Wonderful article “Buying Time” by Gabriel Tynes and a big thank you to the retired biologist (Glen Coffee) brave enough to speak up for environmental impact statements. [Judith] Adams of the Port Authority’s internal and external affairs may need a change in advisors or a better understanding of environmental science before rendering opinions. To the general public, the discussion of environmental assessments vs. environmental impact statements may sound like discussion of the correct pronunciation of tomato, depending on where you were raised. They sound so similar that it could seem like just semantics, but it is not.
Environmental assessments (EA) should be used in a case where you have a very defined known pollutants source and a known environment (a very specific type of industrial plant or gas station). For example, an investor is interested in purchasing an old tire store and doesn’t want to purchase an environmental liability, in other words, a site full of leaked gasoline, oil and hydraulic fuel. The investor will hire an environmental consultant to test the soil for a variety of suspected contaminants, conduct interviews (maybe with the fire department, old employees, etc.) to see if there are records of old spills. The consultant will also research old archival records of insurance maps and other documents to see if they can find possible records of existing tanks. Even with this type of investigation, any consulting firm that knows their salt will put a significant disclaimer at the front of the report.
The Port Authority (aka. the old state docks) brings in shipping containers of all sorts of materials from all sorts of places (foreign and domestic). Shipyards typically have sandblasting operations. Shipping containers often leak; some have to be properly cleaned out if they carried something hazardous or an import that might have something harmful to our environment, and dredging and landfill cost for removal is an expected part of their operations. Dredging and handling waste is the cost of doing business, just like waste disposal is the cost of producing power or a chemical product. Each entity, Alabama Power and Alabama Port Authority, understands these costs and includes them in their business and operating plans before they produce the waste. These are not costs that the residents of Baldwin and Mobile counties should absorb simply because these entities don’t want to pay them.
Based on the Port Authority operations, they would not have a specifically defined situation mentioned above because they deal with many different products and operations. Also, dredge material, in general, is likely to have metal contaminants and a variety of other bad “mojo” materials, because dredge material comes from the bottom sediments where these materials have sunk. Think about the garbage disposal at your house. Then think about all the ships that come to the docks from foreign locations and think about the types of leakage associated with boats and ships. What about the materials that attach to the ship’s bottom from say Taiwan, Korea, Bolivia, etc.?
The next consideration is that they propose to put these dredge wastes in a wildlife habitat. Habitats which are necessary for shrimp, crab, fish, birds, turtles etc. Should progress mean we eliminate our necessary food sources and ecological systems? Most importantly, think of the microscopic benthic wildlife communities that support our coastal food sources. Benthic communities are used by environmental scientists as an environmental indicator of the health of the ecological system.
Did you ever watch the old movie by Alfred Hitchcock called “The Birds”? It may not compare to today’s killer robot movies, but in its day it was a scary movie about ecological collapse. Ever notice the proliferation of Canadian geese that seems a constant problem on the Causeway and other shore areas? These issues are being artificially controlled by local governments. Some biological species are generalists and some very specific. The key is to have a large variety of many types of native species called a diverse ecosystem. If ecological health starts to fail (i.e., “The Birds”), the system produces an overabundance of a few species and not enough of the others. Diseases like bird flu start to rise and other serious consequences take hold to balance the system.
We cannot take our habitats and treat them like waste dumps without a consequence. Mr. Tynes’ article referred to submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). These are the plants that support the wildlife community at all levels, by providing wildlife (fish, shrimp, crabs, etc.) protection from the sun’s rays (particularly important in a warming climate), a foraging environment, a breeding ground and other biological functions. Plants uptake pollutants and our shellfish filter water. Do you want to give them a heavy dose of metals and have them land on your plate?
Wetlands serve both physiological and biological functions. Ask a Louisianan about the importance of wetlands. Wetland mitigation and air pollution credits trading are like trading cards of the ecological system, substitute a natural God-made wetland in one place for an artificially man-made wetland in another place. Certainly, there can be appropriate applications of wetland mitigation, but it can be a shell game too, if misused. Wetland mitigation was not designed for a corporate entity to avoid paying the appropriate disposal costs that are part of doing business.
An environmental impact statement (EIS) is vital for this dredge material situation. An EIS measures the existing health of the biological community, looks at wetland and ecological system functions, studies the long-term impact of an environmental decision (like dumping a dredge material into a natural habitat and calling it a “wetlands” project), and then determines if the environment can take the load of the action being proposed. Certainly, this is an oversimplification, but an EIS is a study of long-term consequences, not just an environmental assessment quick and dirty view. It is a matter of the right tool for the job. Do you stop a tire leak with a wad of bubble gum? Do you use a hammer to split wood or a fly-fishing rod, instead of a cast net, to catch mullet? Better yet and likely less expensive would be if the Port Authority paid to handle their waste correctly in the first place. They could spend a long time and a lot of expense conducting an EIS only to find out the habitat can’t take the load and would have to dispose of the dredge material appropriately anyway.
The final question to be asked of both Alabama Power and of the Alabama Port Authority is what type of corporate environmental stewards do they want to be for Alabama residents. Alabama Power is currently running advertisements with some of the local environmental groups about how clean their operation is while choosing the riskiest and cheapest waste-handling option, putting our natural resources at risk. Alabama Power could substitute its tremendous marketing budget to tell Alabamians that they are “green and healthy” for appropriately handling their waste and showing Alabamians they care for our well-being and environment. The viability of our ecological systems cares little about corporate language and a lot about corporate behavior. I urge Baldwin and Mobile counties’ residents to keep their eyes on the Port Authority and Alabama Power’s behavior, not the advertising. Alabama Power and Alabama Port Authority, please do the right thing and quit asking Alabamians to pay the consequences for your business costs. We need more brave souls like the retired biologist to explain the facts of ecological life to our residents and our corporate and government leaders. The stakes are too high for looking the other way.
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