CA Op-ed: EMC should vote to reduce cancer risks

Conservation Alabama Executive Director Adam Snyder drafted this opinion piece for multiple newspapers around the state. Please come to ADEM headquarters (1400 Coliseum Blvd in Montgomery) at 10 a.m. June 29 for a press conference and 11 a.m. for the EMC. The vote on reducing the risk of cancer in Alabama will finally be taking place. Thanks for all your hard work writing letters to the newspapers and commission, highlighting the need to reduce cancer risk for all Alabamians.

EMC should vote to reduce cancer risks

By Adam Snyder

“Both our parents have cancer.”

That statement hadn’t quite sunk in in early February when my brother and I had lunch together, as we began to realize the truth that stared us both in the face. Our mother, who has lived much of her life in Alabama, had been diagnosed with breast cancer the week before.

Our mother’s diagnosis was hard enough to take on its own, but add it to the fact that our family has been dealing with the emotional and physical drain of cancer since 1999, it was almost unbearable. That year, our father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – his being an incurable form of the disease. My father has had three rounds of chemotherapy in the last eight years to try to keep the cancer under control

Many types of cancer, including the two my parents have, can be traced to 58 harmful chemicals that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined to be cancer-causing. In Alabama, cancer-causing chemicals are emitted from nearly 500 permitted outfalls into our rivers and streams. These chemicals, from arsenic to chloroform to PCB’s, are allowed to be discharged into streams at such high levels that the permissible risk of getting cancer in Alabama is the among the highest in the nation.

That is why a group of 18 environmental and citizen organizations, including the Alabama Rivers Alliance and Conservation Alabama, formally petitioned Alabama’s state environmental agency to seek a cancer risk level that is more protective of human health. On Friday, June 29, the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) will vote either to support more protection from cancer in Alabama or maintain the status quo.

While the goal to reduce Alabamians’ risk of getting cancer is simple and straight forward, the industries that pollute these cancer-causing chemicals into Alabama’s rivers are muddying the waters. The Business Council of Alabama and the Alabama Coal Association oppose the changes primarily because they claim the new standards will cut into their members’ profits.

Unfortunately, some members of the EMC, the board that oversees the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), are choosing industrial interests over the health of the public in Alabama. A subcommittee of the Commission voted 2-0 on June 1 to deny the request and pass it off to a yet-to-be-formed committee for further study at taxpayer expense.

However, federal and state law does not permit the EMC to determine water quality standards based upon economic impact. Those standards must be based on science and policy related to water and public health. Additionally, a lengthy and costly study committee can not change the facts that we already know:

– Alabama is sixth in the country in cancer mortality rate
– In 2005 alone, nearly 10,000 Alabamians died from cancer.
– More than 85 percent of the criteria for cancer-causing chemicals in Alabama are less protective than those of surrounding states.
– All but Tennessee in the Southeast and the majority of the states in the country, representing nearly two-thirds of the nation’s population, enjoy cancer risk levels that are more protective than Alabama’s level.
– Alabama cancer risk is at the least protective level that EPA deems permissible.

Although the financial impact to industry cannot be considered when developing the cancer risk criteria, individual industries that can demonstrate a “substantial” economic impact can seek a short-term variance from the criteria. This provision allows for the highest possible public health standards while giving industries the time necessary to comply with the more protective cancer risk levels. It’s a win-win situation for all interested in reducing the risk of cancer in Alabama.

The time is now for members of the EMC to step up and do the right thing for the health of Alabamians. Commissioners have asked not to be judged by the actions of past commissions as they claim this is a new day for new leadership at ADEM. Indeed, five of the seven commissioners on the EMC have been appointed by Governor Bob Riley in the last eighteen months.

A vote Friday to reduce the risk of cancer will go a long way in restoring the faith of the public in this agency and set this commission apart from all those that have preceded it. However, anything less – a “no” vote or an unnecessary study committee – will be nothing more than business as usual at ADEM.

As my family, and any family who has been hit with cancer, can tell you – every moment is precious. We have no time to waste to do whatever we can to reduce the risk of cancer for every Alabamian.

You can learn more about the cancer risk petition by visiting the Law Office of David A. Ludder, developer of the cancer-risk petition, at

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