Cleaner state waters – Huntsville Times 12/20/07

Cleaner state waters – Huntsville Times 12/20/07

ADEM’s overseeing board moves in the right direction

A question: When was the last time Alabama lost out on an economic-development project because an industry found the state’s environmental regulations too strict?

While you’re thinking about that (it may take some time), there are positive developments to report from the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, the environmental rule-making body for the state and the overseer of the often-maligned Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Last week, on a resounding 4-1 vote, the commission decided to begin a rule-making process to change the standards for carcinogen levels in Alabama’s rivers and streams. The present standard allows one part in 100,000. The proposed change would impose a standard of one part per million. That’s an improvement by a factor of 10.

The change had long been sought by environmentalists and some public health advocates.

Making the motion for the change was a Huntsvillian, Dr. Kathleen Felker, who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Bob Riley in 2006. Felker said the stricter standard would move the state into line with most other states and that the rule is not likely to impose a economic burden on businesses or industries.

As a physician, Felker brings credibility to both the issue and the new standard. Since she was appointed to the body, she has worked diligently but carefully within the system to bring the reforms that are needed.

More than 50 cancer-causing substances would be affected by the rule change. One exception would be for arsenic, but Alabama’s arsenic levels are already well below those in most other states.

What remains to be done? Last week’s vote is not the last word. The commission still must have a public-comment period, a public hearing and a final vote. Even so, the commission’s 4-1 margin bodes well.

The commission’s action was hailed by the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Conservation Alabama, the Bama Environmental News and WildLaw, all of which have criticized the agency in the past.

Opposition remains

Lest anyone think the rule change, if it becomes final, would be without substance should note that opposition remains strong. Those who argued against the change included Alabama Power, the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama Coal Association and the Alabama Pulp and Paper Council. It remains to be seen if those industries can show why in the Southeast only Tennessee and Alabama have such a permissive carcinogen standard.

Although Felker and others noted that the change itself would not necessarily lower the cancer rate in Alabama, anything to make the state’s waters cleaner is a step in the right direction. In recent years, Alabama has gained enormously from the influx of new industries and other economic development. The resulting prosperity makes it both easier and more desirable to protect the state’s natural resources and the health of its citizens. And it’s a message we need to send to the nation.

Go back to the question we posed at the top of this editorial. When was the last time an industry found the state’s environmental standards too strict? We can’t think of one, which makes the environmental commission’s tentative decision all the more necessary.

By John Ehinger, for the editorial board. E-mail:

© 2007 The Huntsville Times

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