Tag Archives: Cahaba River Society

Cahaba River Threatened by Barber Construction

Cahaba River Threatened by Barber Construction

November 09, 2000The recent summer drought has brought into question compliance by the developers of the new Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum (which will include a racetrack) with previous agreements reached with the city of Birmingham, the Cahaba River Society, and other environmental activist organizations.On October 6, Birmingham experienced its first steady rainfall in weeks. Samples of water taken from the tributary leading from the construction site of the Barber museum to the Cahaba River revealed an alarmingly high amount of soil particles present.

Dr. Randy Haddock of the Cahaba River Society collected the samples and noted that the tributary was “completely muddy.” Photographs revealed a stark contrast between the clarity of the river upstream from the tributary receiving the construction discharge, and the Cahaba’s cloudy status downstream from the discharge. The Barber construction site is located upstream from the Birmingham Water Works drinking water intakes on the Cahaba River.

Contents of the sample jars containing water filled with soil particles drawn from the Cahaba River, the major source of Birmingham’s drinking water, looked like “chocolate milk” when the collection container was shaken, according to Haddock and several others who attended an October 23 meeting between representatives of the Barber Museum, city officials, the Cahaba River Society, and several other environmental groups. “It’s the worst single event as far as erosion and sediment control failure that I’ve seen in my 10 years associated with the Cahaba River,” noted Dr. Haddock. He also questioned whether proper storm water control measures have been installed by the Barber Museum construction.

Curiosity has also been raised regarding the status of a proposed lake that would catch construction runoff before it could invade the Cahaba tributary. Anonymous sources close to the situation say a dispute has been brewing regarding whether or not the lake was actually included in agreements made between the city and Barber that allowed the building of the museum and racetrack.

When contacted for comment, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) refused to discuss the issue on record, but said that they was aware of the predicament and were currently looking into the situation.

Officials from Barber did not return telephone messages as of press time.

Sewer Tunnel Proposal Returns

Sewer Tunnel Proposal Returns


December 30, 2004 

On December 14 the Jefferson County Commission conducted a public hearing regarding a county proposal to purchase both the Riverview sewer system in north Shelby County and the Moody sewer system from the Birmingham Water Works at a total cost of approximately $27 million. Hendon Engineering, which oversaw the building of the controversial supersewer trunk line that was halted two years ago after public outcry over plans to tunnel beneath the Cahaba River, recommends tunneling under the river to connect Riverview to the county system. Another consultant, Engineering Service Associates, proposes instead to connect the systems by going over the river, replacing the existing 12-inch pipe that runs under the Cahaba River Road bridge.

At the hearing, Hendon Executive Vice President Bob Holbrook warned that any damage or overflow from the pipe above the river would directly discharge sewage into the Cahaba, the region’s main drinking-water source. Hendon’s plan would connect the Riverview system to the county system by running an 18- to 24-inch diameter pipe beneath the river to a portal of the 12-foot diameter supersewer line. A previous tunnel collapse during construction of the supersewer, which was partly responsible for stopping the supersewer project, has drawn a barrage of protest from critics.

Jayme Hill, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Environmental Services and did not learn of the county’s proposal to tunnel beneath the Cahaba River until she read it in the morning paper the day of the public hearing. “It was shocking because there has been an increased need for transparency since the supersewer, which was why this citizens’ advisory committee was put together [by the county],” said Hill in an interview. “We’ve been meeting for two years now. That plan from Hendon was prepared and ready for distribution, but for some reason that topic [tunneling under the river] never came up at the early December meeting of the citizens’ advisory committee.”

Tricia Sheets, administrative director of the Cahaba River Society who is also a member of the citizens’ advisory committee, was disturbed that the committee was not notified of the tunneling proposal. Sheets was baffled that Hendon Engineering was more concerned about the risk of a pipe leaking into the Cahaba River than the peril of attempting to tunnel beneath the area’s drinking source. “I thought that was a red herring,” she said of Hendon’s apprehension about connecting the systems above the river. “The bigger issue is that all the pipes in the watershed have a potential to leak. That particular pipe is pretty visible and should be pretty easy to repair,” she added.

County officials argue that purchase of the Riverview and Moody systems would add customers and therefore reduce the amount that ratepayers are currently paying. Rates have increased substantially since the county borrowed $3 billion after a federal consent decree in 1996 forced sewer improvements due to damaged pipes and direct discharge into the Cahaba River.

At the public hearing, community activist Peggy Gargis expressed disappointment at the proposal to purchase the systems. “The general public that I’ve heard are distressed at the prospect of the sprawl and the threat to the watershed that this project would generate,” said Gargis. “We do wonder why a program that has visited so much grief upon the ratepayers and has been run by management which has assisted in that, why you’re still taking the advice of those people [Environmental Services Department].

Adam Snyder, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, also serves on the county’s citizens’ advisory committee. Snyder told county officials at the hearing that he had no problem with the county purchasing the systems, but was disturbed about reintroducing the tunnel proposal. He is also troubled that the county’s Environmental Services Department would continue to oversee any sewer expansion. “I am concerned about the management of the system,” said Snyder. “I have no problem with the county expanding and buying this system. And I think it’s probably advisable to consolidate a lot of these sewer systems — to have one sewer authority. But I am worried about who’s guarding the hen house. I’m worried about the leadership of the Environmental Services Department. I am very concerned about giving them more power and more sewers to manage, as far as their track record has been in the past.”

In October 2004, federal investigators served search warrants at the home of Jack Swann, director of Jefferson County Environmental Services, and Roland Pugh Construction, which received much of the sewer repair work. According to the Birmingham News, FBI agents photographed and searched Swann’s Vestavia Hills home, which has had $350,000 worth of remodeling and improvements, including installation of an elevator, since Swann bought the home in 1997. The FBI also confiscated boxes of records from Pugh’s construction office. County officials learned of the investigation of the sewer program in 2002. &

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? &