Protecting ‘Alabama the Beautiful’ by cleaning up our mess

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Massive tire dump in North Alabama. Photo from the Southern Environmental Center

When travelers enter the state of Alabama via interstate highways, they are welcomed, in most places, by a sign declaring “Alabama the Beautiful.” We, as locals, know that’s true with our lush, green forests, gentle rolling hills, bubbling creeks, rivers and sugar sand beaches. We have the tremendous responsibility to keep it beautiful. In this series, find out about some of our problem areas, efforts to fix them and how you can get involved.

Earlier this year, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) reported that they will be spending $6.8 million dollars just to remove litter from the state’s roadsides. ALDOT’s litter cleanup expense is more than 10 times the amount of monies the state legislature appropriates to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management ($560,000 in FY2018), the agency in charge of protecting the state’s land, air and water.

Alabama has a long history of pollution problems. Some of the issues are self inflicted by individuals, who are part of a culture that permissively allows illegal garbage and scrap tire dumps and littering. Other pollution issues, and subsequent cleanups, are linked to the state’s industrial legacy. In most of these cases, it took citizens demanding a clean and healthy environment to address the problems.

Alabama the Beautiful

Stephens Gap Cave. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Flickr page. Photo by David Jarrell.

Arguably, no state compares to Alabama when it comes to natural beauty: Little River Canyon, the Dismals, and the Walls of Jericho provide a small sample of what our State has to offer. Alabama is a global leader for biodiversity, ranking first nationally in terms of varieties of turtles, fishes, crayfish, mussels and snails. We are also blessed with more kinds of geographic and geological landscapes than any other place in North America.

Despite, this bounty, Alabama has struggled, for generations, when it comes to pollution. It’s a legacy that has marred our natural landscape.

250 tons a year in Jefferson County

Illegal dump in the Titusville neighborhood of Birmingham. Photo from the Southern Environmental Center

Roald Hazelhoff, Director of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham Southern College, is particularly interested in reducing surface litter in Alabama watersheds:

“Alabama’s pervasive litter problem can be linked to inadequate enforcement. We have regulations that prohibit dumping, but rarely enforce them. More often than not, the first thing you see underneath that sign that proclaims ‘no dumping, $500 fine’, is litter. When it rains, much of that trash ends up in our streams.”

In Jefferson County alone, the County Commission cleans up and removes annually over 250 tons, or 425,000 pounds, of garbage from local roadsides and illegal dumps. It is a never-ending problem.

Dumps everywhere

Up until the past decade and a half, perhaps no other pollution problem in Alabama personified the mistreatment of its rivers, streams, forests, farms, mountainsides and open spaces, than the scrap tire and illegal dump epidemic.

For example, according to members of the Cahaba River Society, in the early days of the organization’s history, around 1990, they held a cleanup of the river along the put-in near Highway 280. A local business offered to pay $5 for each tire pulled from the river. Teams of volunteers in canoes looked for discarded tires. By noon, so many discarded tires had been collected, they had to stop the effort fearing the local company did not have enough funds to pay for the immense number of tires the industrious volunteers were gathering.

Volunteers with Renew Our Rivers Program. Photo from Renew Our Rivers Facebook page

Before measures were passed in the 2000s to levy cleanup fees on solid waste and the purchase of new tires, Alabama had become the wild wild west of illegal dumping of scrap tires in the United States.

Eye-popping 20 million scrap tires

In 2001, the Alabama Scrap Tire Commission confirmed the epidemic when they released a study finding that over 20 million scrap tires littered the state in over 850 illegal dumps. Scrap tire expert Gary Bryant, a contributor to the report, said the 20 million figure was very conservative.

In the Tuscaloosa News, Bryant added, “Alabama has the worst problem I’ve seen,” he said. “They’re throwing them over a hill, putting them in strip mines. The taxpayers are going to pay for it.”

The tipping point on the scrap tire issue came about when the city of Attalla, near Gadsden had to clean up a tire dump near its city center that contained more than 7 million tires. The dump became the rallying cry for action.

Aerial photo of the 7 million tires dump in Attalla, Alabama. Photo courtesy of ADEM
The “after” photo of the removal of 7 million tires in Attalla, Alabama. Photo courtesy of ADEM

Eventually, the State Legislature passed a $1 fee on each new tire sold, raising between $4.3 million and $5 million, to remove many of the 20 million tires.

Industrial pollution in Alabama – before there was Flint, Michigan

Before there was a Flint, Michigan water crisis, or the present cleanup efforts in North Birmingham, Alabama faced some of the nation’s largest public health industrial disasters.

Triana

In 1978, residents of the rural, black, community of Triana, Alabama, about 10 miles outside of Huntsville, discovered that there was DDT and PCB contamination in a local creek, used by many of the residents for subsistence fishing. Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in human history were found in the area. Even so, it took 5 years, and a class action lawsuit, to get the federal government to initiate cleanup, declaring Triana a national Superfund site.

Leeds

In the 1980’s, in Leeds, just east of Birmingham, the Interstate Lead Company (ILCO) made it on the Superfund National Priorities List. The ILCO site operated as a lead-acid battery recycling and secondary lead smelter from the early 1970s until 1992, when the owner declared bankruptcy. Blast furnace slag, battery cases, and other lead-containing wastes were disposed at the ILCO Main Facility and seven satellite sites, including the ILCO Parking Lot, City of Leeds Landfill, J&J Fabricators, Flemings Patio, Acmar Church of God, Connell property, and the BP/Gulf service station. Yes, that’s right a church and a gas station. Over 400,000 tons of soil was contaminated. After 22 years, the sites are still being remediated.

Anniston

Even though it never made the national priority Superfund list, Anniston, Alabama an hour east of Birmingham, has had to clean up toxic waste sites from industrial sites and the U.S. Army, for over 25 years. Home to Monsanto, West Anniston became the most PCB polluted area in the world. By 2003 a $700 million settlement was reached. The community’s toxic woes did not end at the Monsanto site and PCBs. Anniston was home to one of the largest nerve gas stockpiles. As a result of international agreements, the World War I weapons were incinerated locally.

“After decades of intense effort in and around Anniston, the toxic alphabet soup of GB, VX, UXO, TCE and PCB has slowly been replaced by FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service), NPS (National Park Service) the CLT (Chief Ladiga Trail) and other positive things that couldn’t have been successful without our massive and costly clean-up efforts,” said Pete Conroy, Director of the JSU Environmental Policy and Information Center.

“While there are still places in need of attention, our focus is now eco and heritage tourism.” He concluded, “Sometimes you just have to look back and fix things before moving forward.”

Progress made. Still more work to be done

Although we are not quite done cleaning up messes in Alabama, we have made progress. Since the scrap tire cleanup law passed, millions of tires have been recycled and reused. ADEM has successfully removed those 20 million plus tires that were identified in dumps across the state.

Places like Triana, Leeds and Anniston currently serve as costly reminders that even though we have addressed and cleaned up a great deal of these places, it took decades to clean them up, and even today their damage to people’s health and the environment still linger.

In our next installment, we will examine how we can bring back natural wonders damaged by pollution.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.