When environmental incidents occur in Alabama, who’s in charge?

Posted 8/3/19

The recent Tyson Foods wastewater spill has raised an array of questions about what state government can do, or is doing, to protect your interests.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Don't have an ID?


Print subscribers

If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.

Non-subscribers

Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.

When environmental incidents occur in Alabama, who’s in charge?

Posted

The recent Tyson Foods wastewater spill has raised an array of questions about what state government can do, or is doing, to protect your interests. 

I thought it might be helpful to shed light on an oft-overlooked reality about state government—not every executive agency is accountable to an elected official, including the state’s Department of Environmental Management.

During the last legislative session, I sponsored a bill (that is now law) to reform Alabama’s system of Pardons and Paroles. One of my biggest issues with the system was that the Pardons and Paroles agency was accountable only to an unelected board, and that board was accountable to no one. I found that lack of accountability to be highly problematic and a major impediment to much-needed change. Imagine my surprise, after the Tyson’s spill, to find out that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is similarly structured.

Although the Department is within the executive branch of our state government, it is not under the direct authority of any elected official. The Director of ADEM is appointed by and reports to the Environmental Management Commission. The Commission is accountable to no one. Though the seven members of the Commission are appointed by the Governor with consent of the Alabama Senate, I am not aware of any process for removing a commissioner, before the expiration of his or her term, for poor job performance. Each commissioner serves a six-year term, meaning that a governor could complete his or her four-year term in office without having any say at all as to who serves on the Commission.

ADEM’s budget this year was around $150 million. Only a small portion of that money came from the state’s General Fund or was appropriated by the legislature. Roughly sixty percent of ADEM’s budget comes from self-generated fines and fees and the other forty percent comes directly from the federal government. As a result, in carrying out its duties, ADEM works very closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

I have no reason to doubt the professionalism or dedication of the men and women serving in our state’s Department of Environmental Management. They are uniquely qualified for the work that they do. My concern, however, is that their detachment from elected officials (who daily interact with and are held to account by the people) may make it more difficult for them to fully sense the fear and anxiousness that people feel when there is an environmental incident in their area—at the very least, this can lead to gaps in communication and related issues.

As your representative, I am taking a keen interest in the Tyson’s spill, including the oversight and accountability that your government is providing and the remedial measures that Tyson’s is undertaking in the Sipsey Fork and Mulberry Fork regions. I will continue to try to facilitate better communication between Tyson Foods, ADEM, and my affected constituents. I will also continue to educate my colleagues about the challenges that we face in state government due to a structure that leaves too many state agencies and boards operating outside the jurisdiction of any elected official.

Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper) is a member of the Alabama House, representing District 13 which includes Walker and Blount counties.