Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Katie Rogers

Katie Rogers is a Birmingham-based writer, feng shui consultant, and filmmaker. You can watch her documentary “CarLess in LA” currently on YouTube). She was happy to attend the E.O. Wilson Lecture with Harvard alumna Gasp Board Member Karen Shepard (who happens to be a climate change expert and Huffington Post writer) and Gasp Outreach Director Kirsten Bryant. Together,  they collectively gushed over the environmental slant of Frank Stitt’s lecture (AND the olive oil cake).

When a friend asked me to be her guest at the Harvard Club’s annual E.O. Wilson Distinguished Lecture Series, where there would be a “Conversation with Chef Frank Stitt,” I was all in. After all, everyone in Birmingham knows the name Frank Stitt. He’s the head chef and owner of four of Birmingham’s most beloved restaurants: Chez Fon Fon, Bottega, Bottega Café, and the now legendary, Highlands Bar and Grill. I thought it would be fun to hear what he had to say, and of course, there was the lure of good food, wine, and an interesting crowd.

Coincidentally, just days after the invitation, Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Highlands beat out competition in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago for this prestigious honor as the best restaurant in the United States.  Score for Highlands. Score for Birmingham. Score for Alabama.

Being somewhat of foodie, I was now especially excited to hear him speak. However, the last thing I expected to hear from him is that his stance on food is actually a profound environmental message.

What I gathered from the lively dialogue between he and Catherine Sloss Jones is that his secret to great cuisine is the integrity of the ingredients. Furthermore, he suggested that where there are great ingredients, there is healthy earth.

Images: (1) Katie Rogers, Frank Stitt, Pardis Stitt, Karen Shepard and Kirsten Bryant; (2) Gasp Board Member, Karen Shepard and Outreach Director, Kirsten Bryant, discuss the connection between food and a healthy planet with Chef Frank Stitt; and (3) Strawberry and mascarpone olive oil cake made by James Beard award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles.

He mentioned how pesticides and herbicides and other chemicals were adversely affecting the “vitality” of the soil and therefore the taste and texture of food. He mused about farming “going back to a time before the 1950s” and the importance of farmer’s markets. When asked a question about where he sees the culinary experience going in the next fifty to sixty years, he commented that he sees people eating more grains and vegetables and less protein.

To summarize: he believes in eating from the Earth. He also believes that to eat (well) from the Earth, the Earth must be not only intact, but thriving.

Delightfully, Frank Stitt’s commentary was far from preachy. In actuality, I’m not sure he would even call himself an environmentalist; his environmentalism is more a means to an end. He sincerely wants the best of the best on the table. He wants to provide a dining experience that has the potential to be a thing of “beauty.” His love of cooking is evident; his passion is food, plain and simple. One could almost feel a tear coming to his eye when he talked about the “best green bean.”

His success in the culinary world doesn’t come from science experiments or performance art in the kitchen, but can be boiled down to good, old-fashioned farming and a good, old-fashioned respect for the Earth.

What interests me in Stitt’s farm-to-table comments is that it could and should inspire foodies and environmentalists alike to the importance of taking a holistic view when it comes to considering the state of our planet. Food is plant life. And plants depend on air, water, soil, and the sun to grow and thrive. Yet the rise in the planet’s temperatures and the severity of today’s natural disasters are changing our watersheds, impacting how soil releases and traps carbon dioxide, therefore tipping the quality of our air, which of course in turn, traps more greenhouse gases so that the cycle perpetuates itself.   It’s safe to state bluntly that food – and food culture — is at the mercy of climate change and how the Earth’s systems interact with each other.

Sure, Frank Stitt is all about the ironed linens and the perfectly plated meals, but beyond that, he is really and truly interested in dirt. I wonder — could Frank Stitt’s message have the potential to reach an audience that may have turned the other cheek to the notion of climate change?

While my environmentalist self wants to shout out, “Duh, taking care of the planet means better food. Jeez!” my foodie self wants to say between mouthfuls of dessert, “Well, if caring for the environment means maintaining the awesomeness of strawberry and mascarpone olive oil cake from Dolester Miles [pastry chef at Highlands and winner of the 2018 James Beard award for most outstanding pastry chef in America], then well, yeah, please, I’m absolutely for it.”

Because, YUM.

Citizens, Conservation Groups Challenge Alabama Power’s Discriminatory Charges Targeting Rooftop Solar Customers

Citizens, Conservation Groups Challenge Alabama Power’s Discriminatory Charges Targeting Rooftop Solar Customers

Citizens, Conservation Groups Challenge Alabama Power’s Discriminatory Charges Targeting Rooftop Solar Customers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts:
Emily Driscoll, Southern Environmental Law Center, edriscoll@selcga.org, 678-686-848
Michael Hansen, Gasp, michael@gaspgroup.org, 205-701-4270

Montgomery, Ala. (April 27, 2018) — Alabama citizens and conservation groups are challenging Alabama Power’s unjust monthly fee imposed on customers who install and use rooftop solar systems to power some of the energy needs at their homes, businesses, and schools.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of Gasp, and Ragsdale LLC, on behalf of two private Alabama citizens, jointly filed a complaint late yesterday asking the Alabama Public Service Commission to determine that Alabama Power’s rate treatment of solar customers is unfair, contrary to public interest, and otherwise unlawful.

“While Alabama Power has taken incremental steps toward investing in utility-scale and commercial solar projects, it is imposing significant roadblocks on homeowners and businesses who want the same benefits from investing in solar,” said Katie Ottenweller, Senior Attorney and leader of SELC’s Solar Initiative. “This unwarranted fee is limiting Alabamians’ rights to create solar power on their own properties and reduce their electric bills.”

Based on the size of a homeowner’s solar system, the $5 per kilowatt monthly fee is added on top of other fixed and variable charges that these customers continue to pay each month to Alabama Power.

For a 5 kilowatt solar array, this charge results in an additional $300 charge per year, clawing back about half of customers’ average savings from solar.

The charge puts a huge dent in homeowners’ return-on-investment in a solar system.  The fees alone add about $9,000 over the lifetime of an average 5-kilowatt system and greatly increase the payback period for the homeowner’s investment.

“I was initially interested in installing solar panels because I wanted to reduce my energy use and monthly bills,” said Dr. Jim Bankston, a resident of Tuscaloosa and an Alabama Power customer who is now paying the charges. “But this unfair treatment is an abuse of monopoly power that infringes on the rights of all customers. You shouldn’t be punished for attempting to curb your energy use, just as you wouldn’t be punished for making your home more energy efficient.

The most egregious charge on solar customers by a regulated utility in the country, Alabama Power’s monthly fee is unlawful and continues to suppress solar progress in the state, five years after going into effect.

Similar charges have been proposed and rejected by state public service commissions across the country.  In 2013, Georgia Power withdrew a proposed charge, nearly identical to sister utility Alabama Power’s fee, as a result of public backlash surrounding the proposal.

Other Southern states are enacting policies that clear the way for homegrown clean energy investments, providing savings for homeowners and new job opportunities in solar—an industry that is growing 17 times faster than the U.S. economy. While states like North Carolina and South Carolina have seen an increase in solar rooftop investments, Alabama continues to lag far behind and miss an incredible opportunity for local job creation.

“Neighboring states with pro-solar policies have now seen the unparalleled opportunities to create new jobs, generate local, clean energy, save customers and businesses money, and reduce impacts on human health,” said Gasp Executive Director, Michael Hansen. “If solar customers were treated fairly, Alabama would have the opportunity to reap these same benefits.”

Click here to read the filed complaint

Click here to learn more about how Alabama compares to other states:Alabama Solar: Just the Facts

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About Southern Environmental Law Center
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 70 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.southernenvironment.org

About Gasp
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to reduce citizens’ exposure to air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role model by advocating for clean air and clean energy. gaspgroup.org 

About Ragsdale LLC
Founded in 1991, Ragsdale LLC has been representing individuals and small businesses in civil lawsuits for 35 years. Using our experience and knowledge of law and the court system, our areas of practice include environmental and pollution claims, personal injury and death, securities fraud and class actions, fraud and contract disputes, and whistleblower claims. www.ragsdalellc.com

Report Finds Rapidly Growing “Green” Energy Industry Releases Dangerous Air Pollution in AL

Report Finds Rapidly Growing “Green” Energy Industry Releases Dangerous Air Pollution in AL

Report Finds Rapidly Growing “Green” Energy Industry Releases Dangerous Air Pollution in Alabama

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Half of Wood Pellet Plants in U.S. Violate Pollution Limits or Fail to Install Required Emissions Control Equipment

Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org or (202) 888-2703

Washington, D.C. (April 26, 2018) — A booming new industry that cuts down forests in the U.S. South to generate electricity in Europe, under the false pretense that burning wood pellets is carbon neutral, releases vast amounts of dangerous and illegal air pollution, including in Alabama, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project. Alabama has three large wood pellet plants today, but that number is expected to double.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Monday (April 23) announced a new Trump Administration policy to encourage the “forest biomass” energy industry by claiming that the burning of wood pellets is carbon neutral.

“Cutting down forests to burn to generate electricity is not in any way ‘green’ or carbon neutral – and in fact, creates a large amount of air pollution,” said Patrick Anderson, co-author of the EIP report, titled, “Dirty Deception.” “Even if the trees are replanted, not all survive – and those that do will take decades or centuries to grow to the same size, and therefore the same carbon dioxide absorbing potential of the trees that were eliminated.”

The report’s authors examined federal and state records for 21 wood pellet plants from Virginia to Texas and concluded that one third of them (7 out of 21) violated their permits in 2017 by releasing illegal amounts of air pollution, while another four had faulty permits issued by states that failed to require pollution control equipment required by the federal Clean Air Act.

Overall, more than half of the wood pellet plants (11 out of 21) either failed to keep emissions below legal limits or failed to install required pollution controls, according to the report.

The federal budget bill signed by President Trump on March 23 contains a provision that encourages more burning of wood pellets like this for electricity, with an inaccurate claim that the “biomass” industry is good for the climate.

“With the Trump Administration and Congress now encouraging this crazy notion that clearcutting forests is helpful to the environment, it’s important that we have an accurate accounting of just how much air pollution these wood pellet plants actually produce,” said Anderson, an attorney with Powell Environmental Law, which wrote the report for EIP. “The records show that the biomass industry releases not only millions of tons of greenhouse gases, but also tons of soot particles that can trigger asthma and heart attacks, as well as carcinogens and smog-forming pollutants.”

The wood pellet industry has grown almost 10-fold in the U.S. since 2009. It is being driven by a loophole in the European Union’s carbon accounting system that is based on the mistaken notion that burning wood is carbon neutral and therefore good for the climate, because replanted trees absorb carbon dioxide. In fact, replanted trees take many decades to grow enough to absorb as much carbon dioxide as the trees cut down for the industry, and not all the saplings survive.

In the midst of the industry’s fast growth, relatively little attention has been paid to the high levels of air pollution generated by wood pellet manufacturing plants, emissions that can trigger a wide array of health and environmental problems.

In Alabama, there are three wood pellet plants, the largest of which are Mohegan Renewable Energy (formerly Lee Energy Solutions) near Birmingham, and Zilkha Biomass, near Selma. Three additional new mills are proposed in the state. According to federal and state records, the three existing plants together annually release 499 tons of soot (fine particle pollution that triggers asthma and heart attacks), 999 tons of volatile organic compounds (which contribute to smog), 584 tons of nitrogen oxide air pollution (which feed low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico), and 649,836 tons of carbon dioxide (which contributes to global warming.) These pollution totals are expected to roughly double if the three new plants are built, as planned.

“While the wood biomass industry masquerades as ‘renewable energy,’ these plants are releasing dirty pollution into the air we breathe,” said Michael Hansen, Executive Director of a Birmingham-based nonprofit called Gasp that is devoted to fighting for clean air. “Air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk factor for premature death and disease in the world — and those hurt the most are kids, seniors, pregnant women, and people suffering from chronic diseases.”

Across the U.S., the Environmental Integrity Project investigation found that 21 U.S. wood pellet mills currently exporting to Europe emit a total of 16,000 tons of health-threatening air pollutants per year, including more than 2,500 tons of particulate matter (soot), 3,200 tons of nitrogen oxides, 2,100 tons of carbon monoxide, and 7,000 tons of volatile organic compounds. These plants also emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, according to the study.

Other key findings of the report:

  • Of the 15 largest operating wood pellet facilities, at least eight have had fires or explosions since 2014, including at factories in North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas that released large amounts of air pollution or injured employees.
  • A factory northeast of Houston owned by German Pellets has emitted nearly ten times its permitted limits of volatile organic compound pollution since it began operation in 2013, releasing 580 tons per year. Rather than require the facility to comply with legal limits, Texas officials are proposing to simply raise the limits to let the facility continue to emit dangerous levels of pollution.
  • At the Enviva Biomass wood pellet plant in Southampton County, Virginia, plant operators actually removed the pollution control equipment to evade upgrade requirements and switched from processing softwood to hardwood, which results in more carbon dioxide pollution and other harmful environmental impacts.

“It’s time for states to pump the brakes on an industry that has been deceiving investors, decision-makers, and communities from day one — whether it’s misleading the public about their wood sourcing, evading community input in the permitting process, or skirting clean air quality standards,” said Emily Zucchino of the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect Southern forests and communities from destructive industrial logging. “State governors and agencies need to do right by communities, instead of allowing companies like Enviva to continue to grow unchecked which harms public health, forests and the climate.”

One of the most troubling trends in the wood pellet industry discussed in the report is that facilities that should face the most rigorous air permitting standards are actually the least controlled and dirtiest.

Under a Clean Air Act program called “new source review,” new or modified major sources of air pollution are required to reduce emissions to the level achievable by using the best available control technology.

Contrary to that legal requirement, states allow construction of the country’s largest wood pellet manufacturing plants without controls, or with inadequate controls, for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an air pollutant that causes smog and respiratory problems.

This is despite the fact that extremely effective VOC controls capable of reducing emissions by 90 to 95 percent are in widespread use at similar wood pellet manufacturing plants. For instance, in North Carolina, wood dryers at two recently permitted wood pellet factories owned by Enviva Biomass emit nearly six times more VOCs and 50 to 60 times more hazardous air pollutants than comparable facilities with appropriate pollution control systems.

“This industry is creating a public health hazard that can easily be avoided – because we already have the technology available to filter and capture this air pollution,” said Keri N. Powell, co-author of the EIP report and Director of Powell Environmental Law. “The solution is for states to enforce the law and require wood pellet plants to install the best available technology.”

In other instances, states allow facilities to emit air pollution well beyond legal limits for years at a time, according to the “Dirty Deception” report. In Mississippi, Florida, and North Carolina, state permitting authorities continue to allow wood pellet manufacturing plants to emit well above a 250 ton per year threshold before facilities are required to install air pollution controls.

For example, the Drax wood pellet plant in Amite County, Mississippi, near McComb, emits more than 900 tons per year of VOCs – more than three times the amount that normally triggers a requirement for the installation of best available pollution control equipment.

The report makes several recommendations for addressing the problem, including:

  1. Requiring states to reexamine existing air permits for wood pellet plants in light of new testing that shows much higher emissions of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.
  2. Require that all major sources of air pollution to install the best available control technology.
  3. Require annual emissions testing for volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants from all of the major emission points at pellet mills.
  4. Reduce the risk of fires and explosions by requiring wood pellet facilities to comply with their duty under the federal Clean Air Act to design and maintain safe facilities.

For a copy of the report, visit www.environmentalintegrity.org

QUOTES FROM LOCAL RESIDENTS CONCERNED ABOUT THE INDUSTRY:

Mississippi: “It is past time for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to step up and protect the public health and safety of Mississippians from this pollution source as required by law,” said Louie Miller, State Director of the Sierra Club’s Mississippi Chapter. “Mississippi should not be known as the ‘cheap date’ for polluting industries.”

Texas: “Residents who live in Woodville, TX, near the pellet factory have grave concerns about the repeated fires at the plant, and they report health problems that went away once it closed,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “It’s time for environmental officials to take this bull by the horns and treat these issues with the seriousness that they deserve.”

Florida: “The Enviva Mill in Jackson County (near Panama City) has been violating the Clean Air Act for years by emitting hundreds of tons of unlawful and dangerous air pollution,” said Jennifer Rubiello, State Director of Environment Florida. “It’s time for Florida to step up and require Enviva to install legally-required air pollution controls, just as Georgia and Alabama have done for similar facilities. Not only are Enviva Mill’s actions against the law, but in this day and age when we have the technology to keep our air clean, there is no reason not to protect the health of all Floridians.”

Georgia: “Georgians have first-hand experience with the dangers posed by this industry,” said Vicki Weeks, Georgia State Coordinator for the Dogwood Alliance. “Their plants are typically sited in poor rural areas where communities with little access to effective health care are being hard hit by their unchecked air pollution.”

North Carolina: “The non-stop pollution, dust, noise, and truck traffic the Enviva pellet mill brings to Northampton County is a grave injustice to this community,” said Belinda Joyner founder of Concerned Citizens of Northampton County. “They have no respect for the people who live here, and they give nothing back – so we demand action.”

South Carolina: “Entire communities across the South are waking up to the damage these rapacious pellet companies are doing to our environment,” said Alectron Dorfman, chairman of Lakelands Citizens for Clean Air. “In the Lakelands area of Greenwood and Laurens Counties, the dramatic increase in production and pollution at the Enviva plant in Columbo is cause for great concern among our citizens for the quality of our air and the future of our forests.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

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Who Does Trey Glenn Work For?

Who Does Trey Glenn Work For?

Who Does Trey Glenn Really Work For?

Financial disclosures show the EPA Region 4 Administrator was paid at least $5,000 by Balch & Bingham for ‘Drummond/ABC Coke project’

by Michael Hansen | March 9, 2018

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy story about then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the corruption scandal related to the north Birmingham Superfund site. It turns out that his office was intimately involved with trying to pressure the EPA to back off cleanup efforts that Gasp has been working on for the past 7 years.

Today, I’d like to let you know about another shady piece of the puzzle. Back in August 2017, Onis “Trey” Glenn was appointed as EPA Region 4 administrator, which oversees the agency’s mission in eight states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. You may recall that Glenn was the director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management from 2005–2009. His tenure as head of ADEM was controversial.

While he was pushing for the job as director of ADEM, Glenn approved invoices for engineering firm Malcolm Pirnie (which has since changed its named to Arcadis). It just so happened that at the time, Malcolm Pirnie executive Scott Phillips was chair of the Environmental Management Commission and therefore responsible for selecting the next ADEM director. In 2007, the Alabama Ethics Commission unanimously concluded that Glenn violated state ethics laws in order to get the job at ADEM, though he ultimately escaped criminal charges.

Glenn also billed his family’s private plane trip to Disney World to a PR firm — which he said he eventually paid back. It was so bad that former ADEM attorney David Ludder (who now represents Gasp on several legal matters) urged the EMC to pass a rule banning Glenn from receiving gifts from companies regulated by the agency.

Further Reading: Alabama’s environmental director Trey Glenn escapes criminal charges

 

Financial Disclosures

Federal agency appointees like Glenn have to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report and report any income over $5,000 in the 12 months preceding the appointment. In his filing, Glenn listed “technical consulting” work for Balch & Bingham for the “Drummond/ABC Coke project.” (Click on the image to view a PDF of Glenn’s complete filing, which was revised on Nov. 29, 2017.)

Balch & Bingham is the law firm at the heart of the corruption scandal related to the north Birmingham Superfund site. Two of the firm’s attorneys, Steve McKinney and Joel Gilbert, were indicted in September 2017 on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.

David Roberson, who was vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Drummond Company, was also indicted on the same charges.

Further Reading: Southern EPA pick Trey Glenn is downright Orwellian

On Jan. 10, 2018, I sent a letter to Trey Glenn to “respectfully request ask for further explanation” of the compensation he had received from Balch & Bingham. Below is an excerpt from the letter:

“Due to your own disclosure of connections to these two powerful companies, Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company, we believe you may have an inherent conflict of interest. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Your friends at Balch and Drummond allegedly teamed up to make sure health and the environment were not protected for the residents of the northern Birmingham communities and Tarrant. Real people, many of whom are members of our organization, are being harmed by the toxic pollution spewing from Drummond Company’s ABC Coke facility. Furthermore, if you are to oversee permit renewals, enforcement actions, further action taken to ameliorate contamination at the 35th Avenue Site etc., it is imperative that the public be informed of every detail of the consulting work you performed for the ‘Drummond/ABC Coke project’ that was paid for by Balch.”

Trey Glenn’s office has yet to respond to my request for more information. Copied on the letter were: President Donald J. Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Sen. Doug Jones, Sen. Richard Shelby, Rep. Gary Palmer, Rep. Terri Sewell, Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sen. Chris Coons, Sen. Cory Booker.

“Real people, many of whom are members of our organization, are being harmed by the toxic pollution spewing from Drummond Company’s ABC Coke facility.”

 

That’s Not All

There were a couple of other items on Glenn’s disclosure form that stood out. For example, he listed compensation of more than $5,000 from Big Sky Environmental for “consulting.” You may recall the recent uproar over the so-called “poop trains” that were parked in the North Birmingham neighborhood. The rail cars — which were recently banned from sitting in the town of West Jefferson after residents protested — contained sewage sludge from New York and New Jersey for disposal at the Big Sky Environmental landfill in Adamsville. Speaking of Big Sky Environmental, check out this bizarre story about the company that’s sure to leave you scratching your head.

That wasn’t the only thing that raised our eyebrows. Glenn also reported more than $5,000 from Matrix, LLC — the notorious “communications” firm favored by politicians and powerful business interests. The reason? Also for “consulting.” The Energy and Policy Institute describes Matrix as a “lobbying and opposition research firm that has provided political consulting services to Alabama Power for decades.”

Between Glenn’s past behavior and the recent revelation that he’s been paid by Balch & Bingham to work on the “Drummond/ABC Coke project,” coupled with consulting for questionable actors like Big Sky Environmental and Matrix, LLC, we have come to the conclusion that Trey Glenn must recuse himself from any and all matters related to north Birmingham or Drummond Company.

Take Action

Write your own letter asking Trey Glenn to recuse! Or call Region 4 and relay your concerns.

Hon. Trey Glenn
Regional Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4
61 Forsyth Street, S.W.
Mail Code: 9T25
Atlanta, GA 30303-8960
(404) 562-9900


 

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Jeff Sessions, Corruption & Environmental Injustice in North Birmingham

Jeff Sessions, Corruption & Environmental Injustice in North Birmingham

Jeff Sessions, Balch & Bingham and Drummond CoMPANY

Environmental Injustice in North Birmingham

by Michael Hansen | March 8, 2018

Mother Jones is reporting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was “deeply involved in coordinating the effort to thwart the EPA cleanup” in north Birmingham — more than we initially thought.

“Not only did his office take the lead on drafting the letter of complaint, it arranged a contentious meeting with EPA officials to press them to back off their efforts to clean up the polluted neighborhood.” (Mother Jones)

The former junior senator from Alabama has for years had deep connections to Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company. The two companies were the second and third largest sources of Sessions’s senate campaign contributions. That’s why we sent a blunt letter to Sessions on August 25, 2017 asking him to recuse himself “from any and all future involvement in the ongoing investigation into public corruption related to the so-called North Birmingham Superfund Site.” Unfortunately, the AG’s office has not deigned to respond to our request. We’ve not heard back in writing or via phone call.

Former EPA Region 4 Administrator McTeer-Toney recalled to Mother Jones that Sessions’s staffers, “were really, really pressing, trying to press senior officials to overrule what our decision was in the region. They wanted to go over our head, way over our head.” McTeer-Toney has since been replaced by former ADEM Director Trey Glenn as Region 4 Administrator.

According to Mother Jones, a December 2015 Balch & Bingham newsletter “touted a meeting with Sessions to discuss the 35th Avenue site and predicted a letter, signed by top Alabama lawmakers, would shortly be sent to the EPA expressing concerns over the agency’s methodology when it came to assigning blame.” Sure enough, Sessions, Sen. Richard Shelby, and Rep. Gary Palmer sent exactly such a letter to the EPA.

“I wish I could say it’s surprising how deep and how wide the public corruption goes with this scandal,” says Gasp Staff Attorney Haley Lewis. “I am disgusted at how many people who are supposed to be acting as public servants are going out of their way to go against the public interest in the northern Birmingham and Tarrant communities. If Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, it’s even more clear he needs to recuse himself from any investigation into the corruption affecting much-needed relief for the residents of the northern Birmingham communities.”

Background

The North Birmingham Environmental Collaboration Project spans four neighborhoods north of downtown Birmingham: Harriman Park, Collegeville, Fairmont, and North Birmingham. Formerly known as the 35th Avenue Superfund Site, the project began in earnest in 2009 when an EPA air toxics study at three Birmingham schools was at the upper end of the range for acceptable levels of risk. The EPA in 2012 tested over 1,100 properties in the area for semi-volatile organic compounds, metals (e.g., arsenic and lead) and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(a)anthrocene, and benzo(b)fluoranthene. This lead to a large scale remediation plan to remove and replace contaminated soil from properties.

The EPA in 2013 named five companies were named as “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs): Drummond Company, Walter Coke (now ERP Coke), KMAC Services, U.S. Pipe & Foundry Company, and Alagasco (now Spire). Typically PRPs negotiate with the EPA to either cleanup contamination themselves or to reimburse the EPA for their “share” of the cleanup costs. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) gives the EPA the authority to seek repayment through settlement agreements or through the Justice Department. By January 2014, all five PRPs declined to negotiate with the EPA to assist with the cleanup. Soil remediation efforts began the following month with the 52 most contaminated properties.

Gasp has been involved with the community since about 2010 when we began attending Community Advisory Board and neighborhood association meetings. Since then, we have assisted residents by providing technical assistance and legal intervention where possible. On April 18, 2014, Gasp filed extensive comments on ABC Coke’s Title V air pollution permit. A few months later, we did the same with the Walter Coke permit.

On August 26, 2014, Gasp petitioned the Jefferson County Board of Health to disapprove the ABC Coke permit and requested a hearing to argue our case. The Board of Health oversees the Jefferson County Department of Health, which is granted authority from the EPA to regulate air emissions in the county. They rejected our request for a hearing, setting off a lawsuit against the Board of Health that eventually made its way to the Alabama Supreme Court — where we won last year. We have yet to have a hearing on the ABC Coke permit, which is up for its five-year renewal next year.

On July 1, 2014, Gasp petitioned the EPA to conduct a site inspection for hazardous substances near the ABC Coke plant in Tarrant, a suburb of Birmingham that was not included in the 35th Avenue Superfund Site boundary. The EPA ultimately granted that request finding grounds for further investigation. In September 2014, the EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue Superfund Site to the National Priorities List (NPL), which would have unlocked additional federal funding from the Superfund Trust for cleanup efforts regardless of whether or not the PRPs paid their share. Gasp strongly supported this effort and helped community members submit comments advocating for a comprehensive cleanup and long-term community revitalization. The proposal was never approved.

“I am disgusted at how many people who are supposed to be acting as public servants are going out of their way to go against the public interest in the northern Birmingham and Tarrant communities.” (Haley Lewis, Gasp staff attorney)

Meanwhile, some local and state lawmakers were weighing in opposing our efforts. The Jefferson County Commission passed a resolution condemning our work. The mayor of Tarrant, Loxil Tuck, sent a truly bizarre letter (pictured) via utility bills complaining about us to her constituents. State Sen. Jabo Waggoner and State Rep. Oliver Robinson filed a joint resolution in both houses of the Alabama Legislature admonishing the EPA for its actions in northern Birmingham. Attorney General Luther Strange wrote multiple letters to the EPA opposing the cleanup work — and received $50,000 in well-timed campaign contributions from Drummond around before and after those letters were sent. The list goes on and on. (The City of Birmingham was dead silent on the NPL proposal.)

Last year, former-Rep. Oliver Robinson, one Drummond Company executive (David Roberson), and two Balch & Bingham attorneys (Joel Gilbert and Steve McKinney) were indicted by the Department of Justice on corruption charges related to the ongoing environmental cleanup efforts in northern Birmingham. AL.com columnist John Archibald and reporter Kyle Whitmire broke the Robinson story in April 2017 — before he was indicted — detailing how he took more than $130,000 from Balch and Drummond to undermine the EPA’s cleanup efforts and, in particular, Gasp’s work.

Robinson pleaded guilty to the charges and is expected to be sentenced soon, facing up to 100 years in prison. Roberson, Gilbert, and McKinney pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Federal investigators appear to still be trying to gather information.

AL.com natural resources reporter Dennis Pillion wrote an explainer piece for The Birmingham News last year that helps explain the history of the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in the context of the recent corruption revelations: North Birmingham’s 35th Ave EPA Superfund site explained.

In light of the latest revelations from the Mother Jones story today, Gasp is renewing its call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from this investigation entirely.

Ask Jeff Sessions to Recuse Himself

Two powerful lobbyists. One coal company executive. One state legislator. That’s who has been indicted so far in the ongoing North Birmingham corruption investigation. The stakes of the investigation into Drummond & Balch’s pollution-enabling corruption scheme are too high to be trusted to Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a man with an indisputable conflict of interest. Send a letter to Mr. Sessions asking him to recuse himself from this matter.

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Oppose “Transparency & Honesty in Energy Regulations Act”

Oppose “Transparency & Honesty in Energy Regulations Act”

Action Alert: Oppose the Deceptively Named “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act”

At the end of June, H.R. 3117, also known as “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act of 2017” was introduced. The bill is due for markup on Thursday in the Natural Resources Committee in the House.

Here’s what H.R. 3117 does:

  • Legislates that agencies ignore or drastically undervalue the cost of climate change by creating a wide-ranging restriction on the appropriate use of the social cost of carbon (and analogous estimates for methane and nitrous oxide). This includes any existing or future estimates.
  • Ties the hands of future decision makers in responding to changing circumstances on what is a very technical process, informed by up-to-date analysis.
  • Results in government decision-making that fails to adequately account for the costly damages of climate change.

The name of H.R. 3117 is completely misleading. It is neither transparent nor honest. As has become the normal pattern of practice, efforts to cater to the fossil fuel industry are masquerading as sound public policy. Put simply, the bill aims to prohibit the Secretary of Energy, Administrator of the EPA and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality from considering the social costs of carbon, methane and nitrous oxide in taking any action and for other purposes.

Why Does This Matter?

Carbon, methane and nitrous oxide are all greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. As was the case when the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement and the EPA proposed to rescind the Clean Power Plan in October of this year, H.R. 3117 shows we are moving backwards on policies and common sense efforts to combat climate change.

Climate change is not merely a threat to our environment and climate. It is a threat to human beings’ way of life in that it loads the dice for extreme weather events, creates droughts and flooding, leads to rising temperatures and intensifying smog. It is absurd and disastrous to suggest that there is not a social cost associated with these dangerous greenhouse gases.

What You Can Do

H.R. 3117 cannot become law. Our Congress cannot continue down the path of the executive branch of turning their backs on current and future generations when it comes to climate change. Let Congress know that H.R. 3117 flies in the face of the public interest and the environment that sustains us.

Action Alert

Climate change is real. Don’t let Congress try to muddy the water by barring federal agencies from considering of the costs of greenhouse gas pollution. Write your representatives in Congress to stop H.R. 3117 before it picks up momentum!

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