The founder of north Alabama environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper doesn’t believe the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is adequately monitoring water pollution because the department is underfunded and understaffed.
David Whiteside, founder and executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said he’s concerned ADEM issues more permits than it can enforce. Whiteside said some permits issued by ADEM don’t restrict pollutants Tennessee Riverkeeper is worried about, such as pesticides used in agriculture.
It’s a failure, Whiteside said, that has contributed to Wheeler Lake being on ADEM’s impaired waters list.
“With certain things there is no limit to how much polluters can discharge,” Whiteside said. “Sometimes there are no parameters. The permit just requires them to report what they dump.”
Entities that want to discharge into Alabama waters must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from ADEM. The permit regulates what can be dumped and how much of it can be dumped. If an entity exceeds the parameters set by ADEM, that’s considered a violation, which are fined.
ADEM spokesman Jerome Hand said there are discharges subject to federal guidelines and some that may contain pollutants for which a state water quality-based standard has not been established. In those cases, the discharges may only require monitoring, or limitations may be established based on professional judgment. Hand said a pollution prevention plan is developed if a potential concern is identified.
“We monitor all of the permits issued in the Tennessee Valley, and we look for illegal pollution,” Whiteside said. “When we find it, we work with a team of scientists and attorneys to fix the problem.”
Hand said funding from the state has been drastically reduced over the past several years, and the amount of funding from the federal government also has declined in recent years.
But Hand said ADEM’s Water Division has maintained the required number of staff to perform necessary functions. He said there are about 10,000 permits through ADEM’s Water Division. The division prioritizes its efforts to get the greatest compliance rates and the greatest environmental benefit, he said.
“These budget cuts have necessitated fee increases by the department, as well as using innovation to most efficiently utilize the limited available resources,” Hand said.
Gov. Robert Bentley has said at least 148 ADEM workers would lose their jobs if the Legislature does not agree to new revenue in the special session that resumed Monday.
Hand said the water division has increased its efficiency by implementing electronic reporting, accepting permit applications electronically and issuing electronic general permits.
Although funding is limited, Hand said, the federal Office of the Inspector General ranked Alabama among the top 10 in the nation with regard to enforcement programs based upon analysis of data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But in a June 15 presentation to the state Environmental Management Commission, ADEM’s director expressed many of the same concerns raised by Whiteside.
“The state has made the decision that we will run a bare-bones environmental program,” said agency Director Lance LeFleur, discussing an ADEM budget that has dropped 57 percent since 2008. “It’s intentional here that the environmental program be the minimum it can be. ... Industry wants the minimum amount of regulation, the state wants to keep government out of people’s lives.”
LeFleur said Alabama ranks 49th among the states in per-capita expenditures on enforcement of pollution laws.
“Quite frankly, without action, ADEM will be unable to fund operation of the water division,” LeFleur said. “Were that to occur, EPA would assume that responsibility and would dictate both the conditions included in those permits and the timing for permit issuance.”
Whiteside said Tennessee Riverkeeper takes legal action against violators at least four times per year. Since it was founded in 2009, the organization has legally addressed more than 30,000 violations of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act.
“Litigation is the last resort, but sometimes it comes to that,” Whiteside said.
Wheeler Lake, Decatur’s only water source, was placed on ADEM’s 2014 impaired waters list as a result of high levels of nutrients and toxic chemicals. The next list will be released in 2016. Inclusion on the list means the lake does not support its designated uses such as swimming, fish and wildlife and public water supply.
ADEM cited high levels of nutrients, phosphorus and nitrogen, and a man-made toxin called perfluorooctane sulfonate, a type of perfluorinated chemical, as its reason for placing Wheeler Lake on the list.
The list, published every two years, did not include Wheeler Lake in 2012.
Whiteside said nutrient pollution is mainly caused by runoff from agricultural, industrial and government facilities. He said an overabundance of nutrients can be an indicator of more toxic elements in the water supply.
“For example, when it rains, the soil from an agricultural facility runs off into the lake,” Whiteside said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh it’s just a little bit of dirt in the water. Why is that a problem?’ ”
The problem is that agricultural runoff usually contains pesticides and fertilizers. Whiteside said nutrient pollution is a big problem at Wheeler Lake and statewide.
“If there’s a lot of sedimentation going into smaller tributaries, it can lower oxygen levels in the creek, smothering wildlife,” Whiteside said. “It’s important to have creeks clean because they feed into the river.”
If there’s not a good flow of oxygen, it creates a favorable habitat for algae, which creates an unbalanced ecosystem and makes it difficult for native fish and wildlife to live and thrive.
In June, the Alabama Department of Public Health released its annual fish consumption advisory, which was based on tissue samples of fish caught in the fall of 2014.
The department asked residents to limit consumption of largemouth bass caught in waters near industries on the river in Decatur, including Wheeler Lake, to one meal per month because the fish have high levels of PFOS, a type of perfluorinated chemical once used to produce non-stick products. The advisory applies from river mile 303 — near Ingalls Harbor — downstream to mile 296.
“The chemical can increase in concentration,” Whiteside said. “It will show up in smaller fish and increase in concentration in larger fish. Larger fish, like catfish and largemouth bass, also get it from eating smaller fish. They store it in their bodies and hold on to it longer.”
Whiteside said scientists are still researching and learning about effects of perfluorinated chemicals on the human body.
Some studies have linked perfluorinated chemicals to cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, ulcerative colitis and developmental problems, including attention deficit disorder.
PFCs have been linked to some industries and to Decatur Utilities’ Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Decatur-Morgan County Landfill.