Monthly Archives: January 2004

Russian Roulette — Cahaba River

2004-01-29 tracking City Hall

Can the Cahaba River survive another commercial development? The Birmingham City Council and the Mayor’s office proudly declare that they don’t know and don’t care.

“This could be absolutely the most important decision that we make in our lives,” warned Councilor Carol Reynolds at the January 13 Birmingham City Council meeting. The list of problems that plague the Cahaba River, the drinking source for 25 percent of Alabama residents, includes low oxygen levels, high bacteria levels, and toxins such as metals, insecticides, and herbicides. “Higher water purification costs will increase costs for rate payers,” Reynolds added.

Her colleagues on the council dais, however, refused to budge from their determination to boost the city’s economic fortunes—even if that means the degradation of the river. Voting 6 to 3 [Reynolds, Councilor Valerie Abbott, and Councilor Joel Montgomery opposed the project] to approve the development of 256 acres into a subdivision in the Overton Community by Grants Mill Estates, LLC., the council joined surrounding municipalities in another round of Russian roulette with one of the nation’s cleanest (for now) water systems.

The development will include 281 single-family homes and 14 apartment buildings (totalling 464 units). Originally, developers wanted to include a service station on the land that is part of the Cahaba watershed, but at least the city had enough sense to make them toss out that idea. Other concessions from the developers include retaining vegetation along Grants Mill Road and expanding a 50-foot buffer zone protecting tributaries of the Cahaba to 100 feet.

“This project is going to discharge dirt into a tributary and then into the Cahaba River,” said Alabama Environmental Council attorney Bart Slawson, who has threatened to sue over the development because of permit violations regarding the amount of sediment allowed into the river. “The bells and whistles [in the covenants protecting the Cahaba] will not change the discharge.” The position of the Alabama Environmental Council is that the Cahaba River cannot tolerate any more sediment. The river is currently listed by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and Alabama Department of Environmental Management [ADEM] as so polluted already by sediment that any additional pollution will severely impact water quality, according to an e-mail sent by Slawson to the City Council.

A recent meeting between the developers, the council, and other city officials, to ensure that steps are taken to protect the Cahaba, exposed some bitter truths regarding Councilor Elias Hendricks’ willingness to exclude the public from meetings with councilors [any meeting with a quorum of the Council present is an open meeting, unless the meeting is declared an executive session involving litigation or discussion of someone's character]. Hendricks criticized councilors at a council meeting two weeks earlier for urging the public to attend the meeting with developers. “When you’re working out differences, the fewer people involved, the better. It’s not like you’re hiding anything from the public,” said Hendricks with a straight face. “When you’re sitting down, trying to negotiate a solution, and you’re going to be dealing with scientific things, I think the fewer people in the room, the better.” Hendricks did not explain why the public should not be privy to “scientific things,” but then, condescension is the norm at City Hall. As usual, a flippant Councilor Bert Miller could not resist sticking his foot in his mouth. “We act like these developers are terrorists. They’re not going to poison our drinking water!”

Also at issue is the $250,000 that Birmingham and surrounding municipalities contributed to the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study. The Zoning Committee, chaired by Councilor Abbott, had recommended that the council wait until the study is completed in the spring before acting on the development. Councilor Reynolds questioned why so much money was spent if the study was just going to be ignored. “We have just funded a study and taken taxpayer dollars and thrown them out the window,” said Reynolds in disgust. “It is our responsibility to protect public health and public drinking water.”

In an interview after the council action had been taken, Mayor Bernard Kincaid agreed with Council President Lee Loder’s assessment that development in the Cahaba watershed was inevitable. “How does Birmingham balance those very, very competing interests of development, which are absolutely necessary for us to grow, and yet protect what is one of the highest quality water systems in the nation?” asked the Mayor. “That’s a tough call. At some point Birmingham has to get in the mix.” With absolutely no hint of irony, Kincaid described the balance between economic development and water protection as “a kind of ecological balance.” After admitting that he was “comfortable” with the conditions his staff reached with developers regarding the watershed protection, Kincaid seemed to contradict himself. “Where the need for development and preserving the pristine quality of the water intersect is the point where you start making compromises,” said the Mayor. “And I’m not sure that we can compromise the water quality at all.”

Kincaid disagreed with Councilor Reynolds that the $250,000 spent for the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study was a waste of money. Insisting that Birmingham has done more than other local jurisdictions to protect the Cahaba River, Kincaid said, “I don’t hear other municipalities being pushed back from their development ideas based on the outcome of something as nebulous as a study.” This statement begs the question, why spend $250,000 on a study if one believes studies are nebulous? &

Reaching for the Stars

Reaching for the Stars

Seven years after the last successful Mars landing, the Mars rover Spirit renews Earth’s fascination with the Red Planet.

By Ed Reynolds

The sight of 3-D glasses on the faces of awestruck observers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory briefly lent a 1950s sci-fi touch to the 2004 Mars Rover headquarters. It had been seven years since a spacecraft had successfully landed on Mars, and the smiles on the faces of scientists, engineers, and reporters as they viewed a panoramic 3-D image from the Mars Rover Spirit encapsulated the excitement of America’s successful return to space.

Red Planet Fever: An artist’s conception of the Mars Rover Spirit on the planet’s surface. (click for larger version)

Landing on Mars is a supremely difficult task. In 40 years, only 3 of the 36 attempts have been successful. A pair of Viking craft landed in 1976, sending back the first photos of the planet’s surface. It would be 21 years before another mission achieved the same accomplishment: a 3-foot roving robot named Sojourner slowly rolled across the reddish-orange surface in 1997 after parachuting out of the Mars Pathfinder spaceship, spearheading a flurry of attempts by nations, including the United States, to duplicate the amazing feat. None were successful. Some crashed into the planet. Others simply flew right by, such as a 1999 NASA spacecraft whose landing was foiled because a programmer had earlier failed to switch from English to metric units of measurement. Several weeks ago, when it became obvious that it would not be able to land, a Japanese craft was jettisoned out of Martian orbit and on an eternal trip to nowhere. On Christmas Eve, the European Space Agency, a scientific conglomerate of 15 countries, tried to land the British Beagle 2 on Mars. The lander has yet to communicate with Earth and is presumed dead, though the vehicle that carried it on its seven-month journey continues to transmit data about the Martian environment. It was the European Space Agency’s first Mars attempt, made with a shoestring budget of $40 million. The NASA Spirit mission has a price tag of well over $200 million.

The ultimate objective of the rover Spirit is to search for signs of water in Mars’ past—the key to life as Earthlings know it. Polar ice caps presently exist on Mars, and scientists suspect that channels of warm running water may lie beneath the surface, which would perhaps allow some form of life to thrive. The six-wheeled Spirit robot is the size of a golf cart, and it’s equipped with a drill to bore into rocks, then to study them with a microscope and mineral analyzer. It takes at least 10 minutes for commands from Earth, traveling at the speed of light, to reach the Spirit. Therefore, the rover must be “smart enough” to make many of its own decisions, such as how to navigate around hazards that lie in its path. High-resolution stereo vision is employed by Spirit to survey the landscape, hence the reason for using 3-D vision. Infrared cameras locate minerals that could have formed after coming into contact with water at some point long ago. On January 24, an identical rover, Opportunity, is scheduled to land on the opposite side of the planet.

Considering how far we’ve come in the Space Age, it’s ironic that in the week before Christmas, on the 100th anniversary of the first engine-powered flight, experts could not get an exact replica of the Wright Brothers’ airplane off the ground. Two weeks earlier, the space probe Stardust not only beamed back to Earth the best photos ever taken of a comet, but also scooped up dust samples from the nucleus of the comet Wild 2. The probe will deliver the samples in 2006. In July, the U.S. spacecraft Cassini will complete its seven-year journey to set a lander on the surface of Titan, one of the large moons circling Saturn. Space exploration has not been this thrilling since Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. Appropriately, President Bush has expressed a desire to return to the lunar surface. So have the Chinese, who launched their first taikonaut (the Chinese version of an astronaut) into orbit in October 2003. (China reportedly covets the moon’s abundance of helium 3, a rare isotope that is used in nuclear reactors but is in short supply on Earth.)

What began as a Cold War showdown for interstellar supremacy in 1957 when the Soviet Union beat America into space, eventually evolved into a surprising spirit of cooperation. In the mid-1970s, the United States and Russia docked orbiting spaceships. It was the first crack in the Cold War ice between the two superpowers, leading the way to years of collaboration as cosmonauts and astronauts shared spaceships in a common goal to construct the International Space Station. Talk radio wackos currently warn that the U.S. must establish a foothold in outer space in order to claim a military advantage. It may come to that someday. But for the near future, the spirit of discovery should be the world’s primary reason for embarking on such daunting adventures as space exploration. There’s no telling what we might find. &

Metropolitan Opera Auditions Return for 50th Year

Metropolitan Opera Auditions Return for 50th Year

By Ed Reynolds

The 50th Annual Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions will be held at the Virginia Samford Theatre this month. Close to a dozen participants are expected to compete, with three chosen to attend the regional competition in Memphis. The three winners from the regionals will be invited to New York for the finals at the Metropolitan Opera, where they will sing with the Met orchestra. Cash prizes and the opportunity to join the Met’s Young Artists Program, as well as a guaranteed operatic career, await the victors. According to Stan Nelson, organizer of the North Alabama District competition, which is sponsored by Alabama Opera Works, all participants must be between 20- and 30-years-old and be able to sing a specified number of arias in designated languages. Once the criteria are met, “The auditions are open to anybody who has the guts,” says Nelson, who has competed in the past.

More than 100 past winners of the national competition, including Elizabeth Futral, one of the leading sopranos on the international opera stage, will sing at the finals. Futral studied at Samford University and was one of the winners at the 1991 national finals. “The concert itself was like a dream for me . . . singing on the Met stage with the Met orchestra,” she says.”Participating in the competition was definitely an important milestone early in my career and a crucial turning point as well.” The auditions begin promptly at 1 p.m., Saturday, January 24. The public is urged to attend as an audience is always a motivating factor for competitors, according to Stan Nelson, and admission for spectators is free. For more information, call 322-6222. &

Dead Sea Scrolls — Exhibit Rolls into Huntsville

By Ed Reynolds

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The most influential book of all time has frequently been a lightning rod for debate through the years. Some take the Holy Bible literally, as the infallible word of God. For others, it’s more or less a helpful guide to life and how to live it. Regardless, it’s a poetic historical document that has divided humanity regarding interpretation. That an exhibit titled Dead Sea Scrolls to the Forbidden Book has sparked arguments within the religious community as it attempts to separate fact from myth should come as no surprise.Consider the case of Richard Hunne, a Christian martyr believed by many to have been executed by the British after being branded a heretic for possessing an English version of the Bible in the 16th century. Portions of Hunne’s handwritten Wyclif Bible, according to the exhibit the first to be translated into English, is one feature in the nondenominational presentation, which will be on display January 5 through 31 at the Von Braun Center North Hall in Huntsville. Actually, some Biblical scholars question whether Hunne was really put to death or committed suicide in prison. Critics of the exhibit also claim that English versions of the Bible existed in the 8th century, long before the Wyclif translation.

Controversy has always been a nagging aspect of religious history. For years the Dead Sea Scrolls have been at the center of an argument regarding their role in either clarifying or contradicting traditional interpretation of Jewish history and the beginnings of Christianity. The Scrolls, which date back to 250 B.C., are the oldest known manuscript of the Old Testament. Prior to their discovery in 1948, the oldest known Hebrew copies in existence dated back only to the 9th century, which caused many Biblical scholars to question the validity of the Old Testament.

Despite any controversy, the exhibit is a remarkable look at the history of the Bible. Included are 5,000-year-old pictographic clay tablets, the most ancient form of writing, from Mesopotamia, and the oldest known written example of the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, on an ancient scroll that dates back 2,600 years. Excerpts from Paul’s letters to the Colossians, written in Coptic, are on display along with a 1611 first edition of the King James Bible.

All viewings must be scheduled because only 50 people are allowed in the exhibit at any one time. Organizers explain that this allows visitors a couple of hours to completely view the pieces, which are presented in a timeline format. No cameras are allowed. Admission is $15 for adults, and $10 for ages 8 to 18. The exhibit runs Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. That way, no one misses church. For more information, call 800-277-1700. &