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Groups want EPA to revoke ADEM authority

Release Date: 
Saturday, January 16, 2010

By Ben Raines

 Published January 16, 2010, Mobile Press-Register

Charging that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has failed to enforce key sections of the federal Clean Water Act, a coalition of environmental groups has asked the federal government to take away Alabama's regulatory authority.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would take over, should ADEM lose its authority to regulate water permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

"We have received notice of the petition and we will work closely with EPA to address all of the allegations that are contained in the petition. We take very seriously not only this petition but the responsibility we have to protect Alabama's water resources on behalf of all our citizens," said ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes.

One of the key charges in the 77-page petition, which was sent to the EPA on Friday, is that Alabama has failed to provide adequate funding for ADEM. The agency has, in turn, failed to hire enough inspectors to keep track of the thousands of pollution permits issued in recent years, according to the petition.

"Our (water) program is routinely evaluated by EPA and they have never documented any issues that would support the withdrawal of our authorization to administer the NPDES program," Hughes said.

EPA officials did not return calls for comment.

ADEM is also accused of failing to issue penalties for pollution violations as required by federal law, failing to respond to complaints and tips from citizens, and of inspecting just 20 percent of "major" permit holders in 2009 instead of the 100 percent required by law.

The petition also details hundreds of examples of the state failing to inspect construction sites, sewage plants and industries for years at a time. For instance, in 2008 ADEM inspected less than 1 percent of the 6,049 companies, farms or other industries that have been issued "non-major" water pollution permits. At that rate, those entities "will be inspected once every 167 years on average," according to the petition.

The petition states that ADEM has "no record" of ever inspecting at least nine coal mines in the state that have water pollution discharge permits. Other coal mines had not been inspected in seven or more years.

Mitch Reid, with the Alabama Rivers Alliance, met with EPA officials in Atlanta on Friday to present the petition. He said the group's goal was to "make something comprehensive enough, with enough factual evidence, that EPA would have to act."

"The EPA was very aware of the issues that we've had with ADEM. We are optimistic that we are going to see some changes," Reid said, describing the state program as "fundamentally broken" and failing to "meet minimum federal standards."

EPA records show a dramatic decline in the number of inspections and enforcement actions by ADEM in 2009. In August, ADEM official Jerome Hand described those EPA statistics as "not up-to-date," and said the EPA records "have been questioned by (ADEM)."

"ADEM has long been seen by many in this state as the No. 1 environmental problem," said Casi Callaway, director of Mobile Baykeeper. "We've tried for five years to improve how ADEM protects our water resources, with no luck. This is our last-ditch effort."