On April 22, we celebrate a very special anniversary. Forty years ago, the modern environmental movement began with the first official Earth Day, which spawned rallies across the nation. It is estimated that about 20 million Americans participated in this first Earth Day. Their goals were to create greater public awareness of the need to protect the environment and to build a national grassroots network. This was long before “going green” became mainstream, and even before the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed or the Environmental Protection Agency established.
However, even before this great kick-off, there was a group in Alabama that was already working to protect the many natural wonders of our great state. This small group of concerned citizens formed an organization called the Alabama Conservancy. Not only did they form what is now the oldest environmental advocacy organization in the state, but many credit them with beginning the eastern wilderness movement in the United States that has helped preserve more than 40,000 acres in Alabama alone. They went on to accomplish many firsts, including the birth of the recycling movement in Birmingham and many other Alabama cities. The organization still maintains the oldest non-commercial recycling drop-off center in Alabama. It is with great pride that I work for that organization, now called the Alabama Environmental Council.
In spite of our long, rich history as an organization, I often feel that our work has only just begun. The environmental movement has grown, with many different groups working on numerous issues, resulting in a better environment each and every day. However, there is more than enough work left to go around.
In a state rich in natural resources and recognized as an international biological hotspot by many credible organizations, there still seems to be a general public attitude that Alabama’s resources are limitless.
— Many of Alabama’s 77,000 miles of waterways are impaired or polluted to the point where it is not safe for the creatures that live there or for the public that depends on that water.
— Our air is much better than it was in 1970, yet Birmingham and Jefferson County are not reaching minimum EPA standards and have the fifth-worst air quality in the nation.
— Our per capita landfill rates are twice the national average, and we have embarrassingly low recycling rates.
— We are overly dependent on fossil fuels yet don’t seem to explore other public transportation options.
— Our state environmental agency—the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM)—has a history of being more interested in managing the environment for polluters than in protecting it for the public.
— Meanwhile, many people in Alabama still argue that coal is the best way to provide energy without accounting for the full negative impact of the coal mining, coal burning and waste disposal that are devastating communities across the state. In fact, our state attorney general is joining a small number of other state AGs and climate change deniers to challenge the EPA over its recent greenhouse gas endangerment findings, which are based on clear scientific evidence and backed by a Supreme Court order.
As Alabamians, we cannot escape the challenges that lie ahead, but on this special Earth Day, I suggest that we reflect on the many positive things going on in our state to protect our amazing natural world. Today, there are numerous groups in Alabama working 24/7 to protect our environment and public health. They are cleaning our air, cleaning our streams, teaching more sustainable approaches to industry, farming and providing a more natural food cycle, building with new technologies, connecting faith groups to care for creation, expanding efforts to use our energy more efficiently and tap renewable sources and preserving natural spaces for generations to come.
I am particularly pleased to report—especially during Earth Week—that the Birmingham metro area will be the recipient of a large grant from the recently created Alabama Recycling Fund. Numerous projects in our region will be funded from this grant. For example, the Jefferson County Department of Health, with help from the AEC and other partners, is being awarded a significant grant to fund expanded recycling in Jefferson County. This will result in new recycling opportunities throughout the county, as well as an expansion of current programs and an education campaign to increase public awareness of both. All of these efforts will be a great complement to AEC’s Downtown Birmingham Community Recycling Center. The Alabama Recycling Fund was created two years ago when the state legislature passed a bill requiring that an additional $1 charge be assessed per each ton of material going into our landfills in order to aid ADEM’s solid waste efforts and create both an illegal dump fund and the recycling fund.
I’m also excited because this new grant is just a small portion of the public and private money that is being invested in our local economies to create jobs and support a new clean, green economy. These efforts are important because they have immediate positive impacts on the economy and long-term positive impacts on the environment. It is inspiring to see so many people recognize that sustainability is more than a buzzword and that we must all look beyond this year’s budget to insure our future.
This Earth Day, I hope you will join with me in making a commitment to celebrate every day as Earth Day and live more sustainably.
To learn more about the Alabama Environmental Council, call (205) 322-3126 or go to www.aeconline.org. The AEC’s Downtown Birmingham Community Recycling Center is located at 2431 Second Ave. North.
The AEC will host its “Green tie affair” fundraiser April 22. Details at www.aeconline.org.
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