From coal lobbyists to community leaders—the plot to keep Birmingham polluted
"It almost makes you think that everyone has a price"
Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series on a recent bribery trial over a toxic Superfund site in Birmingham, Alabama. Read part one here.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Decades of heavy industry left the neighborhoods of North Birmingham stained with black soot and toxic residue.
When it came time to clean it up, a new stain started to spread.
By 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency had declared more than 1,000 acres of the area a Superfund site and started scraping away layers of dirt laced with arsenic, lead, and benzo[a]pyrene, a coal byproduct that causes cancer. It named five companies "potentially responsible parties" for the pollution, meaning they could have found themselves on the hook for millions in cleanup costs. And they started looking at whether other nearby neighborhoods were similarly polluted.
One of those companies, Drummond Coal, decided to fight the EPA. But its campaign led to a bribery scandal that's spread far beyond the gates of the nearby coke plant it owned – it's led to a guilty plea from a local politician, prison terms for Drummond's top lobbyist and one of its lawyers in October and now, the resignation of a top EPA official after his indictment on state ethics charges.
Drummond argued directly with the EPA, challenging a petition by Birmingham environmental group GASP to expand the cleanup and arguing its ABC Coke facility had an "excellent" environmental record. It tried to line up allies in state government, like then-Gov. Robert Bentley, to push back against their federal counterparts. But it also sought to influence the decision in a more roundabout way
The company's top lobbyist, David Roberson, and attorney Joel Gilbert of the Birmingham-based Balch and Bingham, one of Alabama's most influential law firms, set up a nonprofit called the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy. It funneled money to another nonprofit set up by state Rep. Oliver Robinson, a onetime local basketball star turned Democratic lawmaker, through a consulting contract with Gilbert's firm.
An EPA crew scrapes away soil contaminated by years of industrial pollution in North Birmingham. (Credit: Matt Smith)
In return, according to federal prosecutors, Robinson would help Drummond fight the EPA -- and keep the deal secret.
Robinson led a campaign to convince homeowners that Superfund designation would wreck their property values, urging them not to let the EPA test their yards. Gilbert prepared talking points for Robinson to present to constituents, state regulators and the EPA. Robinson voted for a resolution in the state House opposing the expanded cleanup. He ended up getting paid about $375,000 for his services.
He also recruited the head of the local NAACP chapter, Hezekiah Jackson, to help out. Jackson warned residents against getting yards tested and organized a coat drive for area families to help spread the word. But it didn't involve distributing donated coats. Instead, families were invited to listen to arguments against the expanded cleanup in exchange for a $50 gift card to a coat store.
Michael Hansen, the executive director of the Birmingham environmental group GASP, compared it to pitches for a time-share condo. "It was really a clever scheme," he told EHN.
When the FBI came knocking, Robinson resigned his seat, pleaded guilty to taking bribes and testified against Roberson and Gilbert. He's been sentenced to 33 months in prison.
Roberson and Gilbert insisted everything they did was legal, but a jury disagreed. In October, a federal judge sentenced Roberson to two and a half years in prison and Gilbert to five; both are appealing the verdicts.
After the trial, Drummond said it didn't believe Roberson would "knowingly engage in wrongdoing" and blamed Balch and Bingham for bad advice. "As testimony in the trial showed, we were assured the firm's community outreach efforts on our behalf were legal and proper."
The NAACP suspended Jackson as the head of its metro Birmingham chapter pending an investigation. He's denied any wrongdoing.
The bribery scandal has left a bad taste in the mouth of people like Lorenza Huggins, a long-time community leader and pastor of Friendship Christian Ministries, who calls Robinson and Jackson "sellouts."
"They sold out the people they were sworn to protect," he told EHN. "It almost makes you think that everyone has a price."
"It's so easy to hide from public view"
The trial revealed another dimension to the scandal: Drummond had a man on the inside.
Scott Phillips sat on the commission that oversees Alabama's counterpart to the EPA, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. He was also a partner in a private company, Southeast Engineering and Consulting, that Drummond hired to help push back against the EPA. Phillips took part in commission meetings and discussions about the cleanup plan without disclosing that arrangement, according to testimony in the trial.
The trial also revealed that Phillips leaked GASP's presentation to the commission in support of the extended cleanup to his business partner, onetime ADEM chief Trey Glenn, who in turn passed it to Gilbert and Roberson. They used the presentation to prep Robinson to argue against it.
Their company got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the work. Phillips left the commission in 2017. The same year, the Trump administration named Glenn to a top post at the EPA -- the regional administrator for the Southeast, charged with enforcing environmental laws in eight states.
Alabama prosecutors have charged Trey Glenn, the EPA's regional administrator for the Southeast, with violating state ethics laws in connection with the Birmingham Superfund case.
Three weeks after Roberson and Gilbert were sentenced, a grand jury in Birmingham indicted Phillips and Glenn on multiple counts of violating Alabama ethics laws, which bar public officials from using their offices for private gain. The EPA announced Monday that Glenn has resigned his post. Details of the charges were still under wraps this week, but Glenn has denied any wrongdoing in statements issued to news outlets. Phillips didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
David Ludder, a former ADEM general counsel who now represents conservation groups, said the trial should be a wake-up call about how far corporate influence reaches into Alabama's government.
"This was something that has probably gone on a long time, and it's so easy to hide from public view until you get something like the FBI coming in and doing an investigation," he told EHN. "And then, only after a trial does all the information become publicly known."
But in a state where the governor and two other top officials have been forced from office for misconduct in recent years, he's not particularly optimistic about the chances of reform.
"It's probably going to take some more convictions of high-level politicians, and then some good people running for office," Ludder said.
A plot against the people
Scott Phillips, a former member of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, also faces ethics charges in connection with the Birmingham Superfund case.
On a recent afternoon, EPA trucks hauled contaminated soil from a lot off one of North Birmingham's main streets to a now-closed high school, where it's piled up awaiting disposal. Homes that have had the yards treated have plastic fencing set up around them with hay laid over the bare dirt.
EPA spokesman James Pinkney told EHN the agency has now cleaned up about 400 buildings, including three schools and two low-income apartment buildings. It's sampled about 1,900 of the 2,000 homes in the area and is still trying to figure out how many of those will be cleaned up. The effort has cost about $25 million so far, and will take another two to three years, Pinkney said.
But the pushback against the EPA worked. Faced with overwhelming opposition from Alabama officials, some of whom signed letters drafted by Gilbert and Roberson, the agency decided against adding North Birmingham to the National Priorities List or expanding the Superfund site.
The city's new mayor, Randall Woodfin, is asking the EPA to reconsider. Woodfin, who came to office in an upset in 2017, told acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler in August that the decision was the result of "a plot against the people of Birmingham." And after the latest indictments, Woodfin said the scandals "destroyed the public's confidence."
"Corruption clearly hijacked the decision-making and now the people of North Birmingham deserve a transparent process to determine the resources needed to make their neighborhoods whole," Woodfin said in a joint statement with the area's congresswoman, Terri Sewell.
The EPA has not responded publicly to the mayor. GASP is now challenging Drummond's air quality permits from the Jefferson County's Health Department, while ERP Coke's permits come up for review in 2019.
Anti-pollution activist Charlie Powell says the government should buy out residents and redevelop the neighborhood. (Credit: Matt Smith)
Meanwhile, some in the neighborhoods are debating whether to stay -- or like Huggins' congregation, to pack up and leave.
"With all the money that was paid in bribes and all that kind of stuff, people could have probably been relocated," Huggins said. "All the money that was paid not to help the people could have helped people. It's just amazing what people would do for their bottom line, how many lives they'd sacrifice."
Vivian Starks, a retired schoolteacher who's now president of the Collegeville Neighborhood Association, wants to stay in the neighborhood where she was born. But she says to do that, the cleanup has to go beyond just scraping up yards and address the contamination inside homes as well.
"I think they should come in, do something about those plants -- regulate those plants -- and fix our houses inside and out," she said. "I don't think I should have to move just so I can get good air, good water and good soil."
Charlie Powell, who grew up in the area and now leads a group called People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC), has already left, moving up the road to the northeastern suburbs. But he still owns property in the neighborhood, and he's arguing the government should buy out residents. The government is already relocating the housing projects, so why should they stay?
"We're tired of people going to jail and saying they're sorry," Powell told EHN. "Do something about it."