Tidying up my family’s summer vegetable and flower gardens brought some calmness to a hectic week. With every season and year that passes, playing in the dirt as therapy gains greater significance for me. I recall when my boys (now teenagers) were young, giving them a shovel and dirt or just being outside would provide hours of entertainment. Maybe the simplicity of the activity throws our souls back to a slower time. I don’t know.
Residents in northern Birmingham neighborhoods are not able to benefit from this therapeutic activity. Their summers are not filled with the simplicity of moving soil around on their property. They cannot allow their children or grandchildren to dig in the yards of their homes. In fact, if their children or grandchildren inadvertently do get down in the dirt (as kids often do) they have been instructed to wash their hands and take off their shoes before coming inside. Hundreds of residential properties are contaminated with toxic chemicals. Arsenic. Lead. PAHs. Soot continues to accumulate on porches and chemical odors are commonplace.
This summer, the EPA began their investigation into Gasp’s Title VI complaint — one of many actions Gasp has taken to address the pollution. We heard in-depth interviews and testimonies from folks living in the impacted neighborhoods. Residents shared the stark realities of how legacy and ongoing pollution have altered their lives and their health.
An elderly woman who every summer for years took pride in her large, well-nurtured vegetable garden that yielded produce for her family and her neighbors shared her memories. At times, the details escaped her, but the joy her backyard garden brought her was palpable. She wonders, now that she knows about the toxic soil, if eating those vegetables year after year could have affected her families’ health. She doesn’t garden anymore.
A retired veteran who gave 30 years of service to our country spends more time outside washing the soot that accumulates on his lawn furniture than he does sitting in that furniture enjoying the outdoors. As a self-described “clean freak,” he is fairly satisfied how the water pressure of the hose cleans the soot off of his new windows, but he grows tired of this mundane chore that is as frequent as taking out the trash.
Also this summer, news broke of Oliver Robinson taking bribes from Drummond Coal and Balch & Bingham to undermine the continued cleanup of toxic contamination in Birmingham and our efforts to expand the investigation into Tarrant.
While it is not terribly shocking that big polluters and their expensive law firms engaged in nefarious activity to maintain the status quo, the silence that followed was. Where are the other elected officials denouncing Drummond Coal’s and Balch & Bingham’s immoral behavior? Where are the opinion letters or full page ads from our corporate leaders and institutions demanding for an apology or, better yet, restitution and cleanup from Drummond Coal and Balch & Bingham? Will the reach of these companies’ tentacles prevent justice from taking priority over the health of entire neighborhoods of people? The health of our children?
The summer of 2017 could have been the beginning of a paradigm shift for the most powerful corporations and institutions in our state. The federal investigation is providing the “cover” for members of the leadership class to side with the residents in northern Birmingham neighborhoods and denounce the actions of Drummond Coal and Balch & Bingham.
Although fall has officially begun, it is not too late. We need to hear from the influential voices denouncing the immoral actions of these corporations and calling for the clean up and reduction of pollution in northern Birmingham neighborhoods. Perhaps by taking action today we can ensure that the generations of tomorrow will have the benefits of a clean and healthy environment.
Start by telling the Birmingham Business Alliance to remove Drummond CEO Mike Tracy and Balch & Bingham Partner Stan Blanton from their board of directors and from barring representatives from leadership for at least two years.
When we were asked if Gasp would participate in the Women’s March in Birmingham, we enthusiastically agreed. The March stands for principles Gasp absolutely supports. Plus, it would be great to set up a table and spread the word about healthy air and clean energy to the, ahem, few hundred folks expected.
The March was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. When I arrived at Kelly Ingram park at 12:15, people were already congregating and milling around. By 1:30, the park was packed and we were in the weeds with people at our table. The day was joyous and peaceful, and the vast number of bodies created a sense of hope and confidence that we, together, could handle the next four years. However, the anxiousness and unease of the marchers, of what is to come, was palatable.
What’s next? How do thousands of march participants and those they inspired, do something? How do we prevent the Clean Air Act from becoming obsolete? How do we ensure the free market will prevail when it comes to clean energy development? How do we protect our children’s future from the wraths of a changing climate? We can’t know exactly what to do, but a place to start, is to become an engaged citizen. Participate. Resist allowing powerful, corporate entities to be the loudest voice and accumulate their victories.
Below is an easy list of next steps to become engaged on issues related to healthy air and clean energy. Expect to be asked to do more. As we have already seen, irresponsible decisions are being made that will impact our planet — your family’s air, water and future. While we brace ourselves, consider starting here:
Get on the Gasp mailing list to receive news about air pollution, climate change, renewable energy, and other issues that affect our health and our environment. Already on our list? Share with a friend who might be interested in healthy air and clean energy issues.
Join the more than 300 members of Gasp by making a donation at any level. I am a personal fan of giving recurring, monthly donations, since they allow you to give larger, annual donations at small amounts over time.
Sign our petitions; write letters to Congress in support of (or in opposition to) specific policy proposals; make phone calls to demand action. Pro-tip: Save your Senators and Representative in your phone’s contacts.
Sign up to help with events, become a citizen scientist, give a presentation (or invite us to give a presentation at your church, civic group. etc) assist with community outreach, and more.
Thanks to all the organizers of the Alabama Women’s March for pulling off a well attended, energizing event. It was an honor to be involved. And thanks to our wonderful volunteers, Adriane and Keskia, for helping us out!
Below are the remarks I made at the Alabama Women’s March in Birmingham reflecting on the unity principle of environmental justice:
Margaret Mead said, Never doubt that a small group of highly committed individuals can change the world, indeed they are the only ones who ever have.
Everybody deserves clean healthy air, regardless of their ZIP code. Unfortunately, in our country and here in Alabama, where you live can determine how healthy your air is to breathe.
Where you live can determine whether or not your child needs an inhaler to get through their day.
We want the best available technologies to be deployed to dramatically reduce toxic emissions
We want the Clean Air Act, that is responsible for the dramatic improvement to our air quality over the years to remain intact — to be improved based on scientific research — not dismantled by those who wield their power and money freely
We want agencies to consider whether or not a polluting facility is disproportionately impacting low income and/or minority communities before they give that facility a permit to pollute.
Water is Life.
Alabama is home to some of the most biologically diverse rivers in the world, yet a few politically powerful entities have a tight grip of control — over how our water is managed. The water in the state belongs to all of us.
In Alabama, we have no plan for managing this precious resource.
We want to be fully prepared for the next extreme drought — which we know will be coming…
The rivers and waters of Alabama should be managed responsibly, to be protected from toxic waste, from irresponsible actors who use our rivers and streams as a dumping ground
We want all the fish in our waters to be healthy and edible for everyone, including pregnant women, children, and sustenance fisherman. We don’t want our fish loaded with dangerous toxins.
We want the health of our water and air to take priority over powerful polluting entities financial interests.
We stand behind the thousands of climatologists around the world who tell us the climate is changing. We believe what science is showing us: our planet’s climate is changing, and the most vulnerable among us will again be disproportionately impacted. The time to act is now.
The Clean Power Plan needs to remain intact to reduce harmful carbon emissions.
We want to harness the energy of the sun to combat climate change. In Alabama, powerful interests are trying to hold this industry back, instead of letting the free market prevail.
We want those in power to to make decisions based on the creed, “We did not inherit the earth from our parents and grandparents, we are borrowing it from our children and grandchildren.”
Some communities in our country suffer from a larger burden of environmental hazards than others. These areas are referred to as environmental justice (EJ) communities. While more attention has been given to EJ communities as of late, tangible, specific changes to reduce the burden of toxic exposures in EJ communities has been non-existent. For example, neighborhoods in the northern Birmingham area continue to suffer from industrial pollution despite being named an EJ community by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has “accepted” two Title VI Complaints against the Jefferson County Department of Health. But the investigation has not started.
In an attempt to improve the health and quality of life for residents of EJ communities, EPA has released the “2020 EJ Action Agenda,” which is their 2016-2020 strategic plan for environmental justice. Gasp will weigh in on this Agenda to give Birmingham and our members a voice. We’re looking for neighborhood associations, churches, and other groups that want to see strong improvements to EPA’s handling of environmental justice to sign on to our comments or submit their own.
The 2020 EJ Action Agenda will help the EPA integrate environmental justice into everything they do. This vision is intended to help make vulnerable, economically challenged, and environmentally overburdened communities cleaner and healthier places to live.
The three main goals of the plan are:
- To deepen environmental justice practices within every EPA office and region.
- To collaborate more with communities, governments, and stakeholders.
- To demonstrate progress on critical national environmental justice challenges.
Focus of Gasp’s EJ 2020 comments:
- The EPA should use environmental justice factors to select communities with the greatest need to receive additional attention and resources.
- Plan EJ 2020 should build Title VI compliance and enforcement into all aspects of EPA’s operations, and should establish a system by which the EPA will resolve all Title VI civil rights complaints in a timely manner.
- The Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) should coordinate and communicate more when on the ground in vulnerable communities in order to create a clear role for the OEJ to provide their expertise.
- The EPA should strengthen oversight of state and local agencies administering federal environmental laws and prioritize the best practices in permitting, rulemaking, and enforcement. Gasp supports EPA’s objective to enhance work with regulatory partners in overburdened communities. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Jefferson County Department of Health will surely benefit from increased collaboration with EPA to address disparate impacts of illegal pollution on communities.
- As part of Goal II, especially in the Northern Birmingham communities, EPA could build the capacity of communities to take part in critical environmental and public health issues that impact them by, for example, holding trainings and distributing materials and resources well in advance of Title V permit renewals in order to enable community members to comment meaningfully on Title V permit renewal applications.
- Gasp fully supports and welcomes EPA’s focus on developing innovative monitoring tools and technological solutions to environmental problems. Citizen science will empower overburdened communities and thus should continue to be an integral part of EPA’s EJ Action Agenda.
Here’s what you can do:
It is important for Birmingham citizens to raise their voice for a stronger EPA Environmental Justice Program. Local regulatory agencies look to EPA for guidance when determining how to handle environmental justice issues. Comments are due to the EPA July 28.
Please consider supporting a stronger EPA environmental justice program by either signing on to Gasp’s comments, or submitting your own. We are also looking for neighborhood associations, churches and civic organizations to support stronger EJ policies. And please give us suggestions of groups we can contact to ask for support.
To sign on to Gasp’s EJ 2020 comments, please contact Haley Lewis no later than July 27. You may submit your own written comments electronically to: email@example.com, or via mail to:
Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice
USEPA, Office of Environmental Justice (2201-A) 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460
For more information regarding the public comments or next steps regarding the development of EJ 2020, please contact Charles Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org), Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice.
A version of this article appeared in our Summer 2016 print newsletter.
Birmingham’s air quality has improved since the days when thick orange-brown clouds enveloped the city, but our air is still far from healthy. In the American Lung Association’s 2014 State of the Air report, Birmingham ranked 16th in annual particle pollution and 23rd in high ozone days. Air pollution is typically grouped into two categories: Criteria Air Pollutants and Hazardous Air Pollutants (Air Toxics)
Criteria Air Pollutants
The Clean Air Act requires the U.S. EPA to set emissions standards for what are known as criteria air pollutants. The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are used to determine the safety levels for criteria air pollutants in the ambient air (the air you are breathing). The six criteria air pollutants are: particle pollution (or particulate matter), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. These pollutants can harm human health, cause smog and acid rain, and create other hazards. They are especially harmful for children, the elderly and those with a large variety of existing medical ailments.
You can stay informed on the quality of the air for these pollutants through the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) program. In the summer, when ozone pollution is a concern, some media outlets use the AQI to report “bad air” days. Gasp would like to see media outlets reporting on the AQI year round, since particle pollution (a long-time health hazard for the Birmingham area) can be a problem anytime during the year. Gasp has an Air Quality Widget available for websites, and the American Lung Association has an app you can download to track daily air quality for criteria air pollutants.
Hazardous Air Pollutants (Air Toxics)
“Hazardous air pollutants, also known as toxic air pollutants or air toxics, are those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.” U.S. EPA
Although thousands of air toxics exist, the Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate emissions of 187 hazardous air pollutants. Unlike criteria air pollutants, EPA focuses on technical requirements (technologies available to reduce emissions) of these pollutants, not ambient air concentrations. Therefore, the ambient air is not continuously monitored for the presence of most air toxics. Occasionally, EPA conducts air toxic “studies” if an area is suspected to have high amount of air toxics. Often times little to no action is taken to reduce emissions if an exceedance is found, unfortunately. (For example, in 2013, EPA released the North Birmingham Air Toxics Risk Assessment, which found several exceedences in risk levels for certain carcinogens. The local regulatory agency, however, did not take action to reduce emissions from nearby polluting facilities.)
We are learning more every day about how air toxics can impact our health (including our brains). To provide citizens with information about their risks from exposure to air toxics, EPA has developed a variety of tools that can be used to determine how healthy the air is your city or neighborhood.
Toxic Release Inventory (TRI)
TRI tracks the releases and management of toxic chemicals that EPA has determined may pose a threat to human health and the environment. Facilities in different industry sectors must report annually how much of each chemical is released (emitted to the air or water, or disposed in landfill) into the environment.
For example, below is a TRI factsheet for Jefferson County, AL pulled from the TRI website.
RSEI is a geographically based model that uses information from EPA’s TRI data, three U.S. Censuses, toxicity and properties for more than 400 chemicals, and geographical information for more than 50,000 facilities. All of this information can be downloaded, sorted and filtered by a variety of parameters. The data is used to model the route of each chemical release through the environment, and any potential human exposure that may result.
For example, the top 10 RSEI Hazard (combined cancer and non-cancer toxicity) facilities in Jefferson County (based on 2014 TRI data) are:
|MILLER STEAM PLANT
|REFRACTORY SALES & SERVICE CO INC
|DRUMMOND CO INC ABC COKE DIV
|SMI STEEL LLC DBA CMC STEEL ALABAMA
|SOUTHLAND TUBE INC
|CONSOLIDATED PIPE & SUPPLY CO INC
|WALTER COKE INC
|ROCK WOOL MANUFACTURING CO
|C & B PIPING PLANT EXPANSION
Note: The value of RSEI is to compare the relative hazards and risks created by multiple facilities. It cannot be used to quantitatively determine the estimated health risk of any particular facility).
The 2011 NATA app is a mapping application that displays risks, emissions, and monitoring data for your community on a map. It also allows the querying and downloading of data. Map layers include:
- all emissions sources modeled in NATA,
- cancer risks and respiratory hazard indices,
- annual ambient concentrations, and
- air toxics monitoring sites with monitoring data spanning the years 2005 to 2013.
When viewing Jefferson County, we can see that many areas within the county have an estimated total risk greater than 100 (dark purple), meaning that the exposure risk is higher than EPA considers to be acceptable. (Note that EPA suggests that this map not be used as the sole resource for evaluating risk, but rather as a guide.)
Everyone deserves to know what is in the air they are breathing. Unfortunately, despite the massive emitters of air toxics in the Birmingham area — and the significant risks they pose to our health — air toxics are not often discussed publicly by regulators, nor does there appear to be a will to maximize reductions in this important segment of air pollutants.
To reduce exposure risk to air toxics, Gasp would like to see the following implemented in our county:
- An acknowledgement from regulators that air toxics in our communities need to be reduced, especially those located in close proximity to large emitters of air toxics (sometimes called “fenceline communities”). An inclusive process that engages the public in determining what level of risk (exposure to air toxics) is acceptable. In other words, the public, especially fenceline communities, should be a part of policy decisions that impact their health.
- Enforcement of existing local regulations regarding the cancer risk exposure for both individual toxics and cumulative effect of multiple toxics. (While developing comments for the Title V permit process for two large facilities in 2014, Gasp learned that JCDH’s “acceptable” risk levels had been exceeded by facilities).
- Active pollution prevention programs aimed at reducing emissions to the maximum extent possible. Explore latest technologies and facilitate collaboration between polluting facilities and universities to seek new methods in pollution reduction.
- Additional ambient air monitoring of air toxics needs to occur, especially in fenceline communities where air toxics “hotspots” may exist near large emitters. Monitoring data should be easily accessible to the public and reviewed by experts for feedback and recommendations on next steps.
On Tuesday, I sent a letter to Heather McTeer Toney, EPA Region IV administrator, asking that her agency invest in “next generation” air monitoring in Birmingham to gather data, empower citizens and improve public health for northern Birmingham communities. “It has been established that the ambient air quality in northern Birmingham communities is unhealthy,” I wrote, “despite claims from local regulatory agencies to the contrary.”
Residents in northern Birmingham communities have known for decades that the soot covering their homes is likely affecting their health. Recent analysis of data from the air monitor on Shuttlesworth Drive shows just that. Increased air monitoring is essential to determining just how harmful exposure to these pollutants is for the folks who live, work and go to school in these neighborhoods.
In April, after the Jefferson County Board of Health rejected our request for a hearing on ABC Coke’s air permit, one board member asserted that we — not the health department tasked with protecting public health — should gather the data. It is not the job of a Gasp, a small nonprofit organization, to conduct comprehensive public health assessments and implement policies based on that data. Nevertheless, we are committed to solving this problem. And with EPA’s support, significant strides could be made using next generation air monitoring.
Common sense dictates that soot-covered homes should be viewed as a red flag. However, the lack of initiative from local and state regulatory agencies to conduct additional air monitoring means we must look elsewhere for solutions. Gasp is advocating that the EPA help bring the citizen science movement to Birmingham in full force. All over the country, citizens are empowering themselves to gather the data they need to help determine what, exactly, they’re breathing every day.
Citizen science is a growing movement across the United States. As in other areas around our country, Gasp would like to see EPA provide training for citizens who are living in close proximity to large polluters like Walter Coke and ABC Coke, among others. The one air monitor currently in the northern Birmingham area is not enough. Let me be clear: Knowledge is power, and we desperately need more data.
Dorothy Davis lives across the ABC Coke plant in Tarrant, Ala. In “Toxic City,” Dorthy point blank told us, “I sleep out there in that back bedroom and a lot of nights the dust off the plant out there will smother you to death.” People like Dorothy deserve to know what’s really in the air they’re breathing.
All across the country we have seen examples where citizen-driven research, including “next generation” technologies, have been utilized to get an accurate read of pollution levels emitted from large industrial facilities.
Take Tonawanda, N.Y., for example. Citizens knew that more air monitoring was needed to determine what pollution levels they were being exposed to from the nearby coke facility — Tonawanda Coke. They received training. They gathered data. And ultimately they found unhealthy levels of benzene. Their findings prompted the state to conduct their own fenceline air monitoring, confirming the citizens’ suspicions: the level of benzene coming from the facility was 30 times higher than what the facility was self reporting.
Here in Jefferson County, facilities like Walter Coke and ABC Coke are under-monitored and trusted to accurately report their emissions to regulators. I believe increased air monitoring, led by empowered “citizen scientists” will enhance economic opportunities and quality of life for all Birmingham residents — but especially those living near polluters.
Do you agree? Tell us!