This is an opinion column.
When Drummond Co. and Balch & Bingham pressured the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to reverse course on toxic soil cleanup in north Birmingham, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur rolled over like a dying fish in an Alabama river.
When 3M self-reported toxins it had dumped in the Tennessee River, the agency he heads didn’t bother to tell anyone — including the people who drink from that river. A Huntsville TV reporter had to discover the 3M disclosure on her own and do the work for them.
And when a Birmingham TV reporter asked about a disastrous fish kill on the Mulberry Fork, where a chicken plant poisoned the water there, too, LeFleur wouldn’t answer questions about that, either.
When ABC 33/40 reporter Cynthia Gould told LeFleur that people want to know whether the water in the Black Warrior River system is safe, LeFleur told her to go look on ADEM’s website.
“This is an ongoing enforcement matter and we owe it to these people to give them due process as we do for anybody,” he said.
Due process. These people. Who exactly are these people? Because as LeFleur and ADEM have shown again and again, these people aren’t people at all, but rather the industries that make it unsafe for real people to live.
If there’s one thing that people across the political spectrum can agree on, it’s this: When a granddad takes his grandchildren to fish in the river, when they catch a fish, they should be able to eat that fish without worry of impairing the little ones’ brain development.
That won’t be a problem on the Mulberry Fork. For a while, at least, there won’t be any fish there to catch.
And it’s not just the fish, either. It’s the water. The water we play in. The water we drink.
WHNT’s Chelsea Brentzel has been relentlessly reporting the neglect of 3M, which has dumped enough FBSA, a toxin, into the Tennessee River that the company recently agreed to pay the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority $35 million in a legal settlement.
If you don’t get your water from the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, don’t rest easy that this story doesn’t apply to you. Rivers are long and a lot of other folks live between there and the Gulf of Mexico.
But here’s the thing. 3M told ADEM in April that it had underreported the amount of FBSA it had dumped in the river for years.
You would think ADEM would have told somebody, but nope. Brentzel had to discover it on her own. People who live there had to learn the news from her only last week.
In north Birmingham, residents don’t need to go fishing for pollution. The toxins are in the dirt where children play, and in the soil where residents grow their food.
In 2015, the EPA wanted to clean up that soil by adding the area to its National Priorities List. All it really needed was an OK from Alabama that it would pick up 10 percent of cleanup costs until it forced local polluters to repay those expenses.
Initially, LeFleur and ADEM said they had no problem with the plan, but one of those potential polluters, Drummond Co., and its law firm, Balch and Bingham, got to LeFleur, applying pressure directly and — through Gov. Robert Bentley — indirectly, until LeFleur told EPA the state agency had changed its mind.
Challenged on it later, LeFleur called his course reversal “by the book.”
When LeFleur talks about “due process,” understand that’s how ADEM’s due process works. When he says “by the book,” remember that means putting polluters ahead of people.
And LeFleur wasn’t the only one who got caught working with polluters in that case. Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Lanier Brown met with the same men and helped sway the due process in their direction, testimony in federal court and documents obtained by federal prosecutors has shown.
When the folks — people, not polluters — showed up at an AEMC meeting demanding an explanation last year, Brown wouldn’t so much as apologize.
This much is clear. LeFleur lives in fear of losing his job. And when you’re squaring off with powerful polluters, the last person you need in that position is someone who’s afraid.
I would tell you LeFleur, needs to go, but then I couldn’t tell you somebody better would replace him. We’ve seen worse in that job before. LeFleur’s predecessor, Trey Glenn, is currently under indictment on state ethics charges.
I would tell you that we need a better ADEM, but that would be understating things. In case after case, ADEM gets caught, not regulating polluters, but aiding and abetting them.
I’m not certain we wouldn’t be better off with no ADEM at all.
In Alabama, the poisons aren’t just in our water, our air and our dirt. Our politics are the most poisonous of all.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.