Toxic Pollution Found Surrounding Alabama Schools

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Guest Editorial
by Jenny Dorgan

Alabama Environmental Council

A recent report found that data indicates air surrounding Alabama schools contains high levels of toxic pollution.

In response to the report, officials have claimed that the supporting documentation is not sufficient, that the models used to obtain the data is not specific enough and that to really know what level of toxic air surrounds our schools, specific samples would need to be taken. Alabama Department of Environmental Management officials have tried to pass the buck regarding air toxics, claiming that the state “lacks the resources and toxicological and epidemiological expertise and therefore rely on EPA for setting standards.”

It’s also been stated that many local decision makers were not aware of problems and that resources aren’t available to obtain data necessary to quantify pollution levels we are exposing our children to. We’ve also seen the usual finger pointing away from industrial sources such as coal burning power plants and industrial sources. We agree that those sources can’t shoulder full responsibility for the state of our air, although they do produce a lion’s share of our air pollution. But that makes the issue even more critical.

If we combine the tons of toxic pollution being released from power plants, oil refineries, industrial manufacturing facilities, pollution from mobile sources, toxic waste sites, sewage treatment plants, landfills, lead in the soil and indoor air pollution — one begins to make the connection between the multiple sources of pollutants affecting our children and subsequent health problems facing the sons and daughters of Alabama.

I heard recently on the radio that, pound for pound, a child breathes in 2 times the amount of air with each breath as we do, while their susceptible lungs are still developing. And children of low income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from exposure to these dangerous pollutants. They are also the ones who are less likely to receive adequate health care to address related complications such as (increasingly common) childhood asthma.

Alabama has been in the news a lot lately. But not just for football. We recently ranked No. 1 in the United States for mercury pollution — a toxic pollutant that is a known neurotoxin and that studies suggest may be related to autism in our children. The Alabama Power Miller Plant in Jefferson County along the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River was ranked No. 1 in the nation for the amount of mercury it released in 2007.

Even if health effects from cumulative exposure to these pollutants were unlikely — shouldn’t we do the monitoring necessary to find out for sure, if our children are safe? Are we not obligated to the children of Alabama to protect them?

Because the simple fact of the matter is that it is unacceptable if pollution levels are in excess of what is healthy for our children. The only explanation could be that industries, state decision makers and regulatory agencies have chosen profits over the health of the people of Alabama.

Despite opposition from the public, Alabama’s air regulations were weakened just this past summer. Public advocacy groups, like the Alabama Environmental Council, are often forced go to trial, as we are right now with TVA, to try to defend our right to clean air. Alabama Power Company, Tennessee Valley Authority and others consistently oppose these efforts.

We need to use the resources that we have available to us to implement the kinds of health-based regulations and technologies that are going to make a difference for our children and our grandchildren. ADEM needs to work with appropriate statewide and regional agencies to adopt a multi-pollutant approach to addressing air pollution from the cumulative sources of pollution that are putting our children in harm’s way. We can’t continue to mortgage our children’s future by fouling the air they breathe.

© 2008, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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