The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 29, 2011

Green group: Tornado cleanup a bright spot for state

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press

— BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The tornadoes that devastated Alabama in the spring proved that a state with a spotty record on the environment can make real progress toward recycling and protecting its streams and forests, according to a report by an environmental group.

Environmentalists often criticize Alabama for what they consider lax enforcement of clean air and water standards, but an annual report by the Homewood-based Green Resource Center for Alabama said the twister cleanup and recovery were bright spots on the state’s record.

The report this week praised environmentally friendly policies adopted during the rebuilding in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, and it said more than 90 percent of the tornado debris in Birmingham was recycled. The recycling saved landfill space and avoided air pollution linked with incineration while injecting about $2 million into the area economy and providing a new model for debris removal.

Pat Byington, a longtime activist who publishes the Bama Environmental News and worked with the center on the report, said agencies from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to Alabama Forestry Commission and the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries collaborated in the aftermath of the twisters.

“It was not perfect, we all know that. But it was something we can build on,” Byington said Wednesday.

Scott Walton, a founder of the Green Resource Center, said attitudes are changing in Alabama about environmental protection and faith-based groups are becoming more interested in stewardship of natural resources.

“Culturally we’re starting to get it, both metaphorically and on the ground,” said Walton.

The state’s environmental efforts often don’t receive such praise: Two groups, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Alabama Rivers Alliance, released a report card two years ago that gave the state a poor grade of D-plus because regulators weren’t enforcing sections of federal laws meant to protect streams and water supplies from pollution.

But the new report highlighted a number of positive steps taken over the last year, including the destruction of the final chemical weapons stored at Anniston Army Depot; the continuing cleanup along the coast from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; improving air quality in Jefferson County; and a settlement that should lead to reduced emissions at Tennessee Valley Authority plants in north Alabama.

The Honda automotive factory in Talladega County has made vehicles for a decade without hauling materials to landfills, according to the report, and state lawmakers agreed to let voters decide on an extension of the Forever Wild land preservation program this coming November.

Recycling programs already in place in the state’s most populous city of Birmingham are expanding; towns statewide are using grant money to improve energy efficiency; and bicycle sharing programs are in place to reduce car usage at the University of South Alabama, the city of Montevallo and downtown Birmingham, where Alabama Power Co. workers can peddle to lunch.

As environmentalists released the report during a news conference at a nature center, Gov. Robert Bentley’s office said it would require all state departments to reduce energy consumption 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2015. Each agency must designate an energy officer to study and recommend ways to use less energy.

Byington said Bentley’s executive order was another sign of progress. “It’s great,” he said.