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Fri, April 18, 2014

A River Ruined Through It


The University of Alabama owns a large tract of land on the banks of a river that provides drinking water for 200,000 Alabama residents. Concerned parties are asking the Board of Trustees not to sell or lease that property for surface mining.


March 22, 2012

In May of 2007 the board of trustees at the University of Alabama issued a request for proposals (RFP) for about 1,300 acres of beautiful, densely forested land near Cordova in Walker County. A large part of the acreage borders the Shepherd Bend section of the Black Warrior River, which is an already endangered stream that provides water for 200,000 Alabama residents. On a small section of adjacent property, mining company Shepherd Bend LLC somehow persuaded the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to issue a wastewater discharge permit (NPDES) so that the company could begin surface mining for metallurgical-grade coal. Aware that this mining company, owned by the Drummond family, wanted to expand operations in the coal-rich area, the university was apparently making its land available for purchase by mining interests. I recall wondering, when I first learned what the UA trustees were up to, whether a small or large portion of hell would break loose over the matter. It has been breaking loose in chunks, like so much coal, for almost five years now.

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Many Cordova residents were stunned and dismayed by the news, making it known early and often that they were opposed to surface mining on the UA property in question. The Birmingham Water Works Board, noting that discharge from surface mining operations would flow into the Black Warrior River only 800 feet from the BWWB's Mulberry intake facility, appealed the Alabama Surface Mining Commission's (ASMC) "unprecedented" permit issued to Shepherd Bend LLC to mine 286 acres there. Environmental watchdog and preservation organization Black Warrior River Keeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed lawsuits against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Shepherd Bend mining company. In 2010 the Birmingham City Council passed a resolution "imploring the University of Alabama System" not to allow mining on its property at Shepherd Bend. Students staged rallies and protests in Tuscaloosa and at UAB. The Southern Environmental Law Center, the NAACP, and local Birmingham craft beer makers Good People Brewing Company and Avondale Brewing Company have officially spoken against mining on UA land at Shepherd Bend. This past February, UA undergrad and math wiz Joseph Olson presented a petition with more than 6,000 signatures to the board of trustees. Later that month the UA Student Government Association unanimously passed a resolution asking the UA System "to neither sell nor lease their sizeable land and mineral holdings to allow coal mining at Shepherd Bend." Numerous other organizations, student groups at other schools, UA alumni, and private citizens have expressed their concerns.

[Editor's note: Related to this article, The Ripple Effect is an excellent 13-minute film from director Rebecca Marston that explores the issues faced by the small town of Cordova, Alabama, and the community's fight to prevent the location of a large strip mining operation in the town's back yard. View it here.]

At first glance, the Shepherd Bend controversy appears to be a straightforward, uncomplicated story of one set of interested parties (in favor of green space, natural resources, rural landscapes, and endangered species) doing battle with powerful industrialists and land owners (in favor of surface mining). There is a major complication in this matter, however. Right now, a Drummond-owned company is preparing a surface mining operation on a mere 34 acres of a 286-acre site (according to ASMC permit P-3945, License 786) that the company needs to expand to more than 1,700 acres, roughly 1,300 of which belong to UA. Because no one made any offers or proposals for that property at Shepherd Bend, and the 2007 RFP no longer stands, all concerned parties want to know what the UA trustees' plans for their 1300 acres at Shepherd Bend might be. I was surprised, as were many people, that the official position of the board of trustees regarding Shepherd Bend is: "We don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' babies."

Sorry, that's a quote from another story, but in tone, effect, and logic it so closely resembles the UA official Shepherd Bend pronouncement that I often confuse the two. What the university has officially stated in various ways, most notably in then-UA President Robert Witt's letter to the Metro-Birmingham NAACP community relations director Anthony Johnson, is, "Given that no one has approached the University regarding the lease or sale of the Shepherd Bend property . . .the University has no plans to lease or sell the property . . . at this time."

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This Birmingham Water Works Board intake on the Black Warrior River is roughly 800 feet downstream from where the Alabama Department of Environmnental Management has permitted the discharge of tons of surface mining waste. (Photo: Nelson Brooke) (click for larger version)

No matter which University of Alabama official or trustee you speak to about Shepherd Bend today, when you ask them (via email, phone, or letter) if they are for or against mining on UA land at Shepherd Bend, the response is invariably "No one has approached the university regarding the lease or sale of the Shepherd Bend property." That's often followed by the claim that it's inappropriate (or impossible) for UA officials to comment on "hypothetical" matters. It's almost like they are reading from a script, and it's almost like that script was written by some attorneys. The key problem is that it's not almost an answer to the question everyone is asking.

Being a Crimson Tide fan and a UAB graduate, I felt obligated to make things easier for the trustees by rephrasing the question. I contacted a UA official, explained that I was looking into the Shepherd Bend controversy, and provided the following scenario: I place a For Sale sign in my front lawn and leave it there for three weeks, but I get no offers. Then I take down the sign, after which a friend visits to ask me if I am selling my home, or if I have plans to move. I tell him that I can't possibly comment on a hypothetical scenario, especially since at this time there exist no offers to purchase my house. Besides, there's not even a For Sale sign in the yard.

I asked the UA official if my response made me a look like a savvy real estate broker or just a bad liar. That official told me that "bad liar" was probably the more accurate description. I was also told that the trustees' stated position, logically speaking, was "perhaps untenable." Armed with this insight and stunning admission, I attempted to speak directly with some of the trustees, but I reached only two (more on that later). Apparently getting in touch with the board of trustees requires more than leaving a detailed message with a trustee's secretary or personal assistant, or doing the same via voice mail, or by sending a request for comment via email. My only option would be to speak with Kellee Reinhart, Vice-Chancellor for System Relations, a very cordial official who is burdened with the no-win task of speaking on behalf of her almost comically disingenuous bosses on the board of trustees. It is at this point that the entire Shepherd Bend saga must take a hard turn for a short jaunt into Walker County.

Regardless of how wide in scope an environmental story might be, each usually has its origin in a conversation about one thing: home. The short version goes something like this: This is our home, these are our resources, and we want to stop (insert villain's name here) from destroying all of it. Randall Palmer, a native of Cordova, Alabama, and currently a Tuscaloosa resident, had a similar conversation with the University of Alabama in 2007.

Among this group of players, major or minor, nowhere do we find anyone who will utter a discouraging word about coal mining. Not on the golf course, not on the corporate jet, and certainly not in the sky box at the stadium.
Palmer is a CPA and financial adviser, and a more informed, enthusiastic, and articulate private citizen involved with community matters would be hard to find in any town. He's proud of his Walker County home town, Cordova, and eloquently speaks about the famous Americans born there, the way life used to be in that small town (he describes the town of his youth as "almost idyllic, a kind of Mayberry"), and its demise as the industries and businesses in Cordova began to vanish during the early 1960s and 70s. It was Palmer and a group of concerned Cordova residents who, around 2001, founded the Cordova Improvement & Preservation Association. CIPA began slowly putting together a revitalization effort with the assistance of such urban planning experts as The Auburn Studio, The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, and the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission. The group won an award in 2005 for its "smart growth" comprehensive plan. One of the key assets listed in that plan is the Black Warrior River.

So it's easy to understand why Palmer's head exploded when he learned in 2006 that some company was planning to strip mine well over three hundred acres of land on the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior. Even more understandable is Palmer's outrage when he learned in spring of 2007 that the University of Alabama had offered a Request for Proposals (RFP) for about 1,300 acres of property at Shepherd Bend. Taking the position that, as Palmer phrases it, "No community ever surface-mined its way back to long-term prosperity," he spoke at various meetings, public hearings, wrote detailed and amazingly thorough letters to ADEM and various officials, and then one afternoon went straight to Lynda Gilbert, Vice-President of Financial Affairs at UA.

Palmer says that Gilbert explained to him what was essentially an open secret among observers of the situation, i.e., that Drummond was "pressuring the trustees to put this land up for lease for mining." Whether by "Drummond" Ms. Gilbert was referring to Garry Neal Drummond, Drummond Coal Company, or another member of that family is not clear. In any case, Palmer told me that he would be happy to provide anyone who required it a sworn statement concerning his 2007 chat with UA's VP of financial affairs.

Since Garry Neal Drummond, the owner of a multinational coal mining company and one of the most powerful industrialists in Alabama, is a trustee emeritus and an historic mover and shaker at UA, I asked Vice-Chancellor Reinhart if Garry Drummond had urged the board of trustees to make that Shepherd Bend property available for mining. Ms. Reinhart immediately said that I should consider the fact that Mr. Drummond has not sat on the board since 2001. That was by no means an answer to the question, but the very implication that Drummond is not part of the story because of his status with the board of trustees did lead to a key point in how the board operates (more on that later). In the meantime, I asked Reinhart why no trustee was willing to say how they would vote should the opportunity to sell the Shepherd Bend land to a coal mining interest. Reinhart says that "Typically the board does not pro-actively go out and take a position on business that is not currently before the board, or if it is not relevant to a decision they have made."

This policy was apparently not in place last November when UA trustee Finis St. John wrote an open letter to UAB National Alumni Society explaining all the reasons why the Birmingham campus should not have its own football stadium. In that letter, St. John also addressed what he viewed as UAB's shortcomings and decline on President Carol Garrison's watch. Perhaps St. John forgot that in the UA System, university presidents report to the UA Board of Trustees, and consequently St. John and/or his fellow trustees have, for almost a decade, officially overseen the decline that he alleges.

Considering that the board is so vehemently averse to transparency in the matter of Shepherd Bend, observers have to guess what the board's real position is. In that respect, it may be instructive to examine the composition of the UA Board of Trustees, as well as the machinations behind how members are placed in their posts. That's no easy task with so secretive a group. It is a self-nominating body whose selections are confirmed by the state senate, as each trustee represents a specific congressional district. The oft-repeated line is that each trustee should have "an historic relationship with the university," although the makeup of the board indicates that they don't mean Birmingham or Huntsville in most cases.

The requirements for holding this post are by no means intellectually rigorous, which is disconcerting considering that this body represents a university. More problematic is that the entire board, going back several decades, appears to be a group whose primary role is to establish and maintain relationships with politicians and wealthy donors. A possible secondary role is to ensure that, in almost any scenario, the Tuscaloosa school of the university system takes precedence over the Birmingham and Huntsville schools.

In 2004, for example, when the departure of Oliver Delchamps Jr. created a vacant slot for a trustee from the First Congressional District, it was widely reported that numerous individuals were maneuvering for the position, and that the competition was often less than cordial. Various potential candidates were actually contacting members of the Senate Confirmation Committee, and in one instance urging that certain state senators force a specific nomination regardless of the board's selection. In any case, Marietta Urquhart of Mobile received the nomination and, after a months-long and rather mysterious internecine battle among trustees and the confirmation committee, received the confirmation. Yet it is difficult to say what her specific qualifications might be. At the time there was at least a hint from board of trustees president pro tem John McMahon, who during the nomination process told the Mobile Press Register that, "Having a white female is the number one criteria."

While it's doubtful that McMahon's quote will ever appear on Ms. Urquhart's résumé, that detail of her confirmation may not be the most questionable one. Getting back to that long confirmation battle and candidates pressuring senators, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the confirmation committee at that time was being chaired by Senator E.B. McLain of Midfield. Yes, that E.B. McLain, the fabulously corrupt former senator who recently pleaded guilty to almost 50 counts of bribery, conspiracy, and mail fraud, and is currently serving 79 months of probation. There was that matter of McLain taking a $45,000 kickback in exchange for directing a state grant toward a "community center" operated by some ridiculous local minister. Because observers now have a full understanding of precisely what influenced the former senator to make various decisions during his time in Montgomery, they might wonder what influenced McLain whenever he oversaw the fate of any nominees to the University of Alabama board of trustees.

A few weeks ago I asked Ms. Urquhart if, in the context of environmental stewardship, she thought it was proper for the trustees to sell the university's property at Shepherd Bend for surface mining on land bordering the Black Warrior River. She told me she didn't know anything about any environmental issues. I asked how that was possible, considering that the Shepherd Bend issue has been a matter of public discussion, media coverage, a lawsuit against the state's department of environmental management, and campus controversy for almost five years. Ms. Urquhart responded, "Well, no one has brought anything before me. So I can't offer an opinion if I don't even know what I would be commenting on." I asked if she could tell me the approximate date when Drummond Coal first urged the trustees to make the land at Shepherd Bend available for mining. Ms. Urquhart said she could not recall.

Walker County residents who thought they had built retirement homes in a forested area near a gorgeous river now fear living near a vast moonscape and a stream of gray sludge.
If Ms. Urquhart is being entirely forthcoming, then she at least appears to be a profoundly uncurious university trustee. But then, any decision-making body primarily concerned with behind-the-scenes business with the state's most influential politicians and lobbyists, as well as with the most powerful industries, utilities, and corporations, might cleverly include on its board several members who are as uninformed as Ms. Urquhart claims to be. That's a polite way of recognizing that padding the board of trustees with a few puppets and un-inquiring minds is one means of keeping the ol' boys—those with the real power and connections—in complete control.

Who are the most powerful trustees? In the narrow context of selling or leasing land for surface mining, at the top of the list might be Paul Bryant Jr., after which in no particular order are Angus Cooper, Finis St. John, Judge John England, and Joe Espy. These particular trustees form the board's Executive Committee, chaired by Bryant. This committee enjoys an interesting distinction, per Article IV, Section 1 of the bylaws of the UA Board of Trustees: Without further approval of the Board, the Executive Committee shall have the authority to lease, sell and convey real property of the Board, or any interest therein.



Beyond knowing which trustees may wield the most power or influence at any point in time, it is also useful to understand the chain of command and management style that characterize the University System.

Even officials and staff have spoken plainly about the power structure there. Last fall former University of Alabama at Huntsville president of advancement Derald Morgan characterized the relationship between former Huntsville school president Dave Williams and UA System chancellor Malcolm Portera. According to The Huntsville Times, Morgan said, "Williams was basically a marionette on a string . . .Portera was pulling the strings."

Perhaps a university official whose compensation tops half a million dollars (Portera's personal driver is reported to enjoy a $70,000 salary) can become accustomed to pulling strings. What matters in the end is who pulls the chancellor's strings. According to Article I, Section 6 of the UA Board of Trustees Bylaws, titled Primary Functions, the board will "Establish policies and goals of the University and direct the Chancellor to implement and achieve those policies and goals." Regarding management style, that arrangement returns us to the board of trustees, its executive committee, and Garry Drummond.

Because one of Vice-Chancellor Reinhart's first comments to me regarding Shepherd Bend was that Drummond had not been a trustee for more than a decade—in other words, that he's merely a trustee emeritus—I decided to take a brief glance at what that status entails. The UA Board of Trustees Bylaws (Article 1, Section 4) states: Such designation [trustee emeritus] shall confer no responsibilities, duties, rights, or privileges as such, but shall constitute recognition of services and experience and will publicly acknowledge that person as particularly suited for counsel and advice to the Board. The Board encourages the availability of Emeriti Trustees for such counsel and advice and may request special services of them [italics mine]."

That passage clearly indicates trustees emeriti enjoy much more than a gold watch and a plaque on the wall. It also indicates that there's nothing unusual or clandestine about Garry Drummond urging the board to do anything, so it's hard to see why officials are being so coy about the matter—unless the "advice and special services" Drummond provides constitute a glaring conflict of interest. In that respect, it would make sense that officials prefer not to publicize that the University System is managed by a bigger cross section of the politically connected, the powerful, and the wealthy than any 17-member trustee roster would suggest.

In the context of the Shepherd Bend controversy, that cross section's sympathy toward the coal industry should be a clue as to everyone's position. After all, this issue may not be exclusively a case of who stands to gain what; in a larger sense it is a matter of culture or mindset. So any analysis of the major players' "coal-friendly quotient" calls for a brief overview of what's going on with coal in Alabama right now.

It isn't difficult to understand. Coal has always been fuel for electrical power in Alabama. Metallurgical-grade coal is essential to the steel industry around the globe; recent amazing industrial growth in China and India (and in steel production in China and Brazil) provides a phenomenally large demand for both thermal and metallurgical coal. Within the state, in 2008 a "falling off" of demand for coal by industry matched the overall decline of the nation's economy, while a growth in the natural gas industry affected demand for coal as well.

That was dire news not just for coal miners, but for anyone handling that product. Jimmy Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA), delivered the bad news at the end of 2009: the ASPA recorded a $16 million loss for that year. According to their records, coal handling amounted to almost half of the docks' revenue. Companies were cutting back or closing; employees were losing benefits, taking pay cuts, or being laid off. Considering that half of the business at the Port of Mobile's docks is related to coal, the general thinking in 2009 was: wouldn't it be great if a big load of coal came rolling through here?

What a difference a day makes. Now that the market for coal is so strong, the ASPA declared last summer a nearly 50 percent increase in the price of coal handling. That dovetailed with record coal prices, as well as with a related series of events concerning Walter Energy, one of the world's largest coal producers, moving its headquarters to the top floors of Hoover's Galleria Towers. A year earlier, Walter Energy had purchased Mobile River Terminal in a $35 million transaction that provided Walter Energy with a facility that the company planned to significantly upgrade. In June of last year, while Amsterdam-based trader Transfigura was purchasing a terminal in Louisiana to begin a nearly $130 million project for an aluminum and coal handling facility, the Alabama Port Authority called on Drummond Coal and Walter Energy to pay for a multi-million dollar project that would increase the handling capacity of the McDuffie Coal Terminal. In April, Walter Energy's board of directors will discuss plans for a massive new underground mine in Tuscaloosa County as part of the pursuit of just under 70 million tons of metallurgical coal reserves.

Combine these events with developments at Shepherd Bend, and it appears that the only thing that might put a dent in any operations owned by Walter Energy or the Drummond family would be some sort of environmental issue. Who would be sympathetic to that cause? More to the central issue, who among the UA trustees and trustees emeriti—and that ever-widening cross section of influence—would tend to be more coal friendly?

Angus R. Cooper II is chief executive officer of Cooper/T. Smith Corporation, a large docking, barge fleeting, and warehousing company operating in numerous ports throughout North and South America. Mr. Cooper certainly has an interest in the economic status of the Port of Mobile, and has at least a business relationship with Jimmy Lyons, the director and CEO of ASPA. Mr. Cooper sits on the UA board of trustees' executive committee.

UA Trustee Emeritus John T. Oliver, the chairman of First National Bank of Jasper, is also the director of, and with Larry Drummond, a founder of, the Walker Area Community Foundation (WACF), a non-profit charitable organization which listed about $10 million in endowments in 2009. Larry Drummond is vice-president of WACF. The Drummond Company, Donald Drummond, and Larry Drummond are among the top ten contributors to the foundation.

UA Trustee Emeritus Joseph L. Fine, a former state senator, founded the lobbying firm of Fine, Geddie, and Associates in 1984. It is recognized as the most powerful firm in the state. Fine's partner, Bob Geddie, was once Alabama Power's director of Governmental Affairs. Before that he was former Governor Fob James' representative to the Interstate Mining Compact. Geddie was indicted in 2010, along with gambling kingpin Milton McGregor and nine others, in relation to the Montgomery vote-buying case involving gambling interests and state legislators. It took two trials and juries to reach the conclusion that Geddie had broken no laws, although there was never any question that he, on behalf of the firm's clients, was shoveling massive amounts of money toward Montgomery through various channels. Alabama Power is a client of Fine, Geddie, and Associates.

Joe Espy, who sits on the UA board of trustees' executive committee, represented Milton McGregor in the notorious bingo trial.

UA Trustee Emeritus Joe H. Ritch is an attorney with the firm of Sirote & Permutt. At the firm's web site under "Environmental Hot Topics" is the following tidbit:

We are committed to providing practical, multidisciplinary solutions to the environmental issues that arise in today's business transactions. We have developed good working relationships with personnel at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alabama Department of Environmental Mgmt., and other federal and state agencies, and our lawyers know when and how to meet with these agencies to resolve problems quickly and effectively.

Also at the site under "Admiralty Law" is this claim: Alabama's waterway systems and the Port of Mobile are vital to the state's economy. Sirote & Permutt's Admiralty team is well qualified to represent all of the businesses that participate in this industry including vessel owners, charterers, shippers, terminals, receivers and underwriters . . .

UA trustee James W. Wilson III is CEO of Jim Wilson & Associates, a real estate company specializing in shopping centers, retail and office space, and mixed-use developments. Wilson & Associates devedoped the Galleria Towers, the top floors of which are Walter Energy's new corporate headquarters.

There's not space to further extend the UA board's political and corporate who's who, but anyone with the time to connect this galaxy of influential dots will find that all the trustees and trustees emeriti (let's not forget ex-officio trustees Governor Robert Bentley and State Superintendent of Education Thomas Bice) at some capacity work with, for, or sit on some board of directors with, executives and officers of various corporations, mining interests, and/or Alabama Power. With more time and resources, someone might even determine that ethical lines are being crossed, but will more than likely discover that the truly horrifying aspect of this whole arrangement is that it's entirely legal. Nonetheless, among this group of players, major or minor, nowhere do we find anyone who will utter a discouraging word about coal mining. Not during a board meeting, not during the luncheon, not on the golf course, not on the corporate jet or in the back seat of the company limo—and certainly not in the sky box at the stadium. That's simply not a feature of Alabama's political culture.

Knowing this, it is easy to conclude that the UA trustees are indeed in favor of surface mining at Shepherd Bend. That does not mean they will now or in the future do anything about it. It's conceivable that certain members of the board have vaguely begun to understand that a public relations nightmare might unfold should they proceed with the original scheme. Nonetheless, it would be satisfying to hear at least one official admit that the original scheme to sell those 1,300 acres to a mining interest actually existed.

With that in mind, I contacted the office of Lynda Gilbert, UA's Vice-President of Financial Affairs and the UA official who told Randy Palmer that Drummond was pressuring the trustees. I never got a return call from Ms. Gilbert, but instead I received this email message from UA media relations director Cathy Andreen:

"Here is our statement about Shepherd Bend:

The University of Alabama has not been approached about leasing the land at Shepherd Bend, and has no current plans to lease or sell the land."

That response has a familiar ring, but my favorite detail of that email is how it answers a question that I never asked. I was going to ask Ms. Gilbert when Drummond began pressuring the trustees to issue an RFP for the land. But since Ms. Andreen was now up to the plate, I enquired via email about her very own remarks concerning Shepherd Bend the week that the RFP was announced. According to a Tuscaloosa News story from May of 2007, Ms. Andreen said that because UA officials knew that Drummond Coal was buying properties adjacent to the university land, it was "an appropriate time for us to take a hard look at our property."

What I was getting at was the central fact of this whole story, a fact that anybody who has followed the Shepherd Bend issue for more than five minutes probably understood in the sixth minute: all those previously mentioned parties who are demanding that the UA trustees take a final and permanent position do so because they already know what UA's position was in 2007. Of course the trustees were not opposed strip mining land that borders the Black Warrior River, otherwise there never would have been a request for proposals in the first place—certainly not one prompted by the existence of surface mining operations on adjacent tracts of land.

At the core of this saga lie all the reasons why so many disparate parties are opposed to UA selling its property to mining interests. It's worth noting up front that, if an organization as ethically challenged and as opposed to transparency as the Birmingham Water Works Board sends you a 26-page complaint, you are probably doing something really wrong. And if the Birmingham City Council suddenly chimes in with worries over environmental issues, you must be veering toward a spectacular disaster indeed. But for a dauntingly thorough, compelling case against surface mining at Shepherd Bend, environmental watchdog organization Black Warrior River Keeper (BWRK) has written the book. It is all documented at www.blackwarriorriver.org, and this large volume of superbly organized data, documents, expert testimony, articles, maps, and charts reveals just how hideous the situation really is.

In terms of hard science, the key concern of BWRK and the water works board has to do with ADEM issuing a waste water discharge permit that, according to the appeals filed by BWRK and BWWB, should never have been issued—something about greatly increasing the burden on a water treatment facility, users having to pay for same, mine outflows discharging 10 times the level of iron—and 40 times the level of manganese—allowed by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and huge amounts of sediments shoved into an already endangered river. That's all a separate issue from the concerns of Walker County residents who thought they had built retirement homes in a near pristine forested area on the banks of a gorgeous river, but now fear they may wind up living near a vast moonscape and a stream of gray sludge. It's all about the insanely destructive process of strip mining, and how a river can be ruined through it.

The problem is made still more egregious because the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has once again given a green light to a mining company. Without getting into specific cases, I can just state outright that ADEM works at the behest of industry in this state, as opposed to first protecting our natural resources. If any ADEM officials wish to dispute my claim in person, I'll buy lunch for whoever shows up, and we can go over the department's history. The catch is that our conversation will be recorded, and that we will start with a discussion of Trey Glenn, ADEM's previous director who departed in disgrace; there was that scandal concerning, among other things, numerous undocumented flights in that 8-seat airplane that Glenn insisted the department needed. (How else does one get cronies and officials to the beach, the golf course, or the casino?) It was on his watch that enforcement precipitously dropped at the department, while efforts to supersede EPA restrictions (in favor of Alabama Power) began in earnest. Naturally, Glenn's name is on the letter announcing the approval of ADEM permit AL0079162, issued to Shepherd Bend Mining, LLC.

That's not to suggest that blame falls solely on Glenn and ADEM in the Shepherd Bend matter. He was long departed by the time the Environmental Management Commission (EMC), a 7-member board of private citizens who theoretically oversee the feckless crew at ADEM, also failed its duty. Even after the water works board had appealed the Alabama Surface Mining Permit, and BWRK and the Southern Environmental Legal Center had challenged the Shepherd Bend discharge permit, in August of last year the EMC approved the permit after 80 seconds of deliberation, with no discussion. To call that decision a rubber stamp is to insult every incompetent bureaucrat or official throughout history who ever pretended to read the document they were stamping.

Then there's the business of exactly what kind of people own, manage, or work for mining operations in this state. I can recall many years riding to my grandparents' house, listening to my Dad cursing "coal haulers" and other trucks carrying loads up and down Highway 78 in Walker County. Without fail, these drivers for various mines bullied passenger vehicles into other lanes and out of their way. I also remember the first time I saw a section of forest cut through by a drag line, and a stream into which strip mine debris had been flowing for months. The sight was so repugnant and frightening that it seemed somehow not real, like a scene from a science fiction movie. That's all apart from recent class action lawsuits alleging that the Drummond Company's operations in Colombia, which began in the mid-1990s, relied on right wing paramilitary forces to put down strikes and murder union activists in 2009 at the La Loma mine. Speaking of lawsuits, Walter Coke, a subsidiary of Walter Energy, is still trying to clean up neighborhoods in Birmingham that it essentially treated as toxic dumps.

Sometimes a revelatory glimpse of how industrialists view the world as an ashtray arrives in the most innocuous form. Komatsu America manufactures heavy industrial equipment and vehicles. At the company web site there is a section touting one of Komatsu's most impressive devices, the Super Shovel. A portion reads:

"Randy and Kenny Robison, owners of MS&R Equipment Company, Inc., blazed a trail for miners in Alabama when they commissioned a PC3000 Super Shovel from Komatsu America . . .The Black Warrior River separates the Merritt Rogers and Sloan Mountain Mines, a picturesque amenity for a coal mine, but also a cause of many of the equipment headaches suffered by the Robisons. Each side operates 30 to 45 feet below the river's water level to reach the Black Creek seam; when wet wheel loader and truck tires slip and spin on abrasive material like sandstone, frequent tire failures are inevitable."

Translation: "Boy, that Black Warrior River is kind of pretty we guess, but it's hell on tractor tires! Pain in the ass, actually."

That's too often the world view of folks who, in 2007, could have been purchasing from the University of Alabama Board of Trustees some 1,300 wooded acres. The trustees may do business with them yet. But if they do, and that catastrophic event warned of by cautious observers ever takes place, the UA System will go down in history as the school that ruined a drinking water source for almost a quarter of a million Alabama residents. In comparison, Harvey Updyke will look like a guy who tossed a McDonald's cup out of his window as he drove past the Auburn University campus. &

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