In west Jefferson County sits a tributary to one of the area’s largest sources of drinking water. After heavy rains, commercial development in the area is taking a toll on the water source, according to concerned citizens.
The tributary, near Powder Plant Road and Johns Road in Bessemer, feeds into Valley Creek. However, with recent rainfall, a nearby large commercial construction site has been a cause for concern for residents in the area and the local riverkeepers, who say the tributary and creek have already been abused for years.
Nelson Brooke, with the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, said Valley Creek is a direct tributary to the Black Warrior River, which he said is a vital source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians. It is also a popular recreation destination.
“The river is literally the lifeline of west Jefferson County and beyond, and every time we allow pollution like this to take place, it’s just another chink out of the armor,” Brooke said. “ … It’s been getting hammered for years. You’ve got all this development happening out there.”
Splash Adventure, the Amazon fulfillment center, a sewage plant, a dump, the new Bessemer High School, new houses and a Vulcan Materials quarry are all near the body of water.
The latest development is a large warehouse. The land has been cleared and large dirt mounds back up to the tributary.
A complaint to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was filed by Robert Leopard, who claimed there was little effort to stabilize the site with adequate erosion control methods. After working in construction, Leopard is retired and enjoys kayaking and fishing in Valley Creek.
“This creek has been abused for many generations in this area, and it’s just a shame,” said Leopard.
After kayaking a couple of times a week, Leopard said he had noticed differences since the latest project began in the area.
“As I’m driving by the site on Monday, from the construction site for miles down the creek, the creek is just chocolate milk, muddy,” Leopard said.
With more sedminent in the rock-bottom stream, Brooke said that muddy water is a sign that aquatic wildlife is being threatened.
“Cumulatively, it’s a very bad thing, and it’s one of the worst things we can do to streams,” Brooke said.
ADEM told 1819 News that every complaint is investigated and that the complaint about runoff at Valley Creek was investigated the same day it was received, which was on Sept. 6.
“ADEM received this complaint on Tuesday morning, following its submittal on the federal Labor Day holiday, contacted the Bessemer [Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4)], and received information from the MS4 by 2:30 p.m. on the same day that the investigation had been conducted, including meeting the complainant,” said Lynn Battle, ADEM’s Chief of the Office of External Affairs.
Battle said ADEM would remain in contact with the Bessemer MS4. That area is covered by the MS4 permit issued by ADEM to the city of Bessemer.
While county and city leaders can’t do much about development, they often welcome it. Brooke said the key is for developers to work with planners and designers to come up with the best erosion plan.
“Ultimately, what it’s all about is individual entities are being allowed to cut corners on environmental control to make money,” said Brooke. “And who pays the price? Nature and the general public pays the price because we’re all downstream.”
Tortorigi Construction, the company building near the tributary, does have an erosion plan and said it would ensure silt fencing is working.
Leopard said he went to the site and was told all Best Management Practices (BMP) were in place.
“Basically, the only BMPs they have are two rows of silt fence, and there are massive gaps of erosion, and the first response I got was from one erosion area they said that was going into the storm drain,” said Leopard. “I said, ‘Well, where does it go from the storm drain?’ Well, it goes into the creek.”
Leopard said he was told by developers they would take more steps to protect the creek.
“On the back side of the project, there is no silt fence in place,” said Leopard. “Whatever engineer designed the erosion control plan, it is extremely inadequate for this size of a site that is just feet away from a major water tributary. This site would never be built on the Cahaba River, but if it was built on the Cahaba River, the erosion control plan would be totally different.”
Valley Creek is on the state’s 303(d) list of impaired water bodies.
“Any additional pollution put into it is just adding insult to injury,” Brooke said.
ADEM said the case would be referred to the field office for investigation. As complaints are submitted to ADEM, they make compliance determinations, and if there is a violation, ADEM communicates with the entity they believe to be responsible. A determination has not yet been made on the Valley Creek complaint.
Brooke said he has low confidence in ADEM and was critical of its operations.
“ADEM is real good at giving out permits that allow polluters to pollute, and they’re real good at not doing many inspections, providing adequate oversight and the necessary enforcement to hold those who are going wrong accountable,” Brooke said. “So, in other words, they’re real good at looking the other way.”
According to their website, “the mission at ADEM is to assure for all citizens of the State a safe, healthful, and productive environment.”
However, Brooke said it appears the agency is more of a management agency as opposed to a conservation agency.
“The state of Alabama established the Alabama Department of Environmental Management in the early 1980s to serve as the state agency with regulatory primacy over the Clean Water Act,” said Brooke. “In doing so, they gave the state of Alabama the authority to control permitting and enforcement instead of the alternative, which would’ve been the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, having to come up with a program that would do so for the state.
“They wanted to have this agency but have it be a management agency, not the department of environmental quality or control or protection like many other states have. It’s in the name.”
Brooke claims ADEM makes it easy for companies to locate in Alabama by allowing for an easy application process and leniency for violators. ADEM had the following to say about Brooke’s claims:
“As usual, Mr. Brooke made his typical accusations against ADEM without bothering to check the facts or otherwise become informed on the matter. Likewise, Mr. Brooke fails to acknowledge that ADEM is one of the highest performers in the nation according to EPA data.”
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