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Farewell to Claire!

Editor’s Note: Conservation Alabama thanks Claire Guest for her service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She left us a blog post on her experience with the organization, what she learned from living in Birmingham, and her future plans. Best wishes, Claire!

Almost a year ago, I signed a contract with AmeriCorps and the YWCA to serve as a Programs and Outreach Assistant with Conservation Alabama and the Conservation Alabama Foundation. On August 8th, I officially finished my year of service with Conservation Alabama. It is hard to believe my time here has come to an end. Before this experience I knew little about the social and environmental issues that affect Alabamians. I had spent the last six years earning my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Tuscaloosa and then Pennsylvania. Academic study, despite its obvious merits, created a veil between myself and what I perceived to be the “real world.” One of the greatest gifts AmeriCorps and Conservation Alabama has given me over the past year is the total dissolution of that veil.

Though Conservation Alabama advocates for sound environmental public policies at the state and local levels, much of my service focused specifically on the city of Birmingham, where I have been based. I got the incredible opportunity to collaborate with the United Way’s Community Impact department on projects involving urban agriculture and planning. It became clear to me through this collaboration that public policies affect city planners and residents in profound ways.

I consulted with community gardeners about applying for permits with the city of Birmingham. Before a new urban-ag ordinance was passed last year, all forms of farming and gardening were illegal in the city limits. Many gardeners and operations had already sprung up, but the ordinance had the potential to legitimize these efforts and protect more productive uses of our city’s land.

Through educating city planners on Complete Streets policies, I also learned firsthand how inclusive road designs can affect transportation and local economies. Complete Streets advocate taking existing roads and making them safe for multiple users, including cyclists, buses, and pedestrians. It makes people the focus of design, which automatically shifts the idea of what, or better yet, who our roads are for.

In June, I served as a staff member at Anytown Alabama, a social justice leadership camp for teens from all over Birmingham and other parts of the state. At Anytown, I learned to think of community in a way that has totally enriched my worldview, and through my service with Conservation Alabama, I got to see that refined definition in action. Public policy has the potential to change the way we relate to our communities and to our environment. It can reframe the conversation about what we need and want for our communities in a productive way. It can even change the way individuals feel about themselves. Good policies empower individuals. In one small, personal example: a bike lane on a busy road offers me a safe space to ride. It acknowledges my existence as a cyclist and says, “This road is for you.” It also acknowledges that transportation isn’t limited to cars and trucks – that not everyone has access to these things but they should still feel empowered to get to where they need to go, whether that’s a job or the grocery store or the bank, etc. Public policies and good design have the potential to create a city that feels safe for people in a multitude of different circumstances, as well as address current public health and social justice issues that have plagued Birmingham and Alabama throughout its history.

When we create policies that seek to acknowledge the multi-faceted circumstances of all people – especially those with different abilities and socioeconomic circumstances – we’re helping to create a local culture that’s beginning to acknowledge how valuable every person, every community, is to Birmingham and Alabama.

Through AmeriCorps and Conservation Alabama, I’ve had such incredible opportunities to live lessons outside of a classroom setting. This has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I plan on serving a second year with a conservation corps out West, and I can say that I would have never known about that opportunity had I not served this year. I would have never known about the incredible work people throughout Alabama are doing every day to make this little corner of the South a more inclusive and just place to live and play and work. It has been an honor to do my small part. Thank you so much for letting me.

 

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Governor has final say on hazardous waste

DontDumponAL4It was a whirlwind week for the hazardous waste bill.

HB181, a bi-partisan effort to reduce the fees hazardous waste haulers have to pay to dump their dangerous chemicals at the Emelle hazardous waste facility, was before a public hearing in a Senate committee on Tuesday, and before the full Senate on Thursday. Even the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, was surprised by the bill being up for a vote, even though it was not on the special order calendar. Some senators had concerns as well, and stalled the vote for at least 30 minutes before it ultimately passed the Senate 25-4.

Now, Governor Robert Bentley has the bill to sign or veto. His signature doesn’t seem to be a slam dunk when an aide was non-committal on the governor’s plans in a recent press report. Signing the bill into law would be inconsistent with the governor’s previous position on solid waste. Only a few weeks after taking office in 2011, Bentley issued an executive order declaring a moratorium on new solid waste landfills out of fear Alabama was becoming the nation’s dumping ground. The legislature later affirmed the moratorium legislatively and a study of solid waste practices is on going. The moratorium didn’t affect hazardous waste, but the concern is the same – Alabama is the nation’s dumping ground.

With only five days remaining this legislative session, many of the environmental bills do not have enough time and political muscle to pass this session. However, there are a few that are edging closer to passage. The historic tax credit bill is one Senate vote away from going to the governor. Also, the Alabama Land Bank Authority bill has gotten new life and is in committee this week.

However, a bill that would prohibit public buildings from following LEED standards in order to be more energy efficient is one step away from the governor as well. The bill is expected to be voted on by the House this week, but there are rumblings of floor amendments that could make this bill more palatable to LEED supporters.

Finally, the latest budget has money restored for the state parks program. While not finalized, this could be a huge win for the state parks in 2014, but it doesn’t address immediate needs nor the $12 million that has been cut from state parks funding in the last two years.

You can follow legislation related to the environment each week on Conservation Alabama’s Hot List at conservationalabama.org.

Hazardous waste bill back up for vote

DontDumponAL4Now it is the Senate’s turn to take up the hazardous waste bill.

HB181, a bi-partisan effort to reduce the fees hazardous waste haulers have to pay to dump their dangerous chemicals at the Emelle hazardous waste facility, is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at 12:30 p.m. April 23 in Room 325. The bill is an attempt to increase the amount of hazardous waste coming into the state, by reducing the state-based fee from $21.60 per ton to $11 per ton. Hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous waste have been brought from all over the country and internationally to Emelle over the last three decades, while the facility has experienced numerous fines and a problems related to spills, leaks, and threats to human and environmental health.

If you can’t make it to Montgomery for the public hearing Tuesday, you can tell the Senate committee “Don’t Dump on AL” and to vote NO on HB181 by visiting the Conservation Alabama Action Center.

Last week, legislation to limit LEED certification for public buildings was approved by a Senate committee, making the bill one vote away from going to the governor. Timber interests have been opposed to LEED because it doesn’t recognize certain industry-favored certifications for timber. More than 50 public buildings in Alabama have been built to LEED standards, all of which used local wood products, making the issue of this one point on a 110-point scale more about principle than policy.

Also, a student-led effort to study and protect the drinking water in the Birmingham area has led to House and Senate joint resolutions to be introduced, with the Senate version being dropped last week. The resolutions would establish the Greater Birmingham Drinking Water Commission. The Coalition of Alabama Students for the Environment (CASE) is spearheading the campaign to get the resolutions passed.

You can follow legislation related to the environment each week on Conservation Alabama’s Hot List at conservationalabama.org.

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