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.
If you’ve been following the North Birmingham corruption investigation involving Drummond Company, Balch & Bingham, and former Rep. Oliver Robinson, you know that our work is a huge part of the story. (Robinson plead guilty on Sept 7.) Yesterday, al.com’s John Archibald reported that newly appointed U.S. Attorney Jay Town is asking for patience in the ongoing corruption investigation — which suggests more indictments may very well be on their way.
We’re trying to do our part to ensure everyone responsible for wrongdoing is held accountable. That’s why we sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to recuse himself from the investigation. His decades-long, lucrative relationships with Drummond and Balch & Bingham could compromise the case, in our opinion, and its better to be safe than sorry.
We are also trying to find possible connections between two $25,000 contributions made to former Alabama Attorney General (now-Senator) Luther Strange by Drummond and actions taken by his office opposing the EPA’s cleanup efforts. On Aug. 23, Gasp attorney David Ludder made an open records act request on our behalf to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. We requested “electronic mail records, letters, or other records of communications” between Luther Strange or any employee or agent of the Office of the Attorney General:
- Any employee or agent of Balch & Bingham LLP concerning EPA, Drummond Company, Inc., ABC Coke, or the “35th Avenue site” in Birmingham dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
- Any employee or agent of Drummond Company, Inc. concerning EPA, Drummond Company, Inc., ABC Coke, or the “35th Avenue site” in Birmingham dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
- Any employee or agent of ABC Coke concerning EPA, Drummond Company, Inc., ABC Coke, or the “35th Avenue site” in Birmingham dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
- Any employee or agent of Drummond Company, Inc. concerning contributions to any political campaign of Luther Strange dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
The AG’s office on Aug. 31 denied our request on the basis that our attorney is based in Florida. That’s not how the Open Records Act works, and we promptly let them know that Gasp is indeed based in Birmingham, Ala., and therefore has every right to review the requested communications. As of today (Sept. 18), we have yet to hear back from Marshall’s office.
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
One has to ask, “Is Attorney General Steve Marshall playing politics with our request because he doesn’t want to hurt his predecessor, Luther Strange, in the runoff election on Sept. 26?”
If that’s the case, we’re even more disgusted than we already were. As a 501(c)(3), Gasp is a nonpartisan, apolitical organization. But we have a right to review public records and we shouldn’t be stonewalled for political purposes. Our members deserve answers, and we won’t stop until we get them.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Gasp Calls on Jeff Sessions to Recuse Himself from North Birmingham Corruption Investigation
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Sept. 6, 2017) — Gasp, a Birmingham-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the reduction of air pollution through education and advocacy, has asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the ongoing investigation into public corruption related to the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in northern Birmingham.
The letter to Sessions reads, in part:
“Due to your well-documented connections to these two powerful companies, Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company, we believe such a recusal is necessary and appropriate under the circumstances in this case. For example, as a U.S. Senator, Balch & Bingham and Drummond were your second and third largest sources of campaign contributions. (Totaling over $300,000 according to public campaign finance records.)
“I would also like to point out that [Luther Strange] received $50,000 from Drummond Company in late 2014 and early 2015 during the height of events surrounding the NPL and Pinson Valley Site. Rather than investigating possible public corruption and bad behavior by Drummond and Balch & Bingham, Strange looked the other way and opposed Gasp’s proposals to bring much-needed relief to the northern Birmingham communities at every turn.
“Alabama has been ravaged by public corruption in recent years. Meanwhile, real people are being harmed by the toxic pollution spewing from industry in the northern Birmingham region. To avoid any perception of impropriety, I must insist that you recuse yourself. Thank you for your consideration.”
In June, former state Rep. Oliver Robinson was charged with bribery, conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. According to Robert Posey, acting U.S. Attorney at the time, Robinson took bribes totaling $360,000 in contracts through his foundation from Drummond Company’s law firm, Balch & Bingham.
Drummond and Balch & Bingham allegedly orchestrated the scheme in an attempt to stop an EPA proposal to add the 35th Avenue Site to the National Priorities List and to prevent the EPA from expanding its investigation into include nearby neighborhoods. After taking the money, Robinson worked to discourage residents from supporting the NPL proposal and from participating in soil sampling in a new site inspection.
Robinson accepted a plea agreement with federal prosecutors and entered a not guilty plea in July. He is expected to change his plea to guilty as soon as Thursday, September 7.
The letter was co-signed by: Cindy Lowry (Executive Director, Alabama Rivers Alliance), Jonathon Meeks (Chair, Sierra Club Alabama Chapter), Yohance Owens (Executive Director, Village Creek Human & Environmental Justice Society), Charlie Powell (President, People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination), Charles Scribner (Executive Director, Black Warrior Riverkeeper), Stephen Stetson (Senior Campaign Representative, Alabama Beyond Coal Campaign of the Sierra Club), Patricia Todd (State Representative, District 54), and Chester Wallace (President, North Birmingham Community Coalition).
For more information or to arrange a media interview, please contact Executive Director Michael Hansen at 205-701-4270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gasp, Inc. is a nonprofit health advocacy organization dedicated to reducing air pollution and protecting everyone’s right to breathe clean, healthy air through education and advocacy. Learn more at gaspgroup.org.
Once I was able to understand how to connect the AirBeam to my phone, and to input data into its open source map, AirCasting, I was finally able to test the pollution around Birmingham. To learn how to connect the AirBeam to your phone, and how to operate AirCasting, check out my previous blog post here.
The sunroof was closed almost completely shut, except for a tiny space to allow the rope to go through. This allowed the AirBeam to be securely placed at the top of my car. Sometimes the AirBeam would move around if I drove too fast, but for the most part, its movements were really small.
On one day of testing, I was driving a different car so the orientation of the AirBeam was standing up instead of lying down. The way and where exactly you decide to orient your AirBeam is up to you, as long as the intake and exhaust areas of the AirBeam are pointing to the outside. And if you decide to orient the AirBeam standing up, it’s better to flip the AirBeam so that the bottom of the AirBeam is in the direction of the wind. This will increase the accuracy of the data collected. It’s also important to remember that the AirBeam is not waterproof, so if it starts raining, you should take the AirBeam inside.
I decided to test the air quality close to three Birmingham city high schools: Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Jackson-Olin. The reason why I chose those three high schools is because they are in different areas in Birmingham, and each high school represents a different socio-economic bracket. I did not test the data on school grounds, because it’s against the law unless consent is given by the schools, but I would park around a minute away from each high school and collect the data on a public road. I just wanted to emphasize that I am a law-abiding citizen, and that jail would seriously deter my plans to graduate college in 2018.
In order to get the most accurate results, I decided that it would be best to test the air quality on three different days, using the same path each day, and starting the testing around the same time. I also tried my best to avoid highways, because I wanted to collect data in areas that were in close proximity to people that were outside.
I created a sheet that helped me organize the data collected. If you would like to conduct your own data collection study, you can print this sheet out.
The weather on the three days I tested were, coincidentally, quite different. On the first day of testing, I unfortunately forgot to take a pic near my first site, Mountain Brook High School, but I was able to take pictures of my other two stops.
For Jackson-Olin High School, AirCasting was not displaying the air pollutant data, only the decibel reading of the AirBeam’s microphone. After messing around with the maps and sensor data, I realized that no particulate matter readings were recorded, because only the sound sensor was working near Jackson-Olin High School.
I used some rope and bungee cords to connect the AirBeam to my car.
I connected the bungee cord to my car’s two sun visors. I then connected one end of the rope to the middle of the bungee cord, and the other end of the rope to the AirBeam.
The sunroof was closed almost completely shut, except for a tiny space to allow the rope to go through.
This photo is courtesy of http://www.takingspace.org.
Before collecting data, I mapped out my route.
The average reading near Homewood High school was 10 μg/m3
Mountain Brook High School
The average reading near Mountain Brook High school was 8 μg/m3
AirCasting was not displaying the air pollutant data, only the decibel reading of the AirBeam’s microphone.
Note: Although only three days of data are mentioned in this article, I actually tried to collect data on more days. For example, on one extremely cloudy day, it started raining after I collected data near Mountain Brook. The data was still collected and used as an average for Mountain Brook. I tried to delete it from AirCasting, but I realized that it does not let you delete any of the data once it has been sent to CrowdMap. I initially tried to make the number of testing days equal for all three high schools, but some unforeseeable circumstances has allowed some high schools to have more data than others.