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Environmental Bills Take a Backseat to Budget Talks

AL Capitol DomeThis week, the Alabama State Senate began the process of trying to find a solution to the looming budget shortfall. Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) proposed a budget that would require no new tax revenue, but would slash funding to state agencies, including the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). While this budget is unlikely to be adopted as it is currently written, we will continue to watch this process to make sure our state can fund the essential tasks of environmental monitoring and enforcement.

Environmental legislation was not in focus this week, but there are two important hearings scheduled for next week’s session, both for bills supported by Conservation Alabama. On Wednesday, April 8, at 9am, the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security will hold a hearing on HB 61, which increases the penalties for violations of safety standards for hazardous liquid and gas pipelines. Introduced by Rep. Lynn Green (R-Rogersville), this bill ensures that Alabama’s penalties match existing federal standards.

At 3pm on Wednesday, the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry will hold a hearing on SB 260/HB 283, the Healthy Food Financing Act, which passed out of the Senate by a vote of 31-2. This bill is designed to address the problem of “food deserts” in both urban and rural communities where access to fresh food is limited. It creates a program for the state to use grants and loans as incentives for grocery stores to build new stores in markets that are currently underserved. Voices for Alabama’s Children, a non-profit organization that advocates for children’s issues, is supporting this bill, which was introduced by Sen. Greg Reed (R-Jasper) in the Senate and Rep. James Buskey (D-Mobile) in the House.

These hearings are opportunities to engage with elected officials and hear more about the bills in question. If you’re interested in attending a hearing this week or in the future, please feel free to contact us with questions. As always, for more information about the environmental bills being debated by the state legislature, visit our Bill Tracker or sign up to receive the weekly Hot List email.

Nearing the Finish Line

ImageLast week was quiet in Montgomery as legislators took their spring break, but this week we are back in full swing with a packed agenda. The current schedule is for legislators to meet Tuesday and Thursday of this week and wrap up next Monday. With only a few days left to pass legislation, we can expect a flurry of activity, including movement of many conservation related bills.

 

First up this week, Senate Bill 9 goes before the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security Tuesday at noon. As part of an effort to make our streets friendlier for bicycles, SB9 proposes a safe passing distance of at least three feet for vehicles overtaking bicycles. Conservation Alabama supports this bill as part of our “Complete Streets” policies, which maintains that transportation should accommodate the needs of all users. If the bill passes through committee, it could pass in one of the two final days of this legislative session. Before the break last week, Senator Ward of Birmingham also introduced statewide resolutions that would include Complete Streets planning policies for the state.

 

Another positive bill for conservation with the potential to pass is House Bill 292, dealing with solid waste landfills and how they are approved. HB292 would eliminate the automatic approval process that currently exists when municipalities do not respond to permits for landfills, and instead replaces it with an automatic denial after 120 days. This change in the permit approval process also requires applicants to provide fact-based information supporting their proposal.

 

SB355, a bill that restricts local governments’ ability to control pollution into nearby waterways is also moving quickly. As it stands right now, this bill that compromises our water quality could pass this week. Water protection groups throughout the state have sent action alerts this week asking members to contact their legislators. To contact your Representative and ask them to vote no on this bill, visit our action center.

 

Last up on our watch list is SB12, the wind bill, which may come up for vote on Tuesday. Two local bills regulating wind energy in Etowah and Cherokee counties have already passed, and several wind companies are now pushing for this statewide bill to supersede the local bills. Conservation Alabama has proposed an amendment that includes language for both land based and offshore protections in wildlife corridors in addition to the changes already made to the bill.

Wind Bill Passes Senate

ImageLast week SB12 passed the Senate with a vote of 24-6.  As we mentioned last week, the substitute bill that passed included several positive changes. The original bill required strict ordinances for noise (limited to 40 decibels at property’s edge) and distance (2500 feet) from neighboring properties.  The bill in its final version requires noise levels be limited to 50 decibels, and the setback is now based on the height of the system, 5x the height of the system from its center to the edge of the residential or commercial building.  Neighboring properties are also allowed in this bill to waive those setbacks.  Also of note is that Cleburne County is exempted from the bill’s provisions.

While these requirements are still higher than most neighboring states, Conservation Alabama was pleased with the progress that was made in the bill’s amendments.  In its original form, SB12 would have prevented wind power in the state of Alabama.  With the amendments presented, many wind companies say they can enter Alabama to provide clean, sustainable wind energy to the region.  The bill will now go to the House, and Conservation Alabama will request that provisions also be added for wildlife protections where bird and other wildlife habitat could be at risk.

In addition to the passing of SB12, two local bills were introduced last week to regulate Wind Energy Conversion Systems in Etowah and Cherokee Counties.  SB402 and SB403, both introduced by Senator Williams, require similar restrictions to SB12 in its original form, including noise levels no higher than 40 decibels and setbacks of 2500 feet.   If passed, these bills would basically mean no wind power would be possible in these two counties.

HB475, a bill that would restrict local governments’ ability to control pollution into nearby waterways, made its way to the House Commerce Committee last week and could now make its way to the House floor for a vote. Conservation Alabama recently sent an action alert on behalf of Alabama Rivers Alliance and the Alabama Stormwater Partnership to oppose this bill.  Please visit our action page to ask your Representative to vote NO on HB475.

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