Pat Byington, the former Vice-Chairman of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, recently wrote about an important topic in state newspapers that you may not have seen. Mr. Byington, who served as Chairman of the Commission’s Strategic Planning Committee, contends that because of an Alabama policy decision, a person is more likely to get cancer in our state than in many of our neighboring states. In 1991, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission adopted a cancer-risk level to use in regulating the water quality of rivers and streams in Alabama. The Commission was asked to make a decision that all Alabamians should find important: “How many people does the state find acceptable to get cancer as a result of the toxic pollution that industries discharge in water under permits issued by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management?”
Mr. Byington contends that, despite being given the opportunity by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt a more stringent risk level, the Commission, with the support of the Alabama Department of Public Health, adopted a cancer-risk level that was the least stringent. At present, while Alabama still has the same 1 in 100,000 cancer-risk level it adopted fifteen years ago, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia have all adopted the 1 in 1,000,000 cancer-risk level.
In order to get better information, Mr. Byington met with a UAB professor emeritus in epidemiology. This professor taught risk assessment for twenty years and served on the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registries Board of Scientific Counselors, a federal agency that studies the health effects of pollution. The two discussed cancer and pollution, and Mr. Byington was reminded that – along with Alabama’s cancer-risk level – many of our environmental and health standards do not address sufficiently chronic diseases such as birth defects, asthma, and diabetes. The standards also do not adequately take into account the cumulative health impacts of toxic pollution.
Last July, the Environmental Management Commission’s Strategic Planning Committee unanimously recommended a new draft Environmental Management Strategic Plan for the state. One of the cornerstone goals within the plan is to “ensure regulatory standards are most protective of health and environment in the nation based on science and ecological conditions.” This goal was developed by two committee members, Dr. Kathleen Felker and Ken Hairston. Dr. Felker, a radiologist, is a passionate advocate for breast cancer awareness. Mr. Ken Hairston, General Counsel for Alabama A&M University, has been a champion within the Commission on behalf of environmental justice.
By the time you read this, the Environmental Management Commission will have had an opportunity to move forward with the strategic plan and the “most protective” goal to set into motion a re-evaluation of Alabama’s health-based environmental policies, standards, and regulations. If adopted, the result will be fewer cancers, cleaner air, land and water, and, most importantly, overall healthier Alabamians.
You may have read earlier where some business groups, such as the Business Council of Alabama, have opposed certain parts of this strategic plan. I don’t know about you, but it is hard for me to understand how any group would put their personal business interest above the health of Alabama citizens. If you know someone who has cancer, which I am sure you do, then you will understand why this strategic plan is so important. By the way, Pat Byington, who did great work while on the Commission, wasn’t reappointed when his term expired. In my opinion, that was Alabama’s loss and industry’s gain. We need folks like Pat Byington in state government and especially on boards and commissions that deal with environmental issues and concerns.
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