the disparities. Then, give your time, talent, or treasure. If you have time, volunteer. If you have scientific talent, offer your expertise. If you have treasure, improve the school’s material resources.

Second, fight science education injustice whenever you find it. As a student, demand that you be placed in advanced classes, and then ask for the help you need to succeed there. Adults, stand with teachers in receiving the salary they deserve. Reject legislation that increases funding and zoning inequalities in schools.

Third, never give up on science learning. Don’t pay attention to what anyone has told you that you should do. Go to events you wouldn’t normally attend. Stop by a science demonstration at a tailgate. Watch a Nature TV show. Be curious, try things out, take risks. You can be your own science educator. Science education is your civil right, and you deserve it. Thank you all.


The “Shelby, Show Up for Science!” march in Tuscaloosa was organized by the Kudzu Coalition of West Alabama. They describe themselves as “a collection of progressive voices committed to transforming our community through collaborative, direct action.” Check them out on Facebook.

Guest Post: The Importance of Science

Below is the text of a speech given by Dr. Patrick R. LeClair at the “Shelby, show up for science” march April 21. Dr. LeClair is a professor of physics at the University of Alabama. He has a B.S. in Materials Science from MIT and a Ph.D. in Physics from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.



I first want to say that Senator Shelby has been very good for science at UA. You can see that from the beautiful science and engineering quad you marched from, right in front of Shelby Hall. And we are grateful. But right now, science is in trouble, and we need Shelby to stand up for us.

As soon as I say the words “science” or “scientist”, you already have an image in your head. Most likely that image involves a lab coat. What I want to convey to you is that science is far more than what happens in a lab, or what scientists do. And it is even more important than the fact that science has driven our remarkable technological development, and is therefore has some intrinsic value. Those aren’t bad arguments, but they are small arguments, and they undersell science. As important as technological progress has been, it is a minor side effect of science. What I want to convey to you is that science is a process, a way of looking at the world, one that is more valuable than the widgets it produces (as valuable as those widgets are).

The primary importance of science, as I see it, is in constructing an appropriate view of the world, one that is fair and based on evidence. The idea behind science is that we try to explain our observations of the world in the simplest way possible, and we try to be totally objective about it. Our observations must be dispassionate and impartial, scientists don’t play favorites. To do otherwise? You’re not objective!

Science requires an open mind, and, crucially, the ability to change your mind. If your ideology does not allow this, you are against science, and against all of the amazing advances science has provided. This leads to the problem we have with attempts to politicize science, for example, climate change. As soon you tie your beliefs about science to your political beliefs, you’re not really doing science anymore, because you’ve ceased to be objective about the outcome. Taking a side before the evidence is in is antithetical to science. It then goes without saying that, no, science cannot be politicized. As soon as you politicize it, it ceases to be science.

Science is an essential honesty about how you approach the world. It is a contract you make with yourself, which says that you will compare your beliefs with empirical evidence whenever possible. If you have solid evidence that repeatedly contradicts your beliefs, the contract says that you have to reconsider your beliefs. Observations of reality outweigh what you want to be true. And reality is harsh. Think about that for a second: when is the last time you changed one of your core beliefs? It is hard! And that’s what we’re asking ourselves to do all the time. More to the point: what common popular beliefs are at this point thoroughly discredited? Climate change is real. Vaccines do not cause autism. These are facts, and they are true whether you believe them or not. Full stop.

I should say that this is not just about science funding, though of course that is bleak at the moment. The attempted travel ban had real and chilling consequences on science programs. I had to tell some of our brightest and most productive students they cannot go home to see their families, because the might not be allowed back. Why would any new students from these countries want to come now?

As for science funding, these are dark and uncertain times. When you hear the president wants to cut the DOE budget severely, you’re probably thinking this is about de-regulating fossil fuel production or something. Well, DOE provides an enormous amount of research funding. They supply a huge fraction of our department’s research funding. That’s just one example, all the other science agencies are in similar trouble. The broad agency cuts are being made by people who only dimly understand what those agencies do, let alone what the scientists they fund do. I think Shelby does know what these agencies do very well, and we need him to show up and stand up for us. As Matt Taibbi from Rolling stone put it, “The Republicans understand this axiom: No politician in the Trump era is going to dive in a foxhole to save scientific research.” Well, unfortunately that’s where we are: someone is going to have to dive into a foxhole if the US wants to continue being a world leader in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And this costs money.

It costs money, but we need to keep in mind science is not a business any more than the government is. Return on investment is hard to define let alone measure. Microwave ovens came about as an accidental discovery during RADAR research. The sensor in your hard disk is the result of esoteric low temperature physics research. No one paying for that research had any idea that’s what they would get out of it, and no one at the time had any inkling to look for those outcomes in the first place. Of course there should be scrutiny, and scientific proposals should have a stated objective and outcome, but there has to be room for the unexpected. That’s the whole point: we do science because we seek to understand something, and I can tell you that 90% of our initial ideas are wrong. But it works because of the essential honesty of science, that even when our beliefs are wrong, we follow where the evidence takes us. Even when our beliefs are wrong, by seeking the truth we learn something. It is big risk, big reward in many ways. We lose more often than we win, but when we win, we can win big. And in Tuscaloosa, we are accustom to winning.


The “Shelby, Show Up for Science!” march in Tuscaloosa was organized by the Kudzu Coalition of West Alabama. They describe themselves as “a collection of progressive voices committed to transforming our community through collaborative, direct action.” Check them out on Facebook.


Do Air Pollution Protections Kill Jobs? Not Exactly.

Do Air Pollution Protections Kill Jobs? Not Exactly.

If you’re like me, you try to stay as informed as possible about current events, trends, and research. I think it’s important to know what’s going on and why so I can contribute positively to my community.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about rolling back regulations. This isn’t new, by any means. But there has been an increase in this rhetoric (and legislation) in the past couple of years.)

President Trump recently signed an executive order creating a task force to identify so-called “job-killing regulations” to get rid of under the pretense of bolstering the economy. The Environmental Protection Agency seems to be the prime target for regulatory rollback.

Reports are changing daily, but based on most recent headlines the White House appears poised to call for slashing the EPA’s budget by over 31 percent — which would require dismantling environmental regulations and laying off staff. As a clean air advocacy organization, we’re keenly aware of what’s going on in Washington and how it may affect Alabama.

The Clean Air Act is widely regarded one of the greatest policy success stories of all time. It prevents hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year. Emissions have plummeted since the 1960s. And yet the U.S. economy has grown rapidly since then, too. So what’s the truth?

In the land of partisan politics, the “job-killing regulations” talking point is simply accepted at face value. But is it true?

The Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU released a policy brief last month asking this very question. Their answer: “Regulations have little effect on aggregate employment or unemployment rates.” Others have come to the exact same conclusion for a while.

Drilling down further, they found that regulations, at worst, move jobs from one sector to another. An example of this might be coal jobs. It’s been widely reported that the coal sector has struggled for the past decade. This has happened for a number of reasons: the proliferation of cheap natural gas, tighter air standards, and competition from the renewable energy sector chief among them. In other words, where mining or air emissions regulations may stunt growth in the coal sector, the net effect is a shift to other, more viable sectors (e.g., clean energy jobs like solar manufacturing and installation.)

Additionally, the authors of the brief pointed out one key factor that we cannot overlook when evaluating policy: public health benefits. “The health benefits of an environmental rule, such as avoiding early mortality, are normally much larger than either the costs for industries to comply with the rule or the potential job impacts.”

Regulations are designed to improve our society. One way they can do that is by targeting activities that harm public health. Pollution harms public health. That is a scientific fact. There may be better ways of enforcing standards, and those are worth discussing and implementing if they’re viable. I’m all ears and willing to work with anyone. But it is simply untrue that regulations like the Clean Air Act are hurting our economy.

Unraveling environmental protections without at least considering alternatives is not about jobs. It’s about politics and profits. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.