Securing Environmental Justice for Northern Birmingham

Securing Environmental Justice for Northern Birmingham

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.

TAKE ACTION

Gasp Responds to Corruption and Bribery Charges Related to North Birmingham

Gasp Responds to Corruption and Bribery Charges Related to North Birmingham

The following is a statement from Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen regarding corruption & bribery charges related to North Birmingham:

I was stunned to learn the extent of the conspiracy involving former-Rep. Oliver Robinson, Balch & Bingham, and Drummond Company to block EPA’s efforts to remediate contamination in northern Birmingham and Tarrant. We learned via Twitter that meetings with Robinson and Gasp representatives were recorded and shared with Drummond and their attorneys.

Gasp has been working in north Birmingham neighborhoods for years. In 2014, we petitioned the EPA to investigate whether or not additional cleanup was necessary in the Inglenook community and city of Tarrant. Between advocating for the National Priorities List (NPL) for the 35th Avenue Site (the NPL listing would have released millions of dollars for clean up) and additional testing in the Pinson Valley Site, we’ve been at odds with some of the most powerful interests in Alabama for years now.

This case is a sad commentary on the lengths to which unchecked greed will go for a buck. People deserve to live in a healthy community, including clean air, clean water, and clean soil. Residents have been complaining of respiratory illnesses, cancers, asthma, and other diseases. Despite Birmingham’s reputation for being a hub of medical advances, there has never been a study to see how the pollution is harming the communities’ health. We know there is a higher rate of pre-term birth and lower birth weight in the areas near heavy industry.

Toxic pollution literally kills people and makes them ill. Attempts at covering up pollution and avoiding responsibility for cleaning it up are among the most egregious forms of public corruption, and it must be rooted out.

This story is not simply about corruption. It is about harm to real people. For decades, people living near ABC Coke and other polluting industries have been breathing toxic emissions and growing gardens in contaminated soil. They’ve been telling us for years that they believe their families, their children are being exposed to serious environmental hazards and that their health is suffering from it. Everyone from the polluters to politicians to regulators turned a blind eye to these concerns, claiming there is no health risk. Well, now we know why.

The folks living in impacted communities deserve answers. Who else was involved in this scheme and how long has it been going on? How deep is this conspiracy? Will others be held accountable? Why aren’t the leaders in our state condemning these actions? What recourse do the residents have now that they know powerful interests conspired to thwart community cleanup efforts?

We won’t rest until we have answers and the residents of the northern Birmingham area are protected from toxic pollution and corruption.

Federal Roundup: Trump’s First #100Days Edition

Federal Roundup: Trump’s First #100Days Edition

The news is a buzz this week with assessing President Trump’s first 100 days in office. NPR did a great Q&A with Cokie Roberts about this Presidential benchmark and its significance, if any. I have been doing my best to keep you all up to speed since day one of the new administration and how actions at the executive and federal level are affecting clean air and health. It has been a very busy first 100 days to track, sadly mostly not in a good way. Since I last blogged a couple of weeks ago, several new developments have cropped up and we have new updates.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

  • April 27, 2017: S.987 “100 by 50” Bill. This bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). This bill would phase out fossil fuels and completely replace them with clean renewable energy by 2050. The bill would put in place a comprehensive plan to ramp up renewable energy and energy efficiency, the electrification of transportation and heating, while putting a halt to the development of fossil fuel infrastructure. It also includes provisions to train workers in the transition to clean energy to encourage the deployment of clean energy in disadvantaged communities.
  • April 27, 2017: D.C. Circuit Court suspends Litigation Over MATS. On April 18, 2017 the EPA, in an email, announced its plans to file a motion to the D.C. Circuit court to ask them to delay oral arguments set for May 18, 2017 in EPA’s defense of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule. In 2015, the D.C. Circuit Court did not throw out the MATS rule and instead instructed EPA to go back and consider costs (most plants subject to MATS have either complied or retired). On April 27, 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court granted EPA’s request to delay oral arguments.
  • April 28, 2017: President Trump signs Executive Order to expand offshore drilling. President Trump signed an Executive Order that calls for a “review of the locations available for offshore oil and gas exploration.” The order directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a five-year plan in which President Obama banned drilling in parts of the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans.
  • April 28, 2017: D.C. Circuit Court grants EPA’s request to pause litigation over Clean Power Plan. Last month, the White House requested a 60-day hold on litigation surrounding the Clean Power Plan. On April 28, 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court granted that request. This pause allows the parties (EPA, 24 states and cities, environmental and industry groups) to file briefs addressing the future of the rule.

UPDATES ON PREVIOUS ACTIONS

  • Congressional Review Act put into play by U.S. Congress. The CRA allows senators and representatives who disapprove of a regulation to enter a resolution eliminating it. The resolutions require the signature of the president. So far this year, the following rules protecting the environment and human health have been targeted under the CRA:
    • The Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule. UPDATE: On February 16, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule.
    • Department of the Interior Methane Flaring Rule. The House voted on February 3, 2017 with no action so far from the Senate as of the date of this post. UPDATE: on March 21, 2017, some Republican lawmakers came out against using the CRA to repeal this rule. Specifically, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he believed the rule could be subject to improvement, not just cancellation. “I think we can replace it with a better reg, rather than a CRA.”
    • Drilling and Mining on Public Lands. On January 31, 2017, the House introduced a joint resolution that would repeal the rules that allow the National Park Service to manage private drilling and mining in 40 parks across the country. UPDATE: on March 26, 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the Department of the Interior to review over 20 years of national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Specifically, President Trump has asked Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, to review 24 national monuments created since 1996 and to recommend ways for Congress to shrink or abolish them. The Order requires the department to make preliminary recommendations within 45 days and affects only those monuments that are not larger than 100,000 acres. Currently monuments are now closed to new oil and gas leasing and no new mining claims can be granted there. If monuments are downsized or abolished, they will no longer be protected from drilling or mining.
    • OMB Proposed Budget Cuts to EPA and NOAA. The proposed budget cuts would reduce EPA’s staff by one fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs. Specifically, EPA’s staff would be slashed from 15,000 to 12,000. The proposed budget would also cut EPA’s grants to states, including air and water programs, by 30 percent and eliminate 38 separate programs in their entirety. Media outlets also discovered a four page budget memo that would slash NOAA’s budget by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs. Any such cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process. UPDATE: On April 28, 217 U.S. Congress passed a bill that would extend until May 5, 2017 the deadline for a deal on federal spending through September and head off a feared government shutdown at midnight on Friday, April 28, 2017.
    • Republicans Joint Resolution on Climate Change. A group of 17 Republican members of Congress signed a resolution vowing to seek “economically viable” ways to combat global warming. No update since last post.

Bills, Bills Bills

Bill Number Sponsor Description Status
HR 998 Jason Smith, R-MO Establishes a commission to identify obsolete and unnecessarily burdensome regulations to be repealed. It also sets goals for the commission to reduce costs by 15 percent and to prioritize major rules that are more than 15 years old and rules that can be eliminated without diminishing effectiveness. No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
HR 1009 Paul Mitchell, R-MI Requires independent agencies to submit rules to the Office of Management and Budget before they are published—essentially giving the president tight control of the rule-making process No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
HR 1004 Tim Walberg, R-MI Would require agencies to publish more detail of forthcoming rules and regulations No action since the bill passed the House on 3/2/2017.
HR 637 Gary Palmer, R-AL Blocks the EPA’s ability to address climate change No actions taken since the bill was introduced. You can read our analysis of the bill here.
HR 861 Matt Gaetz, R-FL Would abolish the EPA effective December 31, 2018 No actions taken since the bill was introduced.
HR 958 Sam Johnson, R-TX Would leave EPA with a budget of less than $1 billion. This bill would eliminate EPA climate change programs and would also close all of the EPA’s regional offices, halt new regulations on ground-level ozone pollution and require the agency to lease unused property No actions taken since the bill was introduced.
H.R. 1430 Lamar Smith,

R-TX

The bill works “[t]o prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” This bill is an attempt to revise the EPA’s scientific review process that guides their rulemaking. No action since bill passed the House on 3/29/2017
H.R. 4775 Pete Olson, This bill aims to update to the national ozone standards, with various provisions that would change the way the Environmental Protection Agency reviews standards for particulate matter, lead and other air pollutants. No action since it was introduced. You can read our blog post from last year when this bill was introduced and failed.
H.R. 1731 Hal Rogers,

R-KY

This is a bipartisan bill called the RECLAIM Act that would release $1 billion to create economic development opportunities in coal communities affected by the energy industry’s transition away from dirty fossil fuels. No action since the bill was introduced.

 

We are keeping our ear to the ground on any and all developments that could affect clean air and health in Alabama. Be on the look out for regular updates from us about legislative and executive actions that could threaten your health and environment. We will also always provide ways for you to act on any development, whether it’s positive or negative.

Renew Alabama Conference to Shine a Light on Climate Change

Renew Alabama Conference to Shine a Light on Climate Change

Countering a national agenda which seeks to divide us will require us to discover our shared values. Renew Alabama is a new coalition united under a common banner of social, environmental, and climate justice. Grounded in our shared humanity, experiences and faith, we are calling on community leaders and elected officials throughout Alabama to shift the paradigm.

On May 6, 2017, partner organizations will come together to host the inaugural Renew Alabama Conference. The free, full-day workshop will take place at The Edge of Chaos on the University of Alabama Birmingham campus. Participants will explore the link between social and environmental justice, how climate change will exacerbate many of these historic wrongs, and what we can do to build a more just and sustainable future.

Organizers hope the conference will ignite a conversation about how to remove barriers to clean energy, to invest in sustainable infrastructure, to increase opportunities for green jobs, and to protect public health and our environment.

Whether we seek to ignore it or not, there’s no debate that climate change will adversely impact Alabama. From saltwater intrusion of our aquifers, to increasingly powerful hurricanes, we are already witnessing many of these impacts. At the same time, addressing climate change has the potential to create thousands of new jobs and ensure a more just and sustainable Alabama for us all.

Conference hosts include the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, Alabama Environmental Council, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Center for Earth Ethics, Climate Speakers Network, Eagle Solar & Light, Energy Alabama, Gasp, Sierra Club Alabama Chapter, USGBC Alabama, UAB Sustainability, and Village Creek Human and Environmental Justice Society. This is an opportunity to right the many wrongs done to our communities and our earth, and to bring about a revitalization to historically disadvantaged communities.

Participants are asked to RSVP at renewalabama.com by May 2. For more information, contact Michael Hansen at 205-701-4270 or michael@gaspgroup.org.

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BREAKING NEWS: Alabama Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gasp

BREAKING NEWS: Alabama Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gasp

The Alabama Supreme Court today denied a petition from ABC Coke (a division of Drummond Company) and the Jefferson County Board of Health for writ of certiorari in ABC Coke and Jefferson County Board of Health v. Gasp, Inc. In other words, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled in our favor, just as the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and Jefferson County Circuit Court did.

They were seeking review of the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals decision affirming the Circuit Court’s decision reversing the Board of Health’s dismissal of our request for hearing on the ABC Coke air pollution permit.

Next, we will go to hearing before the Board of Health and its hearing officer to contest the permit issued by the Department of Health to ABC Coke. This tug-of-war has been going on since the Jefferson County Department of Health reissued the ABC Coke permit in 2014. Our goal is stronger public health protections for residents who live near the facility, which is one of the top sources of toxic air pollution in the Birmingham area.

The Board of Health should never have sided with Drummond and ABC Coke and against public health. Three courts have agreed that they should have granted us a hearing from the start rather than spending years on costly court costs and appeals. The communities who are affected by ABC Coke’s toxic emissions deserve a hearing, and we intend to make certain that happens.

Support our work by becoming a member today! We need your support now more than ever.

Federal Roundup: Recent Executive and Legislative Actions

Federal Roundup: Recent Executive and Legislative Actions

It’s been a few weeks since I updated everyone on executive and legislative actions. Sadly, this is not because there has been nothing to update; so this will be a long one! However, one reason this update is delayed is because I attended an inspiring conference two weeks ago that replenished my “hope budget” and gave me new energy to tackle the many and ever-growing attacks on clean air. Since I blogged last month, several new developments have cropped up and we have new updates:

New Developments

  • March 6, 2017: White House Announces Plan to “Close Out” Energy Star program: A spending blueprint would slash Energy Star and related programs, leaving $5 million “for the closeout or transfer of all the climate protection voluntary partnership programs.” According to our friends at ACEEE, Energy Star spend about $50 million through EPA and $7 million through the Department of Energy. According to the Obama administration, the Energy Star program saved consumers $34 billion in electricity costs and prevented more than 300 million metric tons of GHGs in one year while improving ambient air quality.
  • March 8: The HONEST Act (H.R. 1430): This proposed bill is sponsored by Lamar Smith, R-TX. The bill works “[t]o prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” This bill is an attempt to revise the EPA’s scientific review process that guides their rulemaking. The bill was introduced on March 8, 2017 and passed by recorded vote in the House (228 – 194) on March 29, 2017.
  • March 13: Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch: President Trump signed this Executive Order, where the stated purpose is “intended to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch by directing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Director) to propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies (as defined in section 551(1) of title 5, United States Code), components of agencies, and agency programs.”
  • March 15: Republicans Joint Resolution on Climate Change: A group of 17 Republican members of Congress signed a resolution vowing to seek “economically viable” ways to combat global warming. It pledges to “study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates” and seek ways to “balance human activities” that contribute.
  • March 17: Ozone Standards Implementation Act of 2016 (H.R. 4775). This proposed bill, sponsored by Pete Olson, R-TX, was reintroduced and aims to update to the national ozone standards, with various provisions that would change the way the Environmental Protection Agency reviews standards for particulate matter, lead and other air pollutants. The same bill failed last year and we blogged about its potential disastrous effects on air quality and public health.
  • March 21: President Trump is Not Considering a Carbon Tax: despite a meeting between Republican elder statesmen and Trump Administration officials, President Trump announced he is not considering a carbon tax.
  • March 28: Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth: President Trump signed this Executive Order. The goal is to halt the United States’ government’s attempts to curb carbon dioxide emissions with the goal of encouraging American business. We borrowed the words of our friends at NAACP on this day to express our extreme disappointment with this negligent and potentially disastrous change in course for addressing the impacts of climate change.
  • April 5: Congressional hearing on the RECLAIM Act of 2017 (H.R. 1731): At the hearing, ranking member Alan Lowenthal, D-CA, stated “[t]he idea behind the RECLAIM Act is to take part of the large unexpended balance in the [AML Fund] and devote it to projects where cleaning up mines leads to economic and community benefits. This is, quite frankly, a win-win.” There was testimony from the bill’s lead sponsor, Hal Rogers, R-KY, and three witnesses. The hearing itself was a major milestone for the RECLAIM Act.

FOLLOW UP ON ACTIONS PREVIOUSLY COVERED

  • Congressional Review Act put into play by U.S. Congress: The CRA allows senators and representatives who disapprove of a regulation to enter a resolution eliminating it. The resolutions require the signature of the president. So far this year, the following rules protecting the environment and human health have been targeted under the CRA:
  1. The Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule: Update: On February 16, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule.
  2. Department of the Interior Methane Flaring Rule: The House voted on February 3, 2017 with no action so far from the Senate as of the date of this post. Update: on March 21, 2017, some Republican lawmakers came out against using the CRA to repeal this rule. Specifically, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he believed the rule could be subject to improvement, not just cancellation. “I think we can replace it with a better reg, rather than a CRA.”
  3. Drilling and Mining on Public Lands: On January 31, 2017, the House introduced a joint resolution that would repeal the rules that allow the National Park Service to manage private drilling and mining in 40 parks across the country.

Status of Bills in U.S. Congress covered in previous posts:

Bill Number Sponsor Description Status
HR 998 Jason Smith, R-MO Establishes a commission to identify obsolete and unnecessarily burdensome regulations to be repealed. It also sets goals for the commission to reduce costs by 15 percent and to prioritize major rules that are more than 15 years old and rules that can be eliminated without diminishing effectiveness. No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
HR 1009 Paul Mitchell, R-MI Requires independent agencies to submit rules to the Office of Management and Budget before they are published—essentially giving the president tight control of the rule-making process No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
HR 1004 Tim Walberg, R-MI Would require agencies to publish more detail of forthcoming rules and regulations No action since the bill passed the House on 3/2/2017.
HR 637 Gary Palmer, R-AL Blocks the EPA’s ability to address climate change No actions taken since the bill was introduced. You can read our analysis of the bill here.
HR 861 Matt Gaetz, R-FL Would abolish the EPA effective December 31, 2018 No actions taken since the bill was introduced.
HR 958 Sam Johnson, R-TX Would leave EPA with a budget of less than $1 billion. This bill would eliminate EPA climate change programs and would also close all of the EPA’s regional offices, halt new regulations on ground-level ozone pollution and require the agency to lease unused property No actions taken since the bill was introduced.
  • February 21, 2017: Letter sent from automobile manufacturers to Scott Pruitt asking him to relax emissions requirements: The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sent a letter to Scott Pruitt (EPA Administrator) asking him to withdraw the Final Determination on Appropriateness of the Model Year 2022-2025 Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards under the Midterm Evaluation. Update: on March 15, 2017, President Trump announced plans to re-examine the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, taking a step back from Obama-era environmental regulations.
  • OMB Proposed Budget Cuts to EPA and NOAA: The proposed budget cuts would reduce EPA’s staff by one fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs. Specifically, EPA’s staff would be slashed from 15,000 to 12,000. The proposed budget would also cut EPA’s grants to states, including air and water programs, by 30 percent and eliminate 38 separate programs in their entirety. Media outlets also discovered a four page budget memo that would slash NOAA’s budget by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs. Any such cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process. Update: U.S. Congress is currently in recess for the Easter holiday but are expected to consider OMB’s budget proposal upon their return.

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