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Alabama and the
Environmental Movement

In environmental circles across the nation, Alabama is known to many as a "sacrifice zone." In other words, the state does not have a very good reputation for enforcing Federal environmental regulations, many of which were put in place during the last few decades as the environmental movement in the United States gained momentum. How Alabama has responded to the nationwide environmental movement will be briefly surveyed under the following headings: air pollution, water pollution, waste management, wetlands preservation, Alabama's environmental movement, and preserving wildlife habitat and protecting endangered species. Most of the information in this survey derives from published reports of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Air Pollution: In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in response to the growing recognition that much of the nation's air was potentially unhealthy. The Clean Air Act quickly eliminated the most egregious sources of air pollution. Air pollution has not been as significant a problem in Alabama as it has in more populated and industrialized states, but it is still a serious concern. The only city in Alabama that has traditionally experienced significant air pollution has been Birmingham, due to its heavy industry. However, Birmingham, like many other major American cities, has seen a decrease in air pollution in the last two decades, in part because of a decline in the iron industry and in part because of new Federal environmental regulations.

Water Pollution: More significant in Alabama is water pollution. Twenty-five years ago, U.S. water resources were in serious jeopardy. Threatened by industrial pollution and inadequate sewage treatment, the country's rivers, lakes and harbors were overwhelmed by the uncontrolled waste of a growing nation. In 1974, the EPA conducted general surveys of the nation's largest rivers, and found that only about 40% were safe enough for fishing and swimming. To combat this degradation, the nation embarked on a long journey to restore the integrity of its waters and make them fishable and swimmable once again. To ensure the purity of the country's drinking water, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. The EPA and states like Alabama monitor the quality of drinking water supplies and develop strategies to prevent contamination of drinking water reserves. The most serious environment problem related to Alabama waterways comes from fertilizer runoff into streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes from agricultural lands. The application of pesticides for agricultural purposes is a concern in Alabama as it is in most states. Since the early 1970s, the EPA has worked to reduce the harmful effects of pesticides by (1) banning or eliminating the use of over 230 pesticides and 20,000 pesticide products, such as DDT; (2) promoting programs that reduce the amount of pesticides applied to crops; (3) increasing the safety of those pesticides that are applied; (4) bringing safer pesticides to market; and (5) establishing basic workplace protections for almost four million agricultural workers.

Waste Management: Unfortunately, in the 1980s, Alabama, and especially a waste site at Emelle, became known as a hazardous waste dumping site for other states. This situation, and others viewed as seriously detrimental to Alabama's future, has increased environmental awareness, and even activism, in the state.

Wetlands Preservation: Along the Gulf Coast, Alabama enjoys tens of thousands of wetlands. In their natural state, wetlands help regulate and maintain the health of rivers, lakes, streams and estuaries. They provide groundwater recharge, filter out pollutants, and reduce flooding and erosion. Wetlands are important habitats for fish and wildlife, including large numbers of migratory birds. Each year, wetlands-dependent enterprises, such as commercial fishing, recreation and timber management, contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. But Alabama and the rest of the nation has been losing wetlands at a concerning rate. Before the substantial benefits of wetlands protection were recognized, about 100 million acres of wetlands were lost over the last two centuries, more than half of the wetlands in the continental United States.

Alabama's Environmental Movement: Alabama's environment benefits from the work of a number of environmental organizations and agencies. These include the Cahaba River Society (headquarters in Birmingham); The Nature Conservancy of Alabama (also in Birmingham); The Friends of the Locust Fork River (Hayden); The Friends of the Mulberry Fork River (Blountsville); Alabama Rivers Alliance (Birmingham); Alabama Environmental Council (Birmingham); The Audubon Society (chapters in Birmingham, Florence, and Tuscaloosa); Alabama Wildflower Watch (Birmingham); Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (Montgomery); Smith Lake Environmental Preservation Committee (Hoover); The Sierra Club (Birmingham, Auburn, Mobile, Montgomery, North Alabama, Tennessee River, and Tuscaloosa groups); Friends of the Buck Creek Watershed (Alabaster); Families Concerned About Nerve Gas Incineration (Jacksonville); Citizens Opposing the North Alabama Pipeline Project (Somerville); Save Our Saugahatchee (Auburn); WildLaw (Montgomery); Wild Alabama (Moulton); Friends of the Tennessee River (Arab); Friends of Terrapin Creek (Piedmont); Alabama Trails Association (Birmingham); Moody-Acmar Environmental Justice Society (Moody); Alabama Water Watch (Auburn University); and LakeWatch of Lake Martin (Alexander City). The two most important state-sponsored organizations in Alabama are the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Both were created as part of a program of environmental management passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1982, known as the Alabama Environmental Management Act.

Preserving Wildlife Habitat and Protecting Endangered Species: The preservation of wildlife habitat and the protection of endangered species has also been a serious concern of Alabama environmentalists. One species found in the state that has received thoughtful attention is the Alabama beach mouse, which lives in the fragile coastal dunes along the coast of Alabama. The range of the beach mouse has been greatly reduced from 100 miles of coastline along Alabama and Florida to less than 22 miles along the Gulf Coast of southern Alabama. In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the mouse as endangered. For the mouse to survive, further destruction and fragmentation of its habitat must end. By saving the beach mouse from extinction, the unique sand dunes ecosystem of Alabama will also be preserved.