Key to Clean Water in Alabama? Involve the public. Here is how you can make a difference.

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Alabama Rivers Alliance
Alabama Water Rally (Alabama Rivers Alliance)

In 2008, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission—the governing body for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM)—approved a rule that reduced the amount of cancer-causing pollutants released into our rivers, lakes and streams, ultimately lowering the risk of Alabamians getting cancer from our waters ten-fold. 

How did they do it? The Commission voted to strengthen the cancer risk standard for most cancer-causing toxins discharged into state waters from one case per 100,000 people to one in a million

That’s a lot of lives saved.

In this story—our second installment in a three part series about the impact state agencies can have on our environment in Alabama—we look at ADEM and its most important ally to keep our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water clean—YOU.

What is ADEM?

Established forty years ago by the state of Alabama, ADEM is the state agency responsible for implementing and enforcing a plethora of state and federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, solid and hazardous waste laws and much more. 

Perhaps no other agency in Alabama touches more lives than ADEM. From the water you use to brush your teeth in the morning to the first deep breath you take when you step outside your home, ADEM’s mission is to: 

“… assure all citizens of the state a safe, healthful and productive environment.”

How They Did It in 2008 – Coalition of 17 Groups

Alabama Rivers Alliance
Cindy Lowry, Executive Director, Alabama Rivers Alliance (Alabama River Alliance)

Cindy Lowry, the longtime Executive Director at the Alabama Rivers Alliance, fondly reflects on that time in 2008, when ADEM and stakeholders from various business interests and the environmental community strengthened the state’s water quality rules ten-fold.  

Today, a decade and half later, she yearns for it to happen again.

“When I first started as the Executive Director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance back in 2007, we were involved in helping lead a coalition of 17 watershed organizations asking ADEM’s Commission to strengthen the standards for the level of cancer risk allowed into our waterways,” described Lowry. “Now some people may say—cancer in our waterways… what?”

According to Lowry, per the Clean Water Act, ADEM issues permits to industries allowing them a certain level of discharge of cancer-causing chemicals into our waterways. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a range of options for these standards.  At the time, Alabama was opting for the least protective end of the range.  

“Our groups called for stronger standards,” she said.  “After some strong public outcry and media attention, a process ensued which included ADEM forming a panel of stakeholders to study the issue. In the end, the standard was improved to somewhere in the middle of the range, lowering the cancer risk levels in our waterways ten-fold and getting us up to par with other states in our region. This was a huge success for our waterways and public health and was a great example of how public input coupled with a willingness to move beyond the weakest protections allowed can work in Alabama.”

Clean Water Act 50

Birmingham
Little River Canyon. (Pat Byington/ Bham Now)

None of this would have been possible if not for the Clean Water Act, which celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year.

“When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in the fall of 1972, it gave the nation and the world a truly innovative approach to pollution control,” said Bill Andreen, a Clean Water Act expert and Environmental Law professor at the University of Alabama

In an interview with Bham Now, Andreen told us that since the Clean Water Act was enacted, both industrial and municipal point source discharges have dropped dramatically, improving water quality across the entire country. 

“Some have called it (Clean Water Act) one of the greatest governmental achievements of the last half of the 20th century,” Andreen declared. “The Act has been a stunning success in addressing the primary problem that it targeted, namely, point source pollution as pollution coming from a pipe or a ditch.” 

There is work to do, though. Congress did not choose to regulate nonpoint source pollution in 1972, and left it to the states to deal with it. Today, this is the number one cause of water quality impairment, according to ADEM.

“Daunting problems remain, such as nonpoint source water pollution, excessive water withdrawals, badly conceived hydrological modifications, and contaminated sediments,” he said. “Now while the Clean Water Act has achieved a great deal, a lot more remains to be done.  Forty-six percent of our nation’s rivers and streams, nearly half, are in poor condition in terms of biological quality and excessive amounts of nutrient pollution. Twenty percent of our rivers are also in poor condition because of riparian disturbances, channelization, cutting down the vegetation along our streams, and dams.”

Be Proactive 

Lily Byington
Cahaba Lily at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in 2020. (Pat Byington/ Bham Now)

Both Lowry and Andreen agree the key to making the Clean Water Act work for all Alabamians and our rivers is the kind of public involvement that happened when ADEM strengthened cancer-risk rules in 2008. 

“The people of Alabama can be a resource for the agency (ADEM),” said Lowry. “It’s not only issuing permits. It’s enforcing the Clean Water Act. It’s making sure that bad actors are not getting away with polluting our waterways. The people have eyes and ears in every community and every waterway. ADEM doesn’t have enough capacity or funding to be everywhere all the time.”

Lowry encourages ADEM to work closely and proactively with the public, especially when the agency considers new rules that seek to address problems clearly impacting people’s lives. 

For example, recently ADEM has been developing new rules addressing the unregulated spreading of industrial waste sludge on farmlands across Alabama. Even though there are some beneficial uses, the smell is unbearable and much of the sludge contains contaminants that need to be regulated, tested, monitored and disclosed. 

After receiving many complaints from the public about the smells and the experiences impacting their communities, ADEM is proposing revised regulations. “It is this kind of back and forth that can create better, more protective policies in the end,” Lowry says.

How to Get Involved – Alabama Water Rally – March 25-26

Alabama Rivers Alliance
(Alabama Rivers Alliance)

Alabama is blessed with one of the strongest and most diverse clean water and river protection communities in the country. Along with the Alabama Rivers Alliance—which was founded 25 years ago—the state has ten Waterkeeper organizations and dozens of watershed and community groups, including many volunteer-led organizations affiliated and trained through Alabama Water Watch (sign up to become Water Watcher).

If you see water pollution problems, report it directly to ADEM directly via a special website they have created. Having trouble getting satisfactory response from ADEM, connect with your local waterkeeper group.

Want to become more active protecting our rivers and watersheds? The community is brought together each year at the Alabama Water Rally conference, the largest gathering of clean water advocates in the state. Alabama Water Rally 2022 will be held on March 25-26 at Camp McDowell.  Participants will “Reunite for Clean Water” in person for the first time in two years to reflect on the history of the Clean Water Act in Alabama, celebrate successes, and plan for ways to continue building and strengthening the movement to address the challenges of the future.  

Register at http://alabamarivers.org/WATERRALLY/  (scholarships available)

“No environmental success in Alabama has ever been accomplished alone. Not by ADEM or environmental organizations or concerned citizens.  It is only by seeing the value in allying together that we will ever meet the goal set forth in the Clean Water Act, to eliminate pollution in our waterways,” Lowry concluded.

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Pat Byington
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.

Articles: 1971