Birmingham, Alabama, was founded by railroad developers in 1871 because of its strategic location in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains abundant deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone. The city’s economy was built to be an urban industrial center, steel manufacturing in particular. That origin story is why Birmingham is sometimes still called the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
Nearly 150 years later, Birmingham has a new identity as a growing hub for finance, education and health care. However, we’re still paying the price for the unbridled toxic pollution that poured out of steel, pig iron, and coking industries for the first century of the city’s existence. And while the Clean Air Act of 1970 and other regulations have sought to prevent and reduce pollution from facilities like Walter Coke, ABC Coke, and U.S. Steel, the fact of the matter is that these operations still pose risks to our health.
The Current Situation
Right now, just a few minutes from downtown Birmingham, thousands of people are living in communities boxed in by railroads and heavy industry. Smokestacks rain soot and chemicals down on the residents and their property still today. In 2011, WIAT 42 released the first in a two-part investigative series called “Deadly Deception,” which exposed complaints from residents of neighborhoods in northern Birmingham. That prompted an EPA investigation and led to what is currently known as the 35th Avenue Site.
In 2014, Gasp produced a short documentary called “Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret,” which highlighted several individual stories from those neighborhoods. (Watch the trailer below, or watch the complete film at gaspgroup.org/toxicbham.) Gasp also petitioned the EPA to look into potential contamination in the nearby Tarrant and Pinson Valley areas that border the 35th Avenue Site. That investigation was approved and is ongoing.
It’s important to also recognize our state and our nation’s racial history. Policy decisions such as Birmingham’s 1926 racial zoning laws (i.e., segregation) forced African-Americans to raise their families next door to steel mills and furnaces, exposing them and their families to toxic pollution for generations. That legacy lingers today. Property values have been adversely and unjustly affected by polluting industries, so even if they were to want to, moving out of the neighborhoods might not be an option. This is not just a problem for northern Birmingham communities: all Birminghamians share this air, and it is affecting all of us. The air, soil and water pose risks to public health and our quality of life.
Gasp is committed to helping the impacted residents and reducing the pollution. Our involvement includes:
- “Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret”
- Reviewing air permits from polluters in the neighborhoods
- Supporting People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC), a grassroots community advocacy group
- Serving on EPA’s Coalition as a resource partner
- Engaging leaders in the greater Birmingham area on the plight of impacted communities
- Enlisting the assistance of researchers to gather and analyze data
“Toxic City” Photo Gallery
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