When winning is the beginning

The environment, for the most part, came out a winner in the recently concluded 2011 Regular Session of the Alabama State Legislature. But winning during this session is only the beginning.

This is particularly true for Forever Wild, the state land preservation program that was established in 1992 with support of 84 percent of Alabamians. With its expiration quickly approaching, the effort to renew the program for another 20 years is only beginning despite a tremendous victory this legislation session.

While an effort to extend the program legislatively stalled in the Senate due to Alfa’s desire to grab the limited funding for itself, the renewal effort was reborn as a constitutional amendment. Alfa and a vocal minority of opponents did not try to stop the constitutional amendment, and it sailed through both houses of the legislature with super majority support.

Now, the overwhelming majority of Alabamians who support Forever Wild must come out to the polls in November 2012 and cast their vote for extension of the program through 2032. Without a doubt, there will be robust campaigns from both Forever Wild supporters and opponents over the next 17 months to decide the fate of the program. In the end, as in the beginning, citizens will decide the future of Forever Wild, which was established in Alabama, by Alabamians, and for Alabamians.

Forever Wild received the most press this legislative session, but it was not the only legislative victory for the environment. The state passed legislation that will allow governmental entities to consider the entire life cycle costs of public works projects and other purchases, making it easier for public bodies to choose greener and cheaper options.

Governor Robert Bentley issued a moratorium on new landfill applications in February, and the legislature affirmed the moratorium by passing a similar bill in May.

Alabama has more than four times the capacity in its landfills than what citizens produce each day, yet more and more “mega” landfills are seeking a state permit to operate. Bentley and legislators hope over the next two years the state will study the issue and keep Alabama from becoming the nation’s dumping ground.

While landfills have been a long-standing issue of concern in Alabama, the disposal of coal ash came front and center after the spill in Kingston, TN in December 2008. That waste was shipped to an Alabama landfill, exposing the fact that the state is the only one in the country that does not regulate the disposal of coal ash.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) stepped in this session and passed legislation to regulate the disposal of coal ash as solid waste. EPA is expected to decide later this year whether to classify the disposal of coal ash as solid waste or as hazardous waste.

While these bills mark a solid beginning for the environment under the Republican-controlled legislature, the story this session isn’t all good for the environment. The League of Municipalities, with support from ADEM, passed a bill that would weaken ADEM’s enforcement power. For 40 years, state law required ADEM to assess a minimum of $100 per day per violation of pollution rules. While the agency rarely adhered to this law, the recently passed legislation dilutes ADEM’s enforcement power.

Also, resolutions encouraging more offshore drilling and encouraging Congress to block EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases passed resoundingly.

And then there were environment bills that didn’t make much progress this session. One was the complete streets bill to require ALDOT to design roads for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and motorists. A bill to change the qualifications of members of the Environmental Management Commission, the body that oversees ADEM, received little traction despite no known opposition.

While a Clean Water Task Force was established through resolution, the legislative committees on water and energy have not reconvened since the election last fall and neither put forth legislative agendas this session.

Again, attempts to loosen state law to allow for funding for transit couldn’t even get a hearing in committee. From 2005 to 2010, more than 750,000 rural Alabamians have seen reduced or eliminated transit service, leaving many disconnected from family, basic services, healthcare, and shopping.

This session marked many beginnings – for new leadership, new initiatives, and a statewide campaign to renew Forever Wild. It also marked the beginning of winning for the environment in the legislature.

However key issues such as energy, transportation, and water continue to be unaddressed. Only time will tell if we can see winning for the environment, Alabama citizens, and our economy on these issues as well.

Adam R. Snyder is executive director of Conservation Alabama, whose mission is to make sound environmental policy a political reality. He can be reached at asnyder@conservationalabama.org.


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