A local environmental activist wants to make sure that project is undertaken here.
A year ago, an ADEM inspector noted some issues with sediment runoff from the Veterans Memorial Parkway construction site. At the same time, a complaint came in from Cane Creek Golf Course about sediment-laden runoff in Cane Creek.
“It’s kind of ironic that they both occurred technically about the same time,” said Scott Hughes, office of external affairs at ADEM.
Sediment runoff is one of the most pressing pollution issues in the country, said Frank Chitwood, riverkeeper for Coosa Riverkeeper Inc. Hughes agreed it can be a problem at construction sites and the department keeps a close eye on it. Each contractor is required to create a plan for controlling runoff specific to the site and project he is working on, Hughes said.
The plan is reviewed and approved by ADEM before work starts, he said.
One reason sediment control is such an issue in the construction trade is that it’s expensive to try to stop the erosion at construction sites, especially large sites.
“One of the cheapest ways for a construction company to reduce their costs on a build is to not put in place sedimentation controls and erosion controls,” Chitwood said.
But the sediment can cause problems for animals and other species living in the water, Hughes said, and it fills up waterways used for recreation, making them less safe. It also damages waterways used for producing hydropower, Chitwood said.
“There’s eight dams holding back six lakes on the Coosa and that sediment doesn’t go through the dams,” Chitwood said. “Since these are hydro-powered dams that generate electricity, when the lakes fill up with sediment, it has less storage capacity — it can’t hold as much water — and the water is what generates power. So if there’s less storage capacity for the water, there’s less ability to generate power.”
The local complaints triggered an inspection and then a citation against ALDOT at the Veterans Memorial Parkway project.
In April, ADEM proposed a consent agreement fining ALDOT for the violation. ADEM proposed a civil penalty of $26,200 but also included the option of an undefined remediation project valued at least $78,600.
By law, ADEM has to advertise for public comment before finalizing the agreement. It received three comments on the agreement, Hughes said.
On June 5, after reviewing the comments, ADEM approved the original consent order and negotiations began for a remediation project, referred to as a supplemental environmental project.
“We are in discussions with them about what their water priorities are around the state and an approval of something will emerge from those discussions,” said Tony Harris, spokesman for ALDOT.
The decision about where and what that project may be is really in the hands of ADEM, Harris said.
Jerome Hand, of the ADEM external affairs office, agreed.
“On most SEPs, if we don’t select it ourselves, we do have to approve it,” Hand said.
ADEM modeled its supplemental project guidelines on federal guidelines. According to U. S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, the project and the violation “must have adequate nexus.”
Nexus, the policy goes on to say, “is easier to establish if the primary impact of the project is at the site where the alleged violation occurred or at a different site in the same ecosystem.”
That, argues Chitwood, means if there is a project available in this area, the remediation should be done here — not somewhere else in the state.
“Without this restriction in place, there is a publicity advantage to polluters who can destroy one area and pay for their misdeeds by restoring another,” Chitwood wrote in a letter to ADEM.
Chitwood suggested Choccolocco Creek, which is within the same river basin as Cane Creek, as the site of remediation.
The fact that ALDOT does work throughout the state doesn’t have any bearing on mitigating the problem in Calhoun County, Chitwood said.
Beth Stewart, executive director of the Birmingham-based Cahaba River Society, agreed with Chitwood.
“When it comes to damage that occurs to water quality or to a watershed, you can’t address that damage to a water source with a project that occurs somewhere else,” Stewart said. “Water is not transferrable that way. It’s very specific to the community.”
Unlike air pollution, which mixes with other air and travels well outside the community, water follows specific courses and stays within the same watershed, she said. In addition, damage to habitats or plant or animal species can only be fixed in that watershed, Stewart added.
Harris said he was unaware that there had been suggestions of a local project, but said the final approval isn’t in ALDOT’s hands.
In a response to Chitwood’s letter, Steven Jenkins of ADEM’s chief field operations division said the direct nexus is just one option for the department to consider.
“ADEM may consider projects that have an indirect nexus,” Tyler said. “An indirect nexus need not necessarily be limited to the same watershed if the SEP enhances ADEM’s statutory mission or offers a clear relation to the violations addressed by (or similar to) the settlement.”
Hand said he would check into the project but as of deadline Friday had not provided an answer.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.