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Before pipeline disaster, ADEM was backing out of oil-spill cleanup role

Three weeks before state workers discovered a 250,000-gallon oil leak on the Colonial Pipeline in Shelby County, the cash-strapped Alabama Department of Environmental Management declared its plan to back out of the spill-response business.

“The Department is continuing to divert costs of its inadequately funded emergency response program to other agencies,” ADEM director Lance LeFleur told a state committee on Aug. 19, according to a meeting transcript. LeFleur said local communities rather than ADEM would become the primary responders to “oil and hazardous materials emergencies.”

On Sept. 9, workers for another state agency spotted a leak on the Colonial oil pipeline near Helena. The ensuing cleanup would take more than 500 workers – most from Colonial or its contractors – and cause a hiccup in gas supplies up and down the East Coast.

LeFleur traveled with Gov. Robert Bentley to the pipeline site after the accident, according to state travel records. News accounts and environmentalists on the scene of the cleanup say the agency had a presence at the cleanup site. How much they paid for the work on the site isn’t clear.

“ADEM’s not always forthcoming with that information,” said David Butler, who works for the environmental group Cahaba Riverkeeper. “I assume Colonial paid them, but I really don’t know.”

In a prepared statement on Tuesday, ADEM officials said they would bill “the responsible party” — presumably Colonial — for the agency’s work on the cleanup, though ADEM didn’t release an estimate of the cost.

“We don’t have an assessment on that yet, because it’s an ongoing crisis,” said Lynn Battles, a spokeswoman for the agency. Battles’ prepared statement said the agency provided an “oversight role” at the spill site, and continues to do “assessment” at the site, but didn’t offer an estimate of how many workers were involved.

Next month, ADEM will again go to the Legislature with a budget request, a process that has proven punishing for the agency in the past. Last year, the General Fund budget set aside only $400,000 for ADEM, and lawmakers in previous years asked the agency to kick in some of its own money to plug a state budget hole.

The agency actually spent well over $200 million per year in recent years, but much of that money consists of federal grants that likely pass through to local agencies. Some comes from the sale of water and air permits to industries — money that’s funneled back into the permitting programs.

Environmentalists have long complained that a lack of General Fund money hobbles other efforts, including inspections of industries to make sure they’re not polluting. But environmentalists also say they’re not entirely sure how the agency spends its money.

“It’s easy to track the pots of money that are coming into ADEM, but it’s very hard to track how that money is spent,” said Mitch Reid, director of Alabama Rivers Alliance. “It’s very opaque.”

Just a few months before the Colonial spill, the agency turned a smaller pipeline cleanup over to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The state agency said it didn’t have the money to clean up that spill, which happened in Birmingham.

“Since the department did not have sufficient funds to address the emergency, ADEM referred the emergency response to EPA,” LeFleur told the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, which oversees the agency, in a June meeting.

Two months later, LeFleur told the commission he’d submitted changes to the state’s master emergency operations plan that would make local governments the primary responder to oil and hazardous waste spills. The purpose of the shift was to “divert costs” from ADEM.

“Clearly this shifting of responsibilities will place greater financial obligations on communities that experience oil and hazardous waste emergencies,” Lefleur said, according to a meeting transcript.

It’s unclear whether that policy actually went into effect for the Colonial spill. Attempts to reach Shelby County’s Emergency Management Agency, the likely first responder under LeFleur’s plan, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Asked how the agency found money for Colonial when it couldn’t pay for the Birmingham spill, Battle said she’d have to submit that question for an answer by the ADEM teams involved.

The Alabama Senate’s General Fund budget chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said the difference was likely due to the fact that in the Birmingham spill, officials didn’t immediately know who was responsible for the spill, and would therefore have to pay. ADEM knew the responsible party for the Colonial spill from the start, Pittman said.

“They’re probably just running the cost and planning to bill somebody,” Pittman said.

In the Birmingham spill, ADEM found a responsible party but let them deal directly with EPA, according to meeting minutes.

Environmental activists say the spill response still seems to have put a strain on ADEM’s resources. Butler, of Cahaba Riverkeeper, said that during the spill response the agency was slow to follow up on complaints by environmentalists, including a report of a sewage spill and fish kill on a tributary of Shades Creek in Birmingham.

If the agency was better-funded, Butler said, it could respond to those issues before activists discovered them.

“We’re using volunteers to do what the state should be doing,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.