The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is the state agency charged with managing the safety and quality of Alabama‘s air, land, and water resources. It was created in 1982 when the Alabama legislature passed the Alabama Environmental Management Act consolidating the administration and enforcement of laws governing air, water, and land under this one agency to improve the ability of the state to respond to environmental issues. The agency is headquartered in Montgomery, Montgomery County, and has field offices in Birmingham, Jefferson County; Decatur, Morgan County; and Mobile, Mobile County.
In 1970, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to consolidate the various federal agencies’ environmental responsibilities under one agency, responding to growing public concern for the environment and the passage of several important clean air and water acts in prior years. Alabama also began implementing more stringent laws, including solid waste disposal (1969), air and water pollution (1971), safe water and surface mining reclamation (1975), and hazardous waste legislation (1978). Birmingham, for instance, had been considered one of the most polluted cities in the country but benefited from the federal and state air quality laws passed in the early 1970s.
A 1980 report to the Office of the Governor by a Georgia-based engineering consulting firm made numerous recommendations, including consolidating state agencies as other states had done. Prior to 1982, environmental regulation in Alabama was administered by multiple agencies, including the Air Pollution Control Commission, Water Well Advisory Board, Coastal Area Board, Surface Mining Reclamation Commission, and the Alabama Department of Public Health. Since its founding, with Joe B. Broadwater as the first director, ADEM has achieved many significant accomplishments in improving the state’s environmental wellbeing, but it has also been the subject of controversy and litigation.
ADEM has five main operating divisions: Air; Land; Water; Field Operations; and Permits and Services. In addition, the agency includes the Offices of Environmental Quality, General Counsel, and Human Resources. The scope of ADEM’s responsibility has expanded from an initial 10 programs, focusing mainly on large industrial operations, to more than 40 environmental programs covering aspects of all types of commercial and industrial operations, from dry cleaners and construction operations to steel mills and hazardous-waste landfills. ADEM’s staff has expanded as well, from about 200 employees in 1982 to more than 600 currently.
ADEM uses a combination of tools and activities to ensure compliance with environmental laws and regulations. These tools include traditional compliance inspection and enforcement programs. In addition, the agency hosts conferences and seminars for regulated industries addressing regulatory program areas such as underground storage tank assessment and remediation and groundwater protection as well as providing presentations for trade and industry associations. A major focus for the agency is public information and outreach. In 2012, ADEM received the “Excellence in Public Participation Award” from the EPA for efforts to ensure public participation in Water Quality Standards programs.
Oversight and Funding
Oversight for ADEM is provided by the Environmental Management Commission (EMC), which was created by the same act that established ADEM. The EMC is composed of seven members with expertise in healthcare, law, science, ecology, and geology appointed by the governor to six-year terms. As the governing body for ADEM, the EMC elects and advises the ADEM director, establishes environmental policy, and hears administrative appeals. In 2003, the EMC rules were amended to allow members of the public to address the commission. Previously, the commission only accepted written statements from the public.
Funding for ADEM is provided through a combination of sources, including state appropriations, federal grants and contracts such as the EPA’s Brownfields Redevelopment and Safe Drinking Water Revolving Fund grants, and fees for services such as permit processing fees. ADEM and other Alabama agencies experienced significant cuts in its state appropriation in the years following the 2008 recession, leading to concerns in 2015 that the agency would be unable to maintain some programs and the possibility that EPA would take over the program. In response to budget constraints, the agency significantly increased permit fees and eliminated funding for local governments to perform environmental spill cleanups.
Controversies and Accomplishments
Over the years, ADEM has been the subject of criticism from environmental groups, which have accused the agency of lax enforcement and, on the opposite side, industrial and trade associations claiming over-zealous enforcement. In 2010, for example, environmental groups filed a lawsuit requesting that EPA revoke ADEM’s authority to issue permits under the Clean Water Act because they claimed ADEM was not adequately inspecting and enforcing permit requirements. Conversely, in 2011 a coalition of developers and municipalities filed suit against ADEM over what they viewed as excessive storm-water pollution control regulations. Some of the most notable criticisms had been against ADEM director Trey Glenn, claiming he violated state ethics laws to get his position and accepted gifts from contractors. Although acquitted of these charges, Glenn resigned in 2009. Also noteworthy was the 2014 EPA investigation of claims that ADEM violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act when authorizing a permit and modifications for the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Perry County. The issue arose when the landfill accepted 3.9 million tons of coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Power plant spill in 2009. This raised concerns with local residents and environmental activists about pollution and adverse impacts to the largely African American community.
ADEM’s significant accomplishments include cleaning up more than 700 abandoned dump sites and approximately 300 miles of waterways, redeveloping abandoned industrial facilities under EPA’s Brownfields Program, and closing and cleaning up more than 10,000 leaking underground storage tanks. The agency has also received numerous awards, including the 2016 Region 4 EPA Rain Catcher Award for the Fairview Environmental Park project to restore a blighted industrial site in Montgomery; and the 2012 Green Apple Award, from the international Green Organization, for participation in the Joe’s Branch Stream restoration project in Spanish Fort, Baldwin County, to correct damage caused by severe soil erosion and sedimentation. Additional noteworthy accomplishments include the closure and cleanup of the Anniston Army Depot chemical weapons facility in Anniston, Calhoun County, and the removal of tons of chemical waste from public schools.