When an industry proposes to locate in an area, nearby residents, businesses and community groups all have a vested interest in what that industry wants to do and how those plans will affect them and their environment. Providing them with a platform to both learn about industry plans and voice their potential concerns is a key feature of Alabama’s environmental regulatory process.
In its regulatory role, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management provides notification and a process through which citizens can comment whenever an industry applies for an air, water, or land license. This is required by law and ADEM’s operating rules to protect the state’s environment. When local interest so requires, ADEM will hold a public hearing to maximize the opportunity for the public to comment.
ADEM believes that citizens have the right to be informed and to express their concerns regarding the potential impacts on the environment of a new or expanded operation. ADEM considers these relevant comments, as well as the extensive scientific review of the permit application by its staff, to determine whether the applicant meets the requirements of state and federal environmental regulations.
In the event of a permit being issued, ADEM provides written responses to the relevant issues or questions raised in the comments.
But here is what it is important for the public to understand: ADEM is limited, by law, to its regulatory functions. ADEM will not and cannot determine whether a proposed plant or operation is a good use of this land. These land use decisions are rightly left to local elected officials and elected officials – city councils, county commissions, zoning councils, etc.
Unfortunately, citizens sometimes think that regulatory bodies like ADEM have more authority than they do. They ask ADEM to deny a license to an industry simply because they don’t want this industry in their community.
ADEM cannot do this. Instead, citizens should look to their local elected officials.
Consider two recent examples – the reactions of some residents of the Gadsden area to a proposed chicken by-product rendering plant and the opposition of some residents of Lee County to a quarry project.
Residents opposed to these operations coming to their communities organized, petitions and protested. They appealed to their Gadsden city council and county commission
in Lee County to say no to the factory and shut down the quarry. Gadsden citizen and business groups and Lee County officials have hired lawyers and sued in their fight.
Citizens also testified at ADEM hearings and sent comments to the ministry urging ADEM to refuse permits for the plant and quarry.
These actions are all within their rights and they are not unexpected.
However, there is a distinction between what ADEM can do and what local elected officials can do.
ADEM must first and foremost respect the rules that govern its operation. There are strict state and federal guidelines prescribing the issuance of environmental permits – water discharges, air emissions, etc. If a permit applicant meets all of these requirements and ADEM determines that it provides the necessary environmental guarantees, as determined by data and science, ADEM is obligated to issue the permit.
Of course, any permit issued by ADEM will protect human health and the environment.
A citizen who believes that the decision to grant the permit was made in error, or an applicant who believes that the permit was wrongly refused, can challenge the decision in the circuit court. This provides another important guarantee of due process.
Local elected officials have more latitude than ADEM. They can assess whether an industry is suitable, for example, for a region, the economy or the general well-being of the community. Plus, they have other tools at their disposal, such as zoning regulations and economic incentives, to tailor the type of industries they want in a region.
Whether a quarry, factory or other industrial facility is located in your community is in the hands of your local authorities. They must respond directly to you, the voter. If you don’t like a decision made by the mayor, city council or county commission, you can vote against them. The appointed council or authorities in many cases can be replaced by these elected officials if they make unpopular decisions.
The local path – calling on local officials and holding them to account – is often the best way for citizens to get what they want or block what they don’t want.
This does not mean, however, that ADEM does not apply and does not rigorously enforce environmental regulations. This is because the department consistently ranks among the leading environmental regulators in Southeastern states based on actions by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
My assurance to the citizens of Alabama is that ADEM will strictly follow the law, data, and science when determining permits.
And leave land use decisions where they are best made – at the local level.
Lance LeFleur is Director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Local elected officials make the land use choices, not ADEM