China or the State of Alabama, Which is More Concerned about Pollution?

When I moved to the Birmingham, Alabama metro area in 1977, the construction crews were just completing the Interstate highways through the city. Interstates I-20, I-59 and I-65 had been completed everywhere else in the state except where they where they ran through Birmingham because George Wallace had delayed work on the Interstates in the city as punishment for its residents voting against him in gubernatorial elections. That will give you an idea how Alabama politics worked in those days.

I remember driving south from my suburban home to my work location on the brand new I-59 highway into the heart of the Birmingham and often seeing a pinkish haze hanging over the city. The tallest buildings were only visible as vague outlines in the smog. Occasionally there was a hint of the rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulfide gas in the air as I drove pass a metal working plant on the side of the highway. When I mentioned this to some of my coworkers who had lived in the Birmingham area all other lives, they laughed. The air quality was much improved they assured me. They remembered when the smog was so bad that you could not see the sky line as you approached the city, it was like entering a thick red cloud. They related horror stories like having to bring towels with them to Legion Field when they attended Alabama football games because the seats were covered black soot which they had to wipe off before sitting down.

I later determined why the air had improved. Though the very conservative population of the state would have had a difficult time admitting it, it was federal clean air rules which had been responsible for making the biggest polluters up wind from the city center clean up their acts.

Due to ever stricter federal clean air standards the air in Birmingham’s downtown business district has continued to improve since I moved into the area. Gone is the heavy smog and so is rotten egg smells. The air on most days appears to be crystal clear, but until very recently the Birmingham metro area was still under restrictions which prohibited the establishment of any new business which add additional pollution to the air. This was because when there was an occasional temperature inversion over the city, pollution from two Alabama coal burning power plants up wind would cause concentrations of ozone to rise above the federally mandated safe air standards. Alerts would go out to the public to keep driving to a minimum, to mow lawns only after 5:00 p.m., etc., but of course the power plants would continue to belch out their pollution around the clock.

Alabama Power has fought EPA lawsuits aimed at forcing it to modernize its coal powered power plants in the state in order to reduce their pollution for years, but it doesn’t have to worry about instate regulators. In this reddest of red states the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is virtually toothless and Alabama Public Service Commission which regulates public utilities is a bad joke. The PSC candidates, their campaign coffers swelled with contributions from Alabama Power and big coal, try to out do one another with their denunciations of the EPA and “Obama’s job killing environmental regulations”.

I write about this subject not to complain about the situation here in Alabama. It is what it is because the citizens of this state allow it to exist.  I write this as a cautionary tale.  I see Alabama is an example of how this country would be run if the far right conservatives were firmly in charge of all three federal branches of government in Washington. The lesson is to not allow that to happen.

Meanwhile the sensible people in the state Alabama will continue to our fight against those who would put business success in our state above public health. John Archibald, a columnist for the Birmingham News and al.com, has for years been a vocal critic of gross incompetence and stupidity in local and state government. His stinging, often humorous columns have brought many a wayward politician to task. One of his recent columns entitled “China Sees Though Its Coal Fired Haze – Alabama Does Not” explores Alabama’s pollution problems is a gem and a very good read. It can be found on the al.com website at:  http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/03/china_sees_through_its_coal-fi.html#incart_2box_opinion_index.ssf

Cajun 3/29/15

Random thoughts of opinionated Cajun