- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Department of Environmental Management on Friday raised permit fees to make up for lost state funding, budget cuts that came in a state already under criticism for how little it steers to environmental compliance.

The ADEM Commission approved a 20 percent fee increase for most permits issued by the agency. The vote to raise fees came after commissioners criticized the budget cuts approved by lawmakers and the agency’s director discussed the risk of federal intervention without replacement funding.

ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said the agency needed to replace funds after lawmakers largely eliminated the agency’s general fund appropriation and also diverted $500,000 in collected fees to other agencies. The fee increases, which will go into effect in 45 days, will raise about $2 million, about the same as what was cut.

LeFleur told commissioners the state was risking intervention from the federal Environmental Protection Agency unless it restored the funding - and could still face it even with the increase.

“If funding is not maintained at least at the (fiscal year 2014) level an increased EPA presence in the state should be expected,” LeFleur said.

A coalition of 14 environmental groups in 2010 petitioned the EPA to consider revoking permitting authority from ADEM, charging the state was not policing key sections of the federal Clean Water Act.

“We identified budgetary resources as one of the key problems we are facing in this state,” said Mitch Reid, with the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

LeFleur said the EPA raised concerns about funding since Alabama ranks near the bottom in state funding. He said a lawyer for the EPA told federal judges, during arguments before the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals, that the federal agency expected to make a decision on whether to initiate proceedings against ADEM by the end of 2016.

Commissioners criticized legislators’ decision to cut the agency’s funding.

“They have passed the buck to this commission, basically asking us to raise the taxes so they can say they didn’t,” AMEM Commissioner Terry Richardson said.

ADEM Commission Chairman H. Lanier Brown II said commissioners had little choice in approving the increase.

Brown noted that the fees will put ADEM back to a funding level already criticized by the EPA.

“I think it is absurd we are essentially raising fees for the third time in four years,” Brown said. ADEM raised fees in 2013 and 2011. The fee increase in 2013 was 50 percent The fee increase in 2011 was 19 percent.

Industry groups had raised concerns about the fee increases.

The only money allocated to ADEM from the general fund is a $280,000 appropriation earmarked for permitting animal feeding operations such as chicken farms. However, LeFleur said that appropriation does not cover the cost of the program and that ADEM might consider reinstating those fees.

“Unlike other businesses, farmers can’t pass these added costs on to customers. The wholesale prices of beef, pork, chicken, eggs and milk are dictated by world markets, so these fees, if implemented, will come straight out of farmers’ pockets,” Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell said in a statement.

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