Rep. Jo Bonner, bacon deliveryman
Some people think I’m raising questions about Rep. Jo Bonner’s new job as lobbyist for the University of Alabama System because I have personal animosity towards Jo.
It don’t. I don’t know Jo, but I have several friends who do. They like him. From this distance, he certainly seems likable enough.
I watched a recent interview he gave to an Alabama television station.
He was effusive, clever and even admitted to hypocrisy for criticizing another congressman for leaving before his term was finished. He struck all the right notes. I think that’s what makes the timing his resignation so odd in the first place. He’s a capable public servant and is more useful to the University System as a congressman.
I don’t buy Rep. Bonner’s and Chancellor Robert Witt’s story that this was an unexpected opportunity. When you’re talking about paying someone $350,000 a year, nothing about it is unexpected.
When you start looking at the earmarks Rep. Bonner has secured for the university system, it makes his resignation look even stranger. Rep. Bonner since 2008 has requested or co-sponsored $121.8 million in earmarks for projects in his district and throughout the state, according to LegisStorm. That includes nearly $11 million Rep. Bonner secured for the University of Alabama system:
University of Alabama System
2010: $1,000,000, solo earmark request, for “antennas for unmanned aerial vehicles.”
2010: $355,000, solo earmark request, for “University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, for the West Alabama Autism Outreach Center.”
2009: $666,000, solo earmark request for “University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, for facilities and equipment at the West Alabama Autism Outreach Center.”
2008:$8,930,000, cosponsored with Sen. Richard Shelby for “construction, renovation, and equipment.”
Rep. Bonner also secured $6 million earmarks for Auburn University (was that on his resume?):
2010: $3,440,000, solo earmark request, for “multi-element structured filter arrays for naval platforms.”
2010: $1,500,000, cosponsored with Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Mike Rogers, for “biomass to liquid fuels and electric power research.”
2009: $951,500, cosponsored with Sen. Jeff Sessions, Sen. Richard Shelby, Rep. Mike Rogers et. al., for “Auburn University Bioenergy and Bioproducts Laboratory.”
Rep. Bonner also serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal spending. In short, he is a reliable supplier of pork products for Alabama and his district.
While there’s currently a moratorium on earmarks, I would be surprised if Rep. Bonner wasn’t using his influence on the Appropriations Committee to help his constituents. That’s his job. As best I can figure, he’s pretty damn good at it. I don’t see how he could more helpful to the University of Alabama System when he leaves Congress.
Like I said before, the timing of this and the circumstances do not make sense.
Since I’m onto the topic of earmarks, I thought I’d throw out some additional things to ponder.
In Fiscal Year 2009, Rep. Bonner secured a $14 million earmark for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cosponsored with Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. In a prior post, I raised questions about whether Rep. Bonner will have any influence over the Drummond Company’s Shepherd Bend Mine project.
University of Alabama System Board of Trustee Emeritus Garry Neil Drummond and his company’s political action committee donated $23,000 to Rep. Bonner’s campaigns. The project is also on land owned by the University of Alabama System.
I did a little more digging around (since no one else seems interested) and found out that in September 2008, the Army Corps approved a permit for the Shepherd Bend Mine project. The Army Corps signed off on it before Drummond Company filed a permit application with the Alabama Surface Mining Commission, a fact noted by the attorney for Black Warrior Riverkeeper in a 2009 letter. (See the letter posted beneath this article.)
The timing of the approval is interesting. The federal fiscal year begins in Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30. That means members of congress were finalizing their earmark requests for Fiscal 2009 right around the time the Army Corps approved the Shepherd Bend Permit.
Did Rep. Bonner use any of his influence to nudge the Army Corps about Shepherd Bend?
He was pretty good at using his influence to get funding for the Army Corps.
Here’s the letter from Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s attorney:
August 25, 2009
Via Electronic and U.S. Mail
Birmingham Field Office Manager
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Mobile District Regulatory Division, Inland Branch
Birmingham Field Office
218 Summit Parkway, Suite 222
Homewood, Alabama 35209-4753
Re: Shepherd Bend Mine, Walker County, Alabama; File No. SAM-2008-457-HWL
Dear Ms. House-Pearson:
The Southern Environmental Law Center submits this letter on behalf of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper (“BWRK”) concerning the above-referenced mine. BWRK is a non-profit membership corporation that is dedicated to the preservation, protection, and defense of the Black Warrior River and its tributaries. BWRK works to improve water quality, habitat, recreation, and public health throughout the Black Warrior River watershed and actively supports effective implementation of environmental laws, including the federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”).
Shepherd Bend plans to construct a 1,773-acre coal mine along the banks of the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River in Walker County, Alabama. On October 10, 2007, Shepherd Bend applied for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (“ADEM”) to authorize its mining discharges at this site. This permit was the subject of much public scrutiny and concern, as several of the discharge outfalls will be within 800 feet of the Mulberry Raw Water Pump Station, a drinking water intake valve maintained by the Birmingham Water Works Board.
Despite numerous concerns raised by the Birmingham Water Works Board, other concerned citizens, and BWRK, ADEM issued Shepherd Bend a NPDES permit on July 21, 2008. BWRK has appealed the issuance of the NPDES permit, and this challenge has not yet been resolved. The issues currently being litigated in the permit appeal are (1) whether ADEM could lawfully grant Shepherd Bend a permit without reviewing and approving a pollution abatement and prevention plan for the site (which all parties concede was not submitted to, or approved by, ADEM), and (2) whether certain discharge limitations and exemptions contained in the permit will result in violations of federal and state water quality standards.
Shepherd Bend has not applied for or received a permit from the Alabama Surface Mining Commission (“ASMC”) to cover its mining activities at the site. During the course of our NPDES permit appeal, Shepherd Bend has admitted, and ASMC has repeatedly affirmed, that it has not yet applied for a permit from ASMC.
On September 10, 2008, the Corps authorized the filling of wetlands at the site pursuant to Nationwide Permit 21. We have serious concerns about this authorization for several reasons and ask that the Corps take actions to immediately revoke it.
First, Nationwide Permit 21 cannot be used to authorize the discharges at the Shepherd Bend site because Shepherd Bend has not applied for or received a permit from ASMC.
According to its unambiguous terms, Nationwide Permit 21 may only be used to authorize discharges “provided the activities are already authorized, or are currently being processed as part of an integrated permit processing procedure, by the Department of Interior (DOI), Office of Surface Mining (OSM), or by states with approved programs under Title V of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.” 72 Fed. Reg. 11113 (emphasis added). Because Shepherd Bend has not applied for a permit from ASMC, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act permitting authority in Alabama, the Corps’ use of Nationwide Permit 21 to authorize the discharges at issue here is arbitrary and capricious in violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.
Second, the use of Nationwide Permit 21 to authorize the discharges at the Shepherd Bend site violates many of the general conditions that must be satisfied for coverage under any nationwide permit. For example, general condition 7 prohibits activities “in the proximity of a public water supply intake.” As noted above, many of the discharges at this site are within 800 feet of the intake valve for the Birmingham Water Works Board. Likewise, general condition 3 prohibits activities that will result in the physical destruction of important spawning areas through “excavation, fill, or downstream smothering by substantial turbidity.” The receiving waters for the Shepherd Bend mine are designated as Fish and Wildlife waters. Unrefuted expert testimony in our NPDES permit appeal has proven that discharges of sediment at the site will cause increased turbidity and destroy important fisheries habitat.
Finally, Nationwide Permit 21 should not be used to authorize the discharges at the Shepherd Bend site given the Corps’ recent proposal to suspend and modify this permit in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 74 Fed. Reg. 34311. This proposed suspension casts serious doubt on the validity of Nationwide Permit 21 generally and its ability to ensure that the CWA’s mandates are satisfied. In proposing to partially suspend Nationwide Permit 21, the Corps has noted the “increase[d]  concerns regarding the individual and cumulative adverse effects of [mining] activities on the human environment and the natural resources in [Appalachia], including streams and other aquatic resources.” Id. Because of these concerns, the Corps is proposing to require individual permits for all surface coal mines in part or all of these six states. According to the Corps, the “additional information” associated with enhanced public review of individual permits “could help improve the Corps’ analysis of impacts to public interest review factors, including the aquatic environment.” Id. at 34312.
Although Alabama is not one of the six named states in which the permit would be suspended, the potential impacts to aquatic resources from the proposed mine (particularly as authorized by the latest NPDES permit) are significant enough to warrant a more thorough examination by the Corps. It appears likely that Nationwide Permit 21 will be partially suspended, and this fact alone suggests that the Corps should revisit its decision to apply it to the Shepherd Bend site (and other surface mining projects in Alabama) on a river already stressed by a history of coal-mining discharges and which provides drinking water for the city of Birmingham.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter, and feel free to contact me with any questions. Please notify me of the Corps’ position on this matter after a review of the information presented herein, as we may decide to take appropriate legal action should the Corps refuse to revoke its Nationwide Permit 21 authorization for the discharges at the Shepherd Bend site.
Catherine M. Wannamaker
cc: Michael Creswell, Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile
Richard E. Davis, Starnes & Atchison, LLP
David Muncher, Shepherd Bend LLC
Randall C. Johnson, Alabama Surface Mining Commission
James L. Wright, Alabama Department of Environmental Management