A bribery scandal over contamination cleanup exposes corrupt behavior from trusted leaders. Will the high-level trial and charges bring the neglected community long overdue environmental justice?
Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series on a recent bribery trial over a toxic Superfund site in Birmingham, Alabama. Read part two here.
"They didn't care"<p> Birmingham sprang to life as a post-Civil War boomtown, since the three main ingredients for making steel -- iron ore, limestone and coal -- were found nearby. The mills were fueled by coke, produced when coal is superheated in an oxygen-free furnace to reduce it down to nearly pure carbon. What's cooked off includes tar, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, cancer-causing substances like benzene and arsenic and heavy metals like lead. </p><p> Today, two coke plants still operate on the northside: ERP Compliant Coke, formerly owned by coal producer Jim Walter; and Drummond Coal's ABC Coke. Both have been running for nearly a century. In the 1950s, the smell of smoke and tar hung heavily over the neighborhood, said Vivian Starks, a retired schoolteacher who's now president of the Collegeville Neighborhood Association.</p><p> "It was worse than what it is now," Starks told EHN. "When we'd hang out clothes, sometimes you'd have to take them in and rinse them again." <span></span> </p><h3><em>Related: </em><em>Visit our <a href="https://www.ehn.org/justice/" target="_blank">Justice page</a> for the day's top stories on the intersection of climate change, the environment and social justice</em></h3><p> Today, many of the byproducts of the coke ovens are captured, re-used or sold for industrial use. What's emitted today is far less than what the plants put out in the 1980s. But <a href="https://iaspub.epa.gov/triexplorer/facility_profile_charts?p_tri=35207SLSSN35003&p_VAR=RE_TOLBY&p_LABEL=Total+On_+and+Off-site+Releases%20(Pounds)" target="_blank">each plant</a> <a href="https://iaspub.epa.gov/triexplorer/facility_profile_charts?p_tri=35217BCCKDRAILR&p_VAR=RE_TOLBY&p_LABEL=Total+On_+and+Off-site+Releases%20(Pounds)">still emits tens of thousands</a> of pounds of toxic chemicals a year, according to EPA data. </p><p> In 2017, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found lead, arsenic, and benzo[a]pyrene in the neighborhoods near the coke plants at levels that posed <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/pha/35thAvenueSite/35th_Ave_Site_Soil_HC_Final_01-18-2017_508.pdf" target="_blank">elevated risks to human health</a>—especially for children. People in the surrounding neighborhoods can rattle off the names of neighbors or relatives who've gotten sick or died over the years, and they suspect there's a connection. </p><p> Starks said people were getting sick when she was a child, "But being in a black neighborhood, they didn't care." </p><p> "I had an aunt that they never found out what was wrong with her," said Starks, now 78. "She lived on the street behind us. And most of the kids I grew up with had asthma, or whooping cough or whatever." </p>
Hay covers the ground left behind after an EPA cleanup crew stripped contaminated soil off the top of this North Birmingham yard. (Credit: Matt Smith)<p>Huggins, who grew up in a North Birmingham housing project, lost a sister-in-law to breast cancer and his mother to uterine cancer. His wife's other sister survived breast cancer. So did his niece.<br></p><p>"You can't be sure, because people have cancer all over the country," said Huggins, 61. "But I believe that the contamination contributed to some of the illnesses that people had in the area."</p><p>The county health department has said there's no evidence people in North Birmingham are sicker than people in other neighborhoods. It came to that conclusion by comparing death certificates in the North Birmingham ZIP code, which is overwhelmingly African-American, with those for black people in the rest of Jefferson County over a 10-year period. The 2014 study found <a href="https://gaspgroup.org/lack-health-research-stands-way-progress/" target="_blank">"no significant difference"</a> in deaths from cancer, respiratory problems like asthma or birth defects.</p><p>But Michael Hansen, the executive director of the Birmingham environmental group GASP, called the study inadequate. It didn't look into rates of non-fatal illnesses, emergency room visits or hospitalizations, or take into account disparities in access to health care.</p><p>"That's just not how epidemiology works, and they know better," Hansen told EHN.</p>
Drummond Coal's ABC Coke plant is at the heart of a bribery scandal that has led to prison terms for three people and ethics charges against two more. (Credit: Matt Smith)<p>The EPA started to get involved in 2009 by testing air quality around some of the local schools. By 2013, it had declared the area a Superfund site and named five companies, including the coke plants, as potentially responsible for the pollution.</p><p>Then in 2014, GASP asked the EPA to extend that cleanup into two more communities: Inglenook, which is part of Birmingham, and the small suburb of Tarrant, which is home to Drummond's ABC Coke plant.</p><p>Later that year, the EPA proposed adding the existing Superfund site to its National Priorities List, which would allow it to move ahead with cleanup and seek reimbursement from the responsible parties.</p><p>Faced with the prospect of tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs, Drummond got to work fighting those measures -- a campaign that would land its top lobbyist and its attorney behind bars.</p><p><strong><em>Read part two: </em></strong><strong><a href="https://www.ehn.org/alabama-superfund-bribery-environmental-justice-2620705289.html" target="_blank"><em>From coal lobbyists to community leaders—the plot to keep Birmingham polluted</em></a></strong></p>