Ariann Nassel, our Director of Geospatial Data Visualization, partnered with Cawaco RC&D Council and The Nature Conservancy in 2020 to develop Cool Green: Healthy Greening and Stormwater Opportunities for Jefferson County, Alabama. This web map application assisted representatives of the broader Cool Green project by providing an interactive narrative that eventually led to the Jefferson County Department of Health funding a public health improvement program in targeted areas that would benefit from planting trees. These areas predominantly have populations that are at risk of being negatively impacted by extremes in day and nighttime temperatures; trees will help to mitigate the effects of urban heat in these areas.
March 14, 2023 | Kimberly Randall, LHC Staff
A number of Alabama residents, particularly in the Black Belt area, are unable to connect to centralized water and sewage utilities and instead rely on on-site sanitation systems, or septic tanks. These systems are costly, particularly in comparison to the household income of the area, and often fail due to the unique geological structure of the region (He et al., 2011). Homeowners who are unable to afford a proper on-site sanitation system may resort to “straight piping” instead, dispensing raw sewage into nearby fields, ditches, or waterways (Loveless & Corcelli, 2015).
The Black Belt has a uniquely structured geologic profile that results in a rich, dark soil high in nitrates which gave the region its name. The unconfined aquifer, or layer of soil above the first layer of clay, is only a few feet deep and much more shallow than in other areas of the state. Traditional septic tanks are buried just below the ground level which results in the tanks potentially being buried in a layer of montmorillonite clay rather than soil.
This poses two issues. This type of clay is hydrophilic, meaning that any moisture leaving the system via drainage fields is not able to be naturally filtered the way soil composed of minerals and microorganisms is. Additionally, the clay expands and contracts in extreme temperatures found in Alabama which can cause the concrete septic tanks to crack and expose extreme amounts of waste into the groundwater, known as interaquifer leakage. Consequently, the area requires an engineered or “mounded” sanitation system that artificially creates a larger unconfined aquifer of sand and soil on a property, but the cost is upwards of 5x that of a traditional septic system.
Ineffective sanitation infrastructure poses a number of health and environmental risks. Common pathogens related to groundwater contamination include but are not limited to shigella, hepatitis A, norovirus, giardia, and salmonella (EPA, 2015). Additionally, parasites like hookworm have historically been present in the area due to poor sanitation (McKenna et al., 2017).
While many Alabama residents struggle to access adequate sanitation, the problem is especially severe in the Black Belt counties of Dallas, Perry, Sumter, and Wilcox. As some of the poorest areas in the state, the cost of an effective sanitation system is often unfeasible. However, under state law, it is the financial responsibility of the homeowner to install and maintain a state-permitted on-site sanitation system and risk fines, arrest, and a potential lien on their home for not doing so (Alabama Code § 11-68) It is estimated that tens of thousands of homes in the Black Belt area that have outdated, ineffective, or substandard on-site sanitation systems.
Currently, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is the facilitator of all government funding for sanitation projects in the state. However, ADEM does not offer a mechanism to provide financial assistance for on-site systems to homeowners or non-municipal entities such as non-profit organizations.
On Tuesday, March 7th, Governor Ivey called for a special session of the Alabama legislature to distribute the remaining $1.06 billion in federal funding granted by the American Rescue Plan Act, a portion of which is expected to go toward sanitation infrastructure in the Black Belt. ARPA funds could be highlighted as a way to assist with on-site sanitation repairs via grants distributed through ADEM to begin tackling this problem.
To download this Policy Brief in PDF form, CLICK HERE.
Other facts of note:
- According to one survey, 90% of land in the Black Belt is not suited for conventional on-site sanitation systems (He et al, 2011).
- The average income in Wilcox county is $19,231 (US Census, 2021).
- A survey conducted in Wilcox County showed that 90% of unsewered homes had an unpermitted sewage system, 60% of homes had a visible straight pipe, and 33% of homes had a buried straight pipe or other unpermitted sanitation systems (He et al, 2011).
- Researchers estimate that upwards of 550,000 gallons of raw sewage are being put in the watershed each day due to inefficient sanitation (Walton, 2017).
- One study estimated groundwater contamination from failing septic systems could affect up to 340,000 low-income people in rural Alabama, placing them at an elevated risk of disease (Wedgeworth & Brown, 2013).
EPA. (2015). Groundwater contamination Guide – US EPA. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-08/documents/mgwc-gwc1.pdf
He, J. et al., (2011). Assessing the Status of On-site Wastewater Treatment Systems in the Alabama Black Belt Soil Area. Environmental Engineering Sci, 28. 693-695.
Loveless, A., & Corcelli, L. (2015), Pipe Dreams: Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States, EPA BLOG, https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2015/03/pipe-dreams-advancing-sustainable-development-in-the-unitedstates/.
McKenna, M. L. et al., (2017). Human Intestinal Parasite Burden and Poor Sanitation in Rural Alabama. The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene, 97(5), 1623–1628. https://doi.org/10.4269/ajtmh.17-0396
U.S. Census Bureau. (2022). Income and Poverty, July 1, 2022 (V2022) — Wilcox County, Alabama data table.
Walton, B. (2017). Diseases of poverty identified in Alabama County burdened by poor sanitation. Circle of Blue.
Wedgworth, J. C., & Brown, J., (2013). Limited Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation in Alabama’s Black Belt: A Cross-Sectional Case Study. Water Quality, Exposure & Health, 5. 69-71.
September 6, 2022 | Anantha Korrapati, LHC Intern
Lead is a natural chemical commonly used in various products such as household paint (before 1978), gasoline (before 1995), and plumbing pipes and fixtures. However, it is a potent neurotoxin that harms people, especially children, and pregnant women.
According to the EPA, lead can be absorbed into the body through inhalation or ingesting lead dust from paint coatings or contaminated drinking water. It then travels through the bloodstream to accumulate in the bones. Depending on the level of exposure, lead can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems, and cardiovascular system. It has been shown to cause brain damage and cognitive deficits in children, even at low exposure levels. Lead exposure also affects the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Levels should be checked through blood tests since there are no apparent symptoms of elevated blood lead levels (BLL). In Alabama, a BLL of five micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) or higher is considered elevated.
Lead dust can be caused by air pollution near ore and metals processing centers and piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded aviation fuel. The highest lead particulate matter is found in soil near lead smelters at about 50-400 parts per million.
According to the EPA, there are two extensive lead smelting facilities in Alabama that are superfund sites–nationally contaminated sites with improperly managed hazardous waste that are under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), allowing the EPA to clean up contaminated sites and forces responsible parties to assist or reimburse them for cleanup services.
The Interstate Lead Company, or ILCO, had a secondary lead smelter and lead battery recycling facility operating in Leeds, Alabama, from 1970 to 1992. It was named a superfund site in 1986 due to contaminated groundwater, sediment, soil, and surface water resulting from facility operations. The EPA, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), and the ILCO Site Remediation Group, the site’s potentially responsible parties (PRPs), have investigated site conditions. Site contamination does not currently threaten people living and working near the site. The other facility is the Sanders Lead Company in Troy, Alabama. The complete list of lead mines in Alabama can be found here.
SB158, sponsored by Senator Bobby D. Singleton, is titled “Lead reduction, Alabama Lead Reduction Act, lead abatement and further regulation of lead hazard reductions” and aims to regulate lead hazard regulations further, revise the authority of the State Board of Health to conduct lead inspections, enforce the Alabama Lead Reduction Act of 1997, and provide criminal penalties for violation.
It was signed into law in April 2022 by Governor Kay Ivey.
The act will establish a program to educate owners on renovation, risk assessments by health officers, a state-accredited program for lead hazard training, enforcement of the Alabama Lead Reduction Act of 1997, and fines for violations.
Many homes and public buildings designed before 1978 may have lead-based paint on surfaces or fixtures, and this act establishes abatement and renovation accreditation programs for both individuals and firms under “Safe State,” the state accreditation agency for lead hazard training through the University of Alabama. These programs are in accordance with Title IV of the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act.
Abatement is defined as the removal of lead-based paint or contaminated dust, replacement of lead-painted surfaces or fixtures, and the removal or covering of lead-contaminated soil.
Renovation is defined as fixing painted components and removing building components with weatherization projects and any interim controls that disturb painted surfaces during the conversion of a building.
The legislation also establishes risk assessments where “the State Health Officer may conduct investigations of general lead contamination problems or conditions in public buildings and upon request of the building owner of commercial buildings, or the request of the owner or occupant of residential buildings.”
The Alabama Lead Contractor Certification Program established by the Alabama Lead Reduction Act of 1997 consists of Lead Hazard Reduction Contractor Certification (Abatement) and Alabama Lead Renovation Contractor Certification. This new legislation defers this training to the “Safe State” program.
Violations of this legislation depend on the number of incidences and can apply to individuals and firms. The fines are as follows:
- First offense: $250
- Second offense: $500
- Third offense: $2500 – $5000
According to a study done in Kent County, Michigan (where over 50% of respondents live in homes built pre-1978), a lead safety course for parents was successful in promoting education and empowerment. However, the researchers stated that “longer-term solutions require advocacy at community and policy levels and cannot be prevented by individual behavior,” such as lead-safe mopping or collecting dust from window sills. Therefore, the legislation in Alabama will hopefully provide lasting changes through the renovation and abatement programs.
This legislation will improve air quality, both primary and secondary air standards stated below:
National Ambient Air Quality Standards: 0.15 micrograms lead per cubic meter of air
- Primary: publichealth protection, including protecting the health of “sensitive” populations such as asthmatics, children, and the elderly
- Secondary: public welfare protection, including protection against decreased visibility and damage to animals, crops, vegetation, and buildings
According to a cost-benefit analysis from 2009, “Each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17–$221”. This analysis compared the baseline cost of implementing lead hazard control programs to the health care costs and social behavioral costs incurred by lead poisoning, specifically in children.
Specifically, in Alabama, ValueofLeadPrevention.org estimates $1 billion worth of lifetime economic burden of childhood lead exposure–including costs of “reduced lifetime productivity; increased health care, education, and social assistance spending; and premature mortality.”
Below is a map of the estimated percentage of children with elevated BLLs:
More economical costs and benefits of lead hazard training can be found here with research done by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The Alabama Department of Public Health and UA are managing this legislation.
UA SafeState now manages registration for Individual Accreditation and Firm Certification. Register Here.
Firms that seek to be certified to perform renovations must have certification from the Alabama Department of Public Health and at least one individual accredited by UA’s Safe State program.
Here are a few EPA guidelines for individual actions to reduce lead exposure and poisoning.
- Eat healthy foods with calcium, iron, and vitamin C. These foods may help keep lead from being digested.
- Regularly wash hands, toys, and horizontal surfaces with soapy water and disposable cleaning materials.
- Vacuum with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtered vacuum
- Take shoes off before entering the home or living areas
- Cover lead-exposed soil with fruitless plant materials
- Hire certified lead professionals to assist with home renovations in pre-1978 housing
- Homes built before 1978 are more likely to have lead-based paint. Performing home renovations may disturb this paint and be a source of lead exposure. Using lead-safe work practices is critical when renovating. For guidance on lead-safe renovations, please visit the EPA or hire a certified lead professional to do the work for you.
February 24, 2022
The Lister Hill Center for Health Policy recently hosted Dr. Eri Saikawa for a seminar on climate-smart agriculture and the impact of urban gardening on public health. Dr. Saikawa’s research includes evaluating the impact of fertilizer on air quality and how heavy metal toxicity in the soil of formerly red-lined neighborhoods has public health implications on the communities of Atlanta.
When we’re talking about heavy metal toxicity and urban gardening from a policy perspective do you think it’s more important to focus on mitigation or prevention?
I definitely think prevention. There is so much we can be doing to prevent exposure, and that’s why I think we need to be pushing for more urban testing so that we don’t put kids into unnecessary exposure. After the fact, it’s usually too late. So these lead exposures, as I understand, once you are exposed you are exposed. We really need to do a much better job to prevent that situation
Slag dumping in neighborhoods causes high levels of lead. Are there any local or federal bills to prevent the dumping of slag in residential areas? Are there any in progress and how can we support them if so?
This is a very good question. So, the problem with the slag dumping is that it happened a long time ago before there was legislation to prevent it. We believe that this might have happened in the 60s or so, and at that time they were considered to be non-toxic materials. That’s why they use that as the fundamentals of buildings. What we are seeing is that the EPA is working to clean up [and reduce the metals in the soil]. They told me that sometimes they’ll dig eight feet down and they were still seeing slag, and so they decided that they cannot go any deeper.
In so many places, they dumped so, so much. Now they’re only digging up to a foot or two, and I think this is a very big problem as well. I think it is pretty prevalent in many different places, too, so how can we figure out the history. I just wonder if that’s because of the low-income neighborhood, we don’t have enough history like historical documentation on why was that area chosen [as a dumping site]. Because of that, we cannot tell from the existing documents that we could find.
How can you test lead levels in your backyard before planting a garden? If you find high lead levels, what do you do next, and how can you decrease those?
In Georgia, what we started doing is called the Community Science Soil Shop. We have collection boxes in different parts of the greater Atlanta area [to drop off soil samples] and then we allow people to send in the soil samples to our lab. We have a video that shows how to collect soil samples, dry them, and then they can either ship them or drop them off. Then we would analyze them for free and then give them the results. These are just screening so it’s not the full testing because we’re not saving them but I think that’s a good way to know if that might be contaminated to look into it more.
But the second question is more important. What can you do once you know that it is contaminated? So I think this is also a problem on why people are not really willing to test. In the state of Georgia, if you find that there is lead in your soil then you have to disclose that if and when you want to sell your house. There have been several people that tell me that they found slag in their backyard, and when I asked them if we could go and take soil samples to figure out the lead levels they would say no because they want to make sure that their home value is not going to be impacted. So that’s a problem.
Another thing though is that cleaning up can be very expensive. So if you dig, that’s the best way, but it would cost a lot of money. We have community partners asking if we can use hyperaccumulator plants as a way to take up [some of the heavy metals] so we did some testing with sunflowers, peas, and Chinese cabbage. We saw quite good results from Chinese cabbage and peas but [the heavy metals] went to the edible parts. We did these experiments in the greenhouse, but we are worried about actually doing the experiment in the field in the case that people come and then start eating them and get exposed.
There is no good way in a cost-effective manner [to treat soil] and that is a problem. But you can do easy things [to prevent exposure] like washing hands, for example, and making sure if you have pets they wouldn’t be going into the garden and then coming back with their dirty feet everywhere in the home.
When it comes to climate change policy there is a lot of finger-pointing between industry and individual action. In your experience working with agriculture, which is more important, and what individual actions can we take that are going to make the biggest amount of difference?
I get asked that question a lot, and I do think that we need to be pointing at the industry. Ninety percent of the emissions are potentially coming from a very small number of industries, and if they are not going to do anything then nothing is going to happen. I don’t want to say that individual actions are not important, but I do think that the companies that are really burning a lot of fossil fuel need to stop. Otherwise, even if we do everything we can, that’s not going to stop climate change.
That being said, the individual efforts to really voice concerns to push the government and also the industry to take action is important. We see that a lot from the youth movement, and I think they are the hope. They have shown how that’s possible and how that could work, so I think we need to do that more.
Does a yard contaminated with lead have impacts for children other than eating food grown there?
The biggest impact that you would see is actually the kids eating the soil, either consciously or unconsciously. There are kids with certain behaviors or disorders that would really want to eat the soil, and that is the biggest worry. I think it can also be airborne, too. If you’re running around in those highly-contaminated areas, then you can breathe in the lead particles. It’s not just about eating the food that’s grown in those contaminated soils.
Want to learn more about Dr. Saikawa’s work? Check out these recent publications.
Keeping in Touch
Follow Dr. Saikawa on Twitter!
More information on the Atlanta-based soil contamination investigation can be found at https://atlsoilsafety.com/
Be sure to check out her podcast, AmpliFIRE, which aims to equip listeners to accelerate climate action by providing accessible information; amplifying diverse voices; and highlighting the intersections of environmental issues.
March 1, 2022, | Anushree Gade, LHC Intern
As a state, Alabama has been making a more pronounced effort to adopt sustainability initiatives. This may result from people becoming more knowledgeable about climate change and how sustainability directly plays into it.
Electric vehicles have been receiving a lot of attention in the previous years. There are many more fully electric vehicles and hybrid cars on the road in the past year compared to five years ago. For example, we probably see numerous Teslas while driving around in Birmingham these days compared to how many we saw just two years ago. Why is this significant? It is important to note that transportation accounts for 70% of petroleum consumption in the United States. Hybrid vehicles consume less fuel than vehicles that are dependent entirely on gasoline. Electric vehicles rely solely on electricity as the source of energy. Electric and hybrid vehicles are better alternatives to conventional cars as it helps us decrease our fuel consumption and decrease our ecological footprint.
In this case, California serves as a model state for other states across the United States. California provides incentives to its residents to encourage them to purchase hybrid or electric vehicles. The state has a Clean Vehicle Rebate Program (CVRP) in which California residents who are buying hybrid or electric cars are given a rebate. This incentive encourages the residents to consider purchasing such vehicles to decrease the state’s contribution to air pollution and climate change. The state also provides grants to purchase electric buses to further their effort to increase the amount of zero-emission vehicles in the state. For more information on these incentives and other incentives for electric vehicles in California, visit this link.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs has been attempting to encourage the public to learn about electric vehicles and their benefits through a marketing program called “Drive Electric Alabama.” This program aims to include TV, radio, and digital advertising to increase Alabama residents’ exposure to information about electric vehicles. They have also created a website where the public can learn more. Click this link to access the website! Furthermore, Alabama has an Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) Grant Program. This grant program provides funds to expand electric vehicle infrastructure. Alabama also offers grants to replace diesel vehicles with newer diesel vehicles or alternative fuel vehicles. Vehicles eligible for this include medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school buses, shuttle, transit buses, freight switchers, airport, and ground cargo handling equipment. The state has also been making an effort to increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations across the state. Lack of access to charging stations can serve as a con for those considering switching to electric cars. Increasing charging stations can further encourage residents to make the switch.
Despite the push towards electric vehicles being a success in California, such vehicles are relatively new and in the works for most states. Alabama has been making this transition, though it may take more time and effort to do this more effectively.
Furthermore, several different solar initiatives are in place for the residents of Alabama to encourage them to consider installing photovoltaic systems (solar panels) for the production of renewable energy. These initiatives include, but are not limited to:
- Tax Credit: If you install solar panels, your tax credit is 26% of the cost of the entire solar panel system.
- Property Tax Abatement: the Alabama Tax Code provides property tax abatement for qualifying facilities that use renewable energy.
- Net Energy Metering helps people save some money on their electricity bills when they send electricity produced from their solar panels back to the grid.
March 14, 2022 | Anushree Gade, LHC Intern
White smoke is pouring out of the chimneys of the power plant.
Last year in late October and early November, we saw many news articles pertaining to the Glasgow Climate Change Conference. Counties across the world are collaborating with one another to address the international crisis of Climate Change. At the Glasgow Climate Change Summit, 151 countries submitted climate plans for emission reduction in order to maintain their goal of preventing temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, there was also an agreement to significantly reduce coal consumption as it serves as a major source of CO2 emissions. It is important to note that developing countries lack funds to adopt sustainable practices. Developed countries have agreed to financially aid developing countries.
It’s imperative to address climate change on an international level as it is a global crisis. However, what are we doing as a nation to be mindful of our contribution to this crisis? Recently, President Biden announced plans to reduce the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by 2030. The United States is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, the United States emitted 6,558 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases contribute to global warming as they trap heat in the atmosphere and cause atmospheric temperatures to increase. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions has been a major cause of the observed global warming. Therefore, Biden’s plan to decrease greenhouse gas emissions comes with importance. Furthermore, the US has vehicle and aircraft emission standards set in order to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are regulated. To learn more about these emission standards, click here. To learn more about greenhouse gases, click here.
Did you know?
Health effects of Climate Change include, but are not limited to:
- Heat-related illness
- Respiratory illness (i.e. asthma)
- Water-borne diseases
- Noncommunicable diseases
To learn more, visit this link.
You have probably heard about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act was first introduced in 1955, however, the act introduced in 1970 is the one that is most often referred to as the Clean Air Act and was one of the first policies that pertained to climate change. This act is one that “regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile sources.” The Act also sets deadlines for state and local governments to achieve the goals set forth by the Act. There are more components to the act that you can explore here.
We have discussed initiatives and policies targeted at climate change on the national level, but what are some ways climate change is being addressed at the local level? One way in which this is being done is that local and state governments are adopting standards in alliance with national standards to address local power plants and vehicle emissions. Additionally, there are various organizations that are aiming to address climate change from the local level. A primary example of such an organization is the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP). They are an organization based in our city. GASP came about in the late 1960s when there was resistance to the ideals set forth by the Clean Air Act. This organization advocates for clean air policies right here, in Birmingham. GASP played a significant role in exercising the Act in Birmingham.
The Lister Hill Center for Health Policy recently hosted a seminar with GASP discussing the Birmingham Green New Deal and how to get involved in local advocacy with climate change called Local Action: How the Urgency of Climate Change is Impacting Birmingham. GASP is a non-profit climate advocacy center dedicated to creating cleaner air for the city of Bimringham. A full recording of the event is available below.
January 31, 2022 | Anushree Gade, Lister Hill Center Intern
Climate change has been gathering large amounts of attention in recent years. Since the late twentieth century, temperatures have been rising, and 2020 was the second warmest year in recorded history. Greenhouse gas emissions have tremendously contributed to the observed increase in atmospheric temperature. As a result, ice sheets have been melting worldwide, making some cities more prone to flooding because of the rising sea levels. One example is the city of Jakarta, Indonesia, which has been experiencing frequent flooding and is expected to be entirely submerged by the year 2050.
With the climate changing so rapidly, many people are becoming anxious about their future and future generations, a phenomenon often called eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is experienced more extensively by today’s youth. In a large study done with 10,000 young adults, more than half of those that participated were worried for their future. Additionally, about half of the respondents indicated that their anxiety regarding climate change impacted their daily lives. Many people experiencing eco-anxiety believe that their country’s governments have not been doing enough to address the growing issue of climate change and global warming. In a poll conducted by the Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, 57% of the teenagers said that climate change scared them, and 52% said it made them sad. Only 29% of the teenagers reported that they were optimistic.
The youth today think significantly about climate change and its associated consequences in the future. As a result, eco-anxiety is a common experience for today’s youth, more so than older adults. This anxiety also stems from the fear of uncertainty that humans generally possess. The youth also report low levels of optimism for the future due to the climate crisis. The impacts of climate change on mental health are immense and must be recognized. Anxiety and stress can have adverse long-term effects on health. Experiencing prolonged anxiety can develop other health complications such as respiratory problems, gastrointestinal issues, weakened immune system, heart disease, hypertension, and more. With the likelihood of anxiety leading to additional health consequences, we must address this anxiety stemming from the changing climate.
If you are experiencing eco-anxiety or are passionate about addressing this issue of climate change, here are some things you can do:
- Make lifestyle changes to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable.
- Example: Re-evaluating how you commute to work. You can consider carpooling, using public transportation, walking, or cycling to places near where you live.
- Identifying small things in your life that can help make a change
- Participate in the political processes to promote environmental policies where you live.
- Talk to your family and friends to express your concern.
- Connect with others who are also going through the same as you.
October 11, 2019 by Sara Harper, LHC Student Intern
Three years ago, I got obsessed with where meat comes from. Kip Anderson’s exposé “Cowspiracy”had come out a few years prior and, while sensationalized, it gave me a passion for something that enveloped environment, policy, and justice. Since then, I’ve written several academic pieces on the factory farming industry and adjusted my purchasing habits away from supporting industrialized farms. Do I sound like PETA yet? Throughout my research I’ve consistently addressed the issue from a human and environmental health point of view, with animal rights being a positive outcome of the latter. My reasoning for this is to steer my point away from sensationalizing the animal cruelty involved, in favor of a health-based approach to this problematic industry.
Quick background: Factory farming, or intensive livestock farming, is a sector of the Agriculture industry that relies on overcrowding animals and assembly-line style production in order to maximize meat output. These facilities have large negative impacts on the surrounding environment including: Water source contamination, greenhouse gas production, and deforestation, and so many other issues.
Okay now you’re caught up. These things are bad, right? So, who’s fighting the good fight? Well…
In the past two decades, “Big Ag” has proposed laws in states across the country that criminalize the efforts of whistleblowers in the industry. These laws have been coined “Ag-Gags” because, by nature, they silence those who intend to call out the harm done by intensive livestock farms. Alabama passed their own Ag-Gag bill in 2002, which makes it a felony offense to obtain access to a property “by false pretenses” and to possess records obtained by deception. This law was directly related to an increase in environmental advocates performing undercover investigations on factory farms under the pretense of employment.
So why is this important? The agricultural industry in America is a high grossing source of income and production but is, by all accounts, necessary. However, powerful, money intensive industries like factory farming have little government oversight when it comes to their environmental health impacts. These production facilities are known to under-report incidents like waste spills and romanticize the idea of their farms to consumers. In this industry, whistle blowers in the media and advocacy groups are the only people holding these companies accountable for their actions. Ag-Gag bills seek to make it virtually impossible to report on factory farms in order to reduce the amount of incriminating information leaking out of their facilities.
I know what you’re thinking… “What can I do?” As consumers, it’s up to us to consume responsibly. Using your purchasing power to opt for humanely farmed meat shows that you do not condone the actions of this negligent polluting industry. All in all, the future for defeating Ag-Gags looks bright. As of June 2019, 3 states have declared Ag-Gag policies unconstitutional, ruling that the laws infringe upon freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Seventeen other states have blocked such bills from ever being passed.
October 24, 2019 by Sean McMahon and Sara Harper
A few weeks ago the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy co-sponsored a visit from Lois Gibbs, often called the Mother of the Superfund. She guest-lectured in a few classes and met with community members in Birmingham. We had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with Ms. Gibbs over lunch at Lucy’s. We were able to get to know her a bit more and hear about her 40 years of Environmental Justice (EJ) work.
December 2, 2019 by Sara Harper, LHC Student Intern
Thursday, November 21, I attended the Alabama Public Service Commission’s public rate hearing on Alabama Power’s fee on solar producers. Alabama Power charges solar users who are plugged into the “grid” $5 per kW of energy they produce. The idea behind the fee is to cover the costs of solar-users who draw supplementary power from the grid during non-productive hours. However, the fees erase most savings that solar producers would be getting from switching to renewables and make recovering the cost of installation difficult. GASP, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Energy Alabama requested the hearing, testifying that the stand-by fee is unnecessary, discriminatory, and has impeded upon Alabama’s solar progress for years.
The inside of the courtroom was representative of the greater issue we were there to discuss. People of all ages and races filed in until the space became standing room only. Supporters of the cause sported a sticker reading “Let it Shine” emblazoned with a bright yellow sun. Once the stickers were passed out to those willing, it was easy to discern there was a greater majority of “pro” than “against”. Advocates of all demographics exemplified that Alabama Power’s monopoly is a bipartisan issue that concerns all of Alabama’s residents.
On the other hand, the current public service commission seems entirely partisan, all three of its members being part of the Republican Party, and was moderated by an agitated Administrative Law Judge John Garner. Alabama power was represented by one lawyer and Team Leader of Regulatory Costing, Natalie Dean. The whole scene conveyed that Alabama Power was not intimidated by their challengers and the legislators were annoyed to be pulled into work so early in the morning (the hearing was scheduled at 9AM to deter public engagement).
Alabama Power, backed by the Public Service Commission, continues to force Alabamians to pay some of the highest solar rates in the US. Throughout the course of the day it was easy to tell that the Public Service Commission was not interested in the minutia of the hearing: one example of this being Judge Garner and Commission chair Chip Beeker exchanging phones and giggling to themselves on the stand while the SELC was cross examining Natalie Dean. A blatant example of misuse of power was displayed when Judge Garner disrupted a testimony to order the bailiff to remove anyone filming the hearing from the courtroom. Several audience members, all adorned with sunshine stickers, were removed from the courtroom; most notably Kari Powell, who has run for a Public Service Commission seat in the past. This removal was unconstitutional and those several who were removed were prepared to show the bailiff the exact legislation that defended the legality of their recording. The recordings were an attempt to make the “public” hearing accessible and keep Alabama Power and the Public Service Commission accountable for what was discussed, despite the two entities being involved in controversial a smear campaign a few years prior.
An official decision on the fees was not made on the 21st. Both parties have until December 20th to submit their final orders and a decision will be made after that. The odds seem stacked against the Alabama advocates for solar energy; however, an appeal of the case could be sent to the United States Supreme Court.