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June 10, 1997

Protecting Alabama's Environment from Open-Pit Mining

by Joanna Greene

A few years ago, Steve Whipkey was enjoying the tranquillity of his suburban subdivision in Eight-Mile. His backyard property lined a beautiful five-acre forest full of pine trees and wildlife. When the owner of the planted forest decided to sell his land, Whipkey and neighbors had no idea what was in store for them.

Residents were soon introduced to the new kid on the block. Noisy bulldozers, loading machines, and countless dump trucks made their way onto the property surrounding the homes. What residents thought to be a new addition to the neighborhood turned out to be a huge open-pit mine.

Whipkey explained that what looked like a huge hole in the ground was actually part of a non-coal open-pit surface mine from which different building materials, such as sand, gravel and clay, were being extracted. Materials were then hauled off the property and sold to various buyers.

Whipkey said the mining took place on a hill which created countless problems when it rained, such as flooding, dust, and backwash. According to Whipkey, "the trucks would run from daylight to dark."

Back in 1995, Whipkey, then a student in the Personalized Study Program for Adults (PSPA) at the University of South Alabama (now called Adult Interdisciplinary Study), wrote a 50-page paper on open-pit mining for one of Dr. Mimi Fearn's Geography classes. As part of the project, Whipkey discussed his investigation of all existing laws and policies dealing with open-pit mining.

Whipkey, through his research, discovered the individual conducting the mining operation had obtained a permit and was operating well within the law. Whipkey also found existing laws and permitting procedures concerning open-pit mining to be weak and ineffective.

He learned that no regulations or limits exist with the pit-mine operations and owners can leave land "environmentally devastated" when they are done. Whipkey explained that at the time, there were no regulations which called for a "reclaim" of land that has been mined on. Pit operators could actually mine a piece of land and leave behind large pits and thousands of acres of barren land.

Dr. Fearn was so impressed with Whipkey's work that she forwarded a copy of the paper to former state senator Micheal Figures when the open-pit mining issue came up. In the meantime, Whipkey continued his research and began a campaign to change existing open-pit mining laws through legislation.

Whipkey and a group of dedicated supporters mailed over 1,200 letters to lawmakers asking for help and support with a drafted bill that would push for stricter laws with open-pit mining procedures. House representative William Clark was asked to sponsor the bill and in 1996, Whipkey and supporters presented their case at a forum in Prichard.

Within the bill, Whipkey and others push for a raise in the bonding fee ($2,500) and a reclamation fee which requires land owners to agree to reclaim all land that is mined. Owners must re-fill pits, slope the sides of mining walls and re-plant vegetation. The bill also calls for set-back lines which keep mines from digging pits a certain distance from neighboring property owners. An enforcement policy requires mines to comply or be fined by the state.

Whipkey says that even though the bill was met with opposition by certain special interest groups, and was placed on hold in the House Ways and Means Committee in March of !997, it has made much progress. Whipkey and supporters are hopeful that their long years of work, research, involvement in politics and the overwhelming approval of the bill will lead Gov. Fob James to sign it into law.

"I haven't received any assistance from the state, county or any part of the government with this project. The only resource I have to keep these renegades from running all over us is to try and change the law, " Whipkey said. Whipkey presented a project concerning open-pit mining at the South West Alabama Earthday Conference Forum a few weeks back.

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