Alabama’s Abysmal Environmental Record

This article is from the spring 2024 edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in the past year. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Lynn Phillips

In 40 years of working as an environmental engineer, I’ve dealt with regulators and permit holders in 34 states. This includes California, New York, Texas, Ohio, and Virginia. In all these localities, permit compliance and good neighbor relations were uniformly expected and respected.

Some of the toughest regulators I’ve dealt with were in politically conservative states like Texas and Ohio. Although I lived in Birmingham for more than 20 years, I never had the chance to observe how Alabama compared to other states in regulatory enforcement because I didn’t have many permit-holding clients in the state. I saw news stories about pollution issues in Jefferson County, the Black Belt, and the Mobile Bay area, but it didn’t occur to me that Alabama regulators were part of the problem.

In 2018, I decided I had traveled and seen enough. It was time to do something different. One of the things I had been impressed with while living in Alabama was the effectiveness of the Riverkeeper organizations in holding chronic polluters accountable for the benefit of the people directly affected. I had always wanted to be a part of that effort, so I reached out to Eva Dillard at Black Warrior Riverkeeper. I asked permission of my employer to provide pro-bono engineering support to the organization which is standard practice in large engineering firms. I thought this would be a routine “permission granted,” but my request was denied because “there could be company problems with ADEM,” my supervisor said when my efforts became known. This was new to me, but it also made my decision to retire from full-time work easy; I could follow my conscience and continue to use the skills I had learned.

My first task at Black Warrior Riverkeeper was to review the Uniontown, Alabama, wastewater situation. The City of Uniontown owns a wastewater treatment lagoon and spray field that had been discharging untreated, or partially treated, wastewater to Freetown and Cottonwood creeks in Perry County for more than 20 years. During that time, there had been no meaningful enforcement of waste discharge requirements against Uniontown, nor any of the town’s industries that contributed to the problem. I had no idea what this research would lead to, but it has been one of the better adventures of my life.
For those of you who don’t know about Uniontown, it’s a long, sad story and indicative of what happens when governments don’t care about working people. The State of Alabama’s attitude to Uniontown is so egregious that the state has purchased and reopened an abandoned prison in 2021, placing an additional load on an already overloaded sewer system.

I’m regularly reminded that respecting workers or complying with environmental norms is not, and probably never has been, part of the mindset of the people who effectively hold power in Alabama. But, there is hope for the future. As James the Apostle says in the Bible, “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord, Almighty” (James 5:4). The people I’ve been fortunate to work with in Uniontown have become friends and are the harvesters James the Apostle talked about. I’ve never worked in an area where the state and federal officials have so little regard for the environment and the people affected by pollution. It’s become one of my passions to bring small changes to the state that will improve the environment and the lives of the working people in it.

Recently, I’ve been able to work with Mobile Baykeeper on the coal-ash pond closures at Plant Barry. After having worked on environmental cleanup efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it’s shocking to see that those lessons have not been learned in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. A storm-surge event on the magnitude of a storm like Katrina would be catastrophic for the Delta, Mobile Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.

I know this can sound off-putting, but there is hope for the future. Our elected representatives at the local and state levels have the power and ability to change direction and begin respecting the citizens of the state, as well as environmental norms. Not only is it the right thing to do, but based on my experience in other states, it’s one of the best ways to advance the society and economy of Alabama.

A retired engineer, Lynn Phillips was a long-time resident of Birmingham and now resides in the Florida Panhandle, where he volunteers with the Riverkeepers in the region.

Photo: Cade Kistler takes water samples near the ash pond at Plant Barry, 2015.


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