“Inept corporate figurehead.”
“Allegiance to money over public safety.”
“Unfit to serve.”
These were among the words and phrases used to describe the job performance of Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), in a majority of opinions sent over the summer to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission (AEMC).
As part of his annual performance evaluation, AEMC sought public comment over a period of 38 days between June and July. According to a review of those responses, only 18 of the 224 received were positive in nature. Still, on Oct. 18, in its first meeting of the new fiscal year, AMEC unanimously voted to retain LeFleur as ADEM’s director for another year, maintaining his maximum $172,737.60 annual salary.
But at two public meetings in Montgomery on Friday, neither the three-member AEMC personnel committee nor the seven-member commission elaborated on or acknowledged the litany of complaints many letter-writers did share: primarily complaints about LeFleur’s mishandling of environmental disasters both real and potential, and a dismissive attitude toward transparency and accountability when questioned or confronted by the public or the media. Instead, three of the seven commissioners joined various business, industry and government interests in writing letters in support of LeFleur themselves.
Generally dismissing the 187 negative letters received as “just statements” with “some constructive feedback,” Commissioner Thomas Walters, who also chairs the personnel committee, suggested a lack of communication seemed to be a common theme in the comments.
At the committee meeting, Commissioner Ruby Perry noted the purpose of the public comment process was to ensure the public was “aware what the commission is doing and its responsibilities.” Commissioner Kevin McKinstry said his interpretation of the evaluations was “the agency is performing at a high level.”
“We have a very engaged staff,” he said. “The chance to improve communications and telling the story of ADEM — what they do every day — certainly is an opportunity for improvement.”
Many of the negative evaluations originated from the northern half of the state, where ADEM and LeFleur have been criticized for the lack of involvement, notification or enforcement of such issues as the 3M Company’s years-long release of toxic chemicals into the Tennessee River. Elsewhere within the past year, LeFleur has also been scrutinized for his response to a large fish kill on the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River, which was attributed to a nearly 1-million-gallon wastewater discharge by Tyson Foods. In Birmingham, state media reported how records in a criminal trial indicated LeFleur and ADEM caved under pressure from industries responsible when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggested the state expand and force the cleanup of a Superfund site.
Closer to home, concerns also touched on Alabama Power’s plans to “cap in place” its coal ash ponds statewide, including its largest at Plant Barry in Mobile County. Local letter-writers also mentioned the state’s response to the BP oil spill, the 2014 decision to allow an oil pipeline to cross the county’s primary source of drinking water and inadequate and failing sewer infrastructure.
For example, Richard Dollison of Mobile wrote: “ADEM has often sided with industrialists over Alabama’s precious environment, but under LeFleur’s leadership, it’s become exponentially worse. His unwillingness to promote clean energy by taking a tougher position on coal fired power plants threatens my home … yet the coal ash piles … [are] a disaster waiting to happen.”
Brenda Bolton wrote the Public Service Commission “regularly approves, with ADEM’s blessing, polluting industries like the coal ash lakes brought to us by Alabama Power.” She also noted the contentious interstate Plains Southcap oil pipeline that was approved in 2014. Michele Harmon suggested both ADEM and LeFleur are “pro-corporations and anti-government.” She wrote that a recent $250,000 fine for Alabama Power for groundwater pollution at coal ash ponds was “a slap on the wrist” and the state allowed “woefully inadequate” disposal of materials and wastes generated by the BP oil spill.
Meanwhile, among the 18 letters of support were officials representing such organizations as Manufacture Alabama, the Alabama Pulp & Paper Council, the Alabama Poultry & Egg Association, the Coalbed Methane Association of Alabama, the Alabama Coal Association, Commerce Director Greg Canfield, State Treasurer John McMillan and three members of AEMC itself: Jay Masingill, Mary Merritt and Samuel Miller, who serves as chairman.
“There have been lots of false accusations in the media about ADEM and the director in particular,” Miller wrote. “Through all this he has maintained decorum and provided an unbiased listening post for all sides. This takes a special talent that not many have … In summary, I think we are fortunate to have Director LeFleur leading us toward what will undoubtedly be an ever more complicated and contentious future, I hope we can keep him as long as possible!”
Reached for comment Tuesday about his own perspective on the overwhelmingly negative evaluations, LeFleur told Lagniappe he read and understood all the comments, but said both ADEM and AEMC have a duty to consider “perception” versus “facts.” He also alleged the majority of letters were sent as part of a letter-writing campaign urged by Waterkeeper Alliance organizations, including Mobile Baykeeper.
Indeed, a four-page letter from Waterkeepers Alabama, signed by organizations serving numerous bodies of water, listed enforcement inadequacy, lack of transparency in calculating penalties, public notification of spills, communications and Alabama Power coal ash groundwater contaminations as primary sources of concern.
“We believe that Director LeFleur does not lead ADEM in a manner that will even inch it closer to fulfilling its stated mission … instead, ADEM consistently moves in the wrong direction, and is doing so under the wrong director,” the letter concluded.
For his part, LeFleur acknowledged that many people perceive both he and ADEM as ineffective in its mission whether by choice or by design, but he also argued the agency operates completely within the parameters of EPA regulations and state legislation establishing and governing environmental regulations.
“About 40 percent of letters focused on some factual information, the others were general,” he said. “About 40 percent referenced the Tyson, 3M or [Drummond Coal Superfund site] — recent, newsworthy events in the state. And it was public perception. The topic I understood, but the perception was more prevalent that any factual basis, so I have to weigh those against other things that we look at as far as [ADEM’s] performance is concerned.”
He also argued that it’s a common misconception that more stringent regulations or harsher penalties result in better compliance. Instead, he said inspections, technical assistance and enforcement are more effective tools.
“EPA tracks this throughout the nation and EPA says we have among the lowest rates of violations in the nation,” he said. “We want to communicate … to help people make decisions based on facts, rather than what is popular, but we are not always popular. That is correct.”
LeFleur said while penalties are currently capped at $250,000 they may be increased by court action. But the agency also has a duty to resolve enforcement actions quickly.
“Greg Canfield at the Department of Commerce regularly does an analysis and says ADEM is perceived by business and industry as tough but fair, but above all, timely in what they do,” LeFleur said. “Timeliness makes a big difference to people who want to do business in Alabama.”
In his own letter of support to AEMC, Canfield wrote: “Under [LeFleur’s] leadership, ADEM has played a pivotal role in the state’s economic development efforts. ADEM has had the distinction, unlike environmental regulatory agencies in some states, as being viewed by the private sector as a fair-minded but strict regulator … I have enjoyed working with Lance these past years and look forward to continued successful collaboration in the future.”
Speaking directly about some of the newsworthy violations, LeFleur reiterated the emphasis on inspections.
“We have some of the highest inspection rates … in the nation,” he said. “There are over 30,000 facilities we monitor and some will screw up. Anytime you have human involvement, you’ll have human error — but the rate of violations are some of the lowest … Can we communicate better? Yes. Are there people who never want to hear what we have to say? The answer is also yes.”
Finally, LeFleur said he wasn’t bothered by the negativity, only motivated to improve.
“I had a full career in business. In the private sector, you take slings and arrows on a regular basis. I have a pretty thick hide and I understand the concerns and the area that has expressed the concerns,” he said. “There are 5 million people in the state of Alabama, 200 of them don’t feel [ADEM] is doing what needs to be done. Objective third parties don’t agree. EPA doesn’t agree, the facts on the ground don’t agree and the reputation the department has around the nation is not consistent with [those opinions].”
In statement sent Tuesday, Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said in spite of the result, she hopes the comments will illicit some change at the agency.
“While we didn’t expect the director to lose his job, we hope the comments from the community encourage him to change,” she said. “He has become too focused on making life easy for industry and, frankly, polluters, rather than working his mission of ‘assuring all citizens of the state have a safe, healthful and productive environment.’ ADEM is the least-funded environmental agency in the nation and Director LeFleur finds that acceptable. Mobile Baykeeper and our members and partners believe Alabama’s abundant natural resources are worth protecting through investing both time and financial capital.”
Reached alongside LeFleur on Tuesday, Commissioner Walters was also able to elaborate. As a retired engineer who was appointed to AEMC last year by Gov. Kay Ivey, Walters told Lagniappe his confidence in LeFleur was primarily based on LeFleur’s leadership qualities.
“He has a good temperament for being in the position of someone running a large organization and … having someone who has the experience of knowing how the organizations and the systems work and how the different agencies that are involved when things happen interact, I think is a tremendous asset.”
Speaking of the recent controversies, Walters said: “I don’t read the newspaper … I don’t seek out the news necessarily, but … In the role as a commissioner, you have the opportunity to review info as much as you really want to, but it’s not an everyday job.”
Still he said, “we’re all environmentalists … there’s nobody that wants an environmental accident to happen. But there is a process you have to go through and hopefully [violators] take notice and hopefully they are reprimanded and the appropriate action is taken against them to prevent this sort of action from happening again in the future. You can’t just focus on one thing — a lot of the letters focus on one or two things of a negative nature, but there were several positive comments … you acknowledge that constructive feedback and try to improve upon it.”
Compilation of written comments for ADEM
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