Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 15, 2019) — Today Earthjustice on behalf of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Gasp, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Sierra Club, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for improperly regulating coke ovens – producers of known carcinogens – thus failing to protect communities throughout the country. Over a decade ago, EPA found that carcinogenic emissions from coke ovens destroy air quality and cause devastating health complications, yet plaintiffs in the case argue the agency failed to act to protect nearby communities from this threat.

“The pollutants spewed by coke ovens cause cancer and other serious illnesses. Fourteen years ago today, EPA admitted that it couldn’t say whether its own regulations adequately protected people from this threat and promised to do something about it. Since that day, EPA hasn’t taken a single step to fulfill its promise. It’s long past time for EPA to do its job and protect people in places like Birmingham, Ala., Clairton, and Erie, Pa., and St. James Parish, La.,” said Earthjustice Attorney Tosh Sagar.

“EPA determined years ago that coke ovens produce known carcinogens and that millions of residents in nearby towns and cities breath these carcinogens in. This is just one in a long litany of EPA’s failure. It’s time EPA does its job to review and revise standards for coke ovens in order to protect these people and meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” said the plaintiffs in a joint statement.

Coke ovens used usually for iron making superheat coal producing more than 40 highly toxic air pollutants – including benzene, arsenic, and lead – that escape poorly-sealed oven doors every time coal is added to bake or coke is removed from an oven. These poisonous gases not only cause breathing problems but are also known carcinogens that threaten nearby residential communities.

In 2005, EPA issued regulations for emissions from coke oven batteries. But these regulations didn’t address many of the points in the coke oven plants that are responsible for significant emissions. Even worse, EPA itself recognized that it could not know whether the 2005 regulations adequately protect people from these carcinogenic gases.

EPA promised to address this problem, but 14 years have passed and EPA has done nothing. In just the last few years, EPA admitted in federal court that it similarly failed to review and update standards for more than 40 other sources of hazardous air pollutants. Thus, EPA’s failure to review and revise standards for coke ovens is just one example of its disregard for using the Clean Air Act to protect communities. This lawsuit aims to enforce the Clean Air Act by requiring EPA to properly regulate coke oven facilities that produce known carcinogens.

Examples of the Impact of Coke Facilities:

  • U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in Allegheny County is the largest coke plant in the country and decidedly has the greatest impact on deteriorating air quality in western Pennsylvania. Decades of consent orders, multi-millions of dollars in fines paid, and more recently, tougher enforcement by regulators have not resulted in Clairton operating in a manner protective of air quality. “Forcing EPA to finally set standards for these emissions will go a long way to protecting people living near coking facilities like Clairton in western Pennsylvania and across the country,” said PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo.
  • In Birmingham, there are two coke plants less than two miles from each other within low-income, overwhelmingly African-American communities. One of the two plants, Drummond Company’s, ABC Coke, is the largest merchant producer of foundry coke in the United States. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the company would be fined $775,000 for violating the Clean Air Act. The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America ranks Birmingham in the top 10 in its Asthma Capitals report.
  • The residents of the St. James Parish, La., already experience some of the highest cancer rates in the nation and Nucor plans to add to their burden by building a new, massive coke oven plant. If EPA reviewed and updated these standards, Nucor would have to build this plant using the most-up-to-date pollution controls. But if EPA doesn’t act fast to review the standards, the residents of St. James parish will be subjected to carcinogenic gases as a result of Nucor’s old, dirty technology for decades to come. “Nucor made the decision to put its polluting facility in the middle of a historic black community, and now that community is bearing the brunt of its pollution and the government’s failure of oversight. It’s long past time for the law to be enforced,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. 

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MEDIA CONTACTS

Tosh Sagar
Earthjustice attorney
202-797-4300
email

Anne Rolfes
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
504-484-3433
email

Michael Hansen
Gasp
205-746-4666
email

Judy Kelly
Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future
412-805-8494
email

Jane Williams
Sierra Club
661-256-2101
email

FAQs About ABC Coke’s Permit: What You Need to Know

FAQs About ABC Coke’s Permit: What You Need to Know

Last fall, the Jefferson County Department of Health posted ABC Coke’s Title V pollution permit renewal application. (Title V is just a provision of the Clean Air Act.) We asked for (and received) an extension on the public comment period to allow us and residents of Jefferson County to submit questions and to JCDH. We also requested a public hearing. That request was granted and two hearings were held on November 15. Dozens of community members filled the conference room at JCDH at both hearings and made compelling arguments about the need for a strong permit to protect public health. 

We filed extensive written comments on the permit which pointed out several deficiencies with the permit renewal and permit application. We posted those comments here and highlighted some of the opportunities for improvement.

If you were one of the people who made oral comments at the hearings or submitted written comments by mail or email, you may have recently received a letter from JCDH. Folks have been asking us what this letter means and what’s next, so we thought we would put together a FAQ guide for you. An amazingly helpful resource is this booklet, Proof is in the Permit.

Index

Why did I get this letter?

What is a “proposed permit?”

What is EPA’s 45 day review period?

Is this letter about another public comment period?

What does it mean for EPA to “object” to a permit?

Is it only EPA who can object to a permit?

Is Gasp going to object to ABC Coke’s permit?

I asked JCDH to deny ABC Coke’s permit. Why didn’t they?

What can I do now? How can I be involved?

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why did I get this letter?

A: You either 1) attended the hearing, 2) also made comments at the hearing, and/or 3) submitted written comments to JCDH about ABC Coke’s Draft Permit. JCDH wrote this letter to inform you that the Draft Permit was proposed (more on what this means later) to EPA on March 1, 2019. They also used this letter to direct people to JCDH’s website where their responses to written comments are posted.

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Q: What is a “proposed permit?”

A: After the public comment period and reviewing the comments on the Draft Permit, JCDH submits the draft permit to the regional U.S. EPA office, Region 4, for a 45 day review period. At the time JCDH submitted the draft permit to EPA, it becomes a “proposed permit.”

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Q: What is EPA’s 45 day review period?

A: In this situation, EPA’s “clock” to review started ticking on March 1, 2019 (which means the 45 day review period ends on April 18, 2019, which begins another clock. More on that later). This means that during these 45 days, EPA will review the permit and may object (more on that later). While every permit must be submitted to U.S. EPA for the 45-day review period, U.S. EPA is not required to review every proposed permit. Each regional U.S. EPA office has its own policy on selecting permits to review, but U.S. EPA suggested a target of reviewing at least ten percent of all permits proposed for facilities in each of U.S. EPA’s ten regions. The EPA is most likely to review proposed permits for very large or controversial facilities.

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Q: Is this letter about another public comment period?

A: No. There are no more opportunities for public comment with EPA during their 45 day review period. If you provided comments during the public comment period, you could petition the EPA to object to ABC Coke’s permit (more on that later).

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Q: What does it mean for EPA to “object” to a permit?

A: EPA must object to the proposed permit if EPA determines that the proposed permit does not comply with federal laws or regulations. In addition, the EPA can choose to object to a proposed permit if the Permitting Authority does not provide U.S. EPA with sufficient supporting information to allow for meaningful U.S. EPA review or if the permitting authority fails to follow the right procedures for public participation. If EPA chooses to object, they must give JCDH a written explanation for the objection and give JCDH 90 days to submit a revised version of the proposed permit to EPA. If JCDH misses this deadline, EPA can either deny the permit or develop a permit for ABC Coke themselves.

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Q: Is it only EPA who can object to a permit?

A: No. If you commented on the draft permit during the public comment period and are not satisfied with the proposed permit JCDH sent to EPA, you can ask EPA to object to the permit. You make this request through a petition to EPA. This is the clock that starts ticking after EPA’s 45 day review period ends. You have 60 days from the end of the 45 day review period to petition the EPA to object to the permit. In this case, you have until June 14, 2019 to petition the EPA to object to ABC Coke’s permit.

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Q: Is Gasp going to object to ABC Coke’s permit?

A: Gasp is still reviewing JCDH’s responses to our and SELC’s comments (which we incorporated by referenced into our comments) and the proposed permit renewal for ABC Coke. We will use EPA’s 45 day period, and the 60 days thereafter, to determine if there are issues that warrant a petition to object.

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Q: I asked JCDH to deny ABC Coke’s permit. Why didn’t they?

A: The best we can do is point you to JCDH’s answers to those written comments themselves (specifically, you can see these responses on pages 4, 7, 11-14, 17-20, 23, 24, 26, 28, 30, 37 and 51).

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Q: What can I do now? How can I be involved?

A: If you are concerned about the pollution from ABC Coke and are not already a member of Gasp, join now. If you want to stay informed of when EPA’s review period ends and when Petitions to Object are due and/or if you’re thinking about drafting a petition yourself, feel free to email or call me ([email protected], 205-701-4272).

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Toxic Birmingham: Power, Pollution and Corruption

Toxic Birmingham: Power, Pollution and Corruption


Media Inquiries: Please contact Michael Hansen, Executive Director, at 205-701-4270 or [email protected]


Note: This is a living story. We will update this article periodically with new information, additional context, and more links as we discover them — and find the time!

INTRODUCTION

In 2009 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began the process of screening for air toxics — pollutants that cause or may cause cancer or other serious health effects — around public schools. As a part of this national survey, the EPA conducted air sampling at three schools in the northern Birmingham area. The data showed elevated levels of these hazardous air pollutants. The EPA and the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) subsequently conducted a longer-term air toxics study in the neighborhoods of Fairmont, Collegeville, Harriman Park, and North Birmingham. According to the EPA, the air quality levels were at the high end of the “acceptable” range for air toxics.

Air toxics have for years been a concern in the northern Birmingham communities. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), air samples were collected around the communities by the EPA and JCDH at various points from 2005–2012. Various conclusions have been reached for different pollutants, including, but not limited to:

  • Air quality levels were at the high end of the “acceptable” range, and occasionally exceeded that range for air toxics.
  • Past and current exposures to particulate matter in northern Birmingham could affect the health of sensitive individuals (e.g., children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease).

In summer of 2009, the EPA also oversaw soil sampling in those neighborhoods — including at the Hudson K-8 School. They found high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic, among other toxic contaminants. As al.com reported at the time: “By the time the results of unacceptable levels of potentially toxic contaminants came back, the old school had been demolished and a new $14.5 million Hudson School had been built. Since the site had been disturbed during construction, soil was tested again in August 2010, and showed lesser, but still unacceptable, levels of contamination.”

In August 2011, CBS 42 aired “Deadly Deception” (above) an hour-long investigative report that exposed the public health crisis in those communities. The documentary prompted additional EPA testing and created a cry for help from residents. The EPA ultimately used authorities under Superfund (part of a federal law that makes available funding) to assess properties in the four aforementioned communities for the possible soil and water pollution. In 2012, the EPA began testing more than 1,200 properties for contamination and removing and replacing soil that exceeded levels for hazardous pollutants like lead, arsenic, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This project is what became known as the “35th Avenue Superfund Site.” In 2013, the EPA identified five potentially responsible parties (PRP): Alagasco, KMAC Services, U.S. Pipe & Foundry, Walter Coke (now ERP Coke) and Drummond Company (ABC Coke).

GASP WEIGHS IN

Since the organization was founded in 2009, Gasp has been advocating for stronger air pollution enforcement on behalf of members and alongside residents of the northern Birmingham communities. In particular, we have been working with community members and leaders to address the historic and ongoing toxic contamination from two coking plants: ABC Coke (owned by Drummond Company) and ERP Compliant Coke (formerly Walter Coke).

Gasp commented on both plants’ Title V permits in 2014 (embedded below). We urged JCDH to reject the permit applications and make the permits more restrictive of emissions. When JCDH proceeded with granting the permit anyway, we petitioned EPA to reject them. They did not, but EPA did offer some very helpful analysis of our request in doing so.

ABC Coke Permit Comments (2014)

Walter Coke Permit Comments (2014)

GASP v. BOARD OF HEALTH

The Department of Health mostly ignored our comments on ABC Coke’s permit in 2014 — not to mention the hundreds of residents who testified about the soot accumulating on their home and property; how their health was impacted by the pollution; and how they are concerned for their children’s health. As a result, we filed a request for a hearing with the Jefferson County Board of Health, the body that oversees the Department. The Board of Health denied our request for a hearing in dramatic fashion — having security escort our attorney out of the room. 

We took the Board of Health to court, arguing that we had a right to a hearing according to the relevant rules and regulations, resulting in a victory in the Jefferson County Circuit Court, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, and eventually  at the Alabama Supreme Court. That matter was technically never resolved, partly because Drummond Company applied for a permit renewal for ABC Coke in the summer of 2018 (more than a year prior to its existing permit’s expiration date).

We took the same action on the Walter Coke permit, but that case was dropped because Walter Energy filed for bankruptcy.

TOXIC CITY: BIRMINGHAM’S DIRTY SECRET

 

On June 12, 2014, we premiered Toxic City Birmingham’s Dirty Secret, a 26-minute documentary about the environmental justice issues facing North Birmingham at Carver Theatre. The film highlights the real-life stories and the suffering of residents living around the heavy industrial plants throughout northern Birmingham area, including Tarrant (where ABC Coke is located).

Simultaneously, during the summer of 2014, we asked the EPA to look into the possibility that there may also be contamination issues and air pollution problems in nearby Tarrant. The EPA granted our request and conducted a Preliminary Assessment, or PA, which was completed on June 29, 2015. The PA, using existing evidence and documentation, found enough evidence to justify further investigation. (That site became known as the “Pinson Valley Site,” which included Tarrant as well as the Inglenook neighborhood of Birmingham immediately to the south.) The next step after the PA was to conduct a Site Inspection (SI), which involved the EPA working with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to gain access to properties in the Pinson Valley Site area to collect soil samples and test for pollutants (like those they tested for in northern Birmingham). In July 2016, the EPA concluded that the SI results did not warrant further action.

In September 2014, the EPA announced that it was proposing to add the 35th Avenue Site to the National Priorities List (NPL). This move would bring in Superfund money to finance long-term remediation. Under NPL, EPA can also require the potentially responsible parties to help pay for the cleanup. Gasp organized in support of this effort, as the additional funding could go a long way towards community restoration and revitalization — and holding polluters accountable for their mess is a core value for our organization. We proposed a resolution of support of NPL to Birmingham City Council members William Parker (District 4) and Steven Hoyt (District 8). We reached out to Birmingham Mayor William Bell and asked him to support the proposed resolution and to come out publicly in support of the NPL proposal. To our knowledge (based on what is available in the public record via the Federal Register and open records requests), neither the city council nor the mayor’s office ever officially supported (or opposed) the NPL listing proposal. Gasp submitted formal comments to EPA in support of adding the site to the NPL. 

During this same period in 2014, we wrote to Beverly Bannister at EPA asking for the agency to take further action on air monitoring in the north Birmingham area. In particular, we requested “air monitoring of both ambient air quality and fugitive emissions from Drummond’s ABC Coke plant and Walter Energy’s Walter Coke plant utilizing the Differential Absorption Lidar system referred to as DIAL.” That method was used at the Tonawanda Coke plant in Tonawanda, NY, and resulted in legal actions being taken due to significant discrepancies between reported benzene emissions and actual emissions. It was also discussed in Toxic City.

CIVIL RIGHTS ACT COMPLAINT

Our analysis of the depth and breadth of the problem(s) facing the neighborhoods and residents in North Birmingham and Tarrant leads us to the inevitable conclusion that our work cannot be limited to air permits and other wonky (but important) regulatory actions. That is why, using every tool in the toolbox, we worked with David A. Ludder to file two Title VI complaints against the Jefferson County Department of Health, one each for the issuance of the ABC Coke and Walter Coke permits.  Title VI is a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbids recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color, and national origin.

The complaint, filed on behalf of several Gasp members, alleged that the health department did not consider the disparate impact of toxic air pollution on overwhelmingly African-American communities when it granted pollution permits to the two facilities. (Disparate impact in this context is a term that refers to something that, while it seems neutral on its face, adversely effects a protected class of people more than another.)

On June 26, 2017, we submitted several suggestions to the EPA Office of Civil Rights detailing recommendations for how to resolve the complaint. Our proposal included suggestions for: enhanced monitoring, control of odors, control of particulate matter, reduction of air toxics, and dramatically improved public notice and participation.

THE DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN

While Gasp worked with community members to activate grassroots and grasstops support for listing the 35th Avenue site on the NPL and EPA expanding its study area to the Pinson Valley Neighborhood Site, opposition began to surface as well. Because we have been actively involved in these communities and working alongside leaders, we have been privy to and engaged in almost every twist and turn involved in bringing much-needed relief to these communities. Gasp and our members are some of the few people not surprised at the public corruption that all but put a stop to the communities’ ability to receive relief from Superfund. Those corrupt tactics also thwarted EPA’s effort to perform a meaningful and thorough investigation into potential contamination in Tarrant and Inglenook. 

One question we hear all the time, in light of the indictments and convictions, is “why did Drummond care so much about the possible NPL designation and the investigation in Tarrant?” Well, it’s pretty simple: Drummond would be liable for millions of dollars of clean-up costs if the NPL listing went through or if the investigation into Tarrant showed significant contamination.

How did the conspiracy work? Drummond Company hired Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham, LLP to represent them on matters related to its ABC Coke plant and the EPA cleanup activities in the northern Birmingham area. Once the EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue Site to the National Priorities List and granted our petition for a preliminary assessment in the adjacent area, the Drummond campaign went into high gear.

Balch signed a contract with then-State Rep. Oliver Robinson (District 58) to use his influence as an elected official to help stop the EPA from listing the 35th Avenue Site on the NPL and from investigating pollution in Tarrant and Inglenook. He was being paid via his nonprofit charitable organization, the Oliver Robinson Foundation, by a sham nonprofit, “the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy,” set up by Drummond Company specifically for this anti-EPA campaign.

On December 23, 2014, Robinson recorded a private meeting between him, former Gasp Executive Director Dr. Stacie Propst, and Gasp Staff Attorney Haley Lewis discussing the EPA’s NPL proposal. He then gave a presentation to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission in January 2015 asking the AEMC to maintain its opposition to the NPL proposal. (Dr. Propst had given a presentation to the AEMC earlier in December 2014 asking the Commission to direct Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, to reverse ADEM’s position and support the NPL proposal.) 

The two lead attorneys at Balch & Bingham for this work on behalf of Drummond were Joel Iverson Gilbert and Steven George McKinney. They worked alongside Drummond Vice President of Governmental Affairs David Lynn Roberson. In addition to hiring Robinson to use his influence as a lawmaker, they also worked with SE+C (part of Strada Professional Services), a firm owned in part by Scott Phillips and Trey Glenn. They brought in several influential community members like Catrena Norris Carter, Hezekiah Jackson, and John Powe to assist with “community outreach” work. Amanda Robinson, daughter of Oliver, set up a phony community group called “Get Smart Tarrant,” which urged residents in Tarrant and Inglenook not to let EPA test their soil. Hezekiah Jackson went so far as to coordinate a “coat drive” — offering people who sat through a Get Smart Tarrant presentation a gift card to Burlington Coat Factory.

Bill Canary, the ousted former president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, published a series of embarrassingly bad op-eds in multiple media outlets across the state of Alabama in 2015. BCA is a “statewide business advocacy organization and the exclusive representative in Alabama to the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.” Members of BCA include major polluters like Alabama Power and Drummond Company. While it’s unclear whether or not he had an official role in the campaign, Canary was and BCA is an industry front group and ally of Drummond Company. 

Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson were indicted on September 28, 2017 for several corruption charges, including conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud, and money laundering. McKinney’s charges were eventually dropped during trial. Robinson was indicted on charges of conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud, three other counts of wire fraud, and tax evasion.

US Attorney Jay Town said at the time of the indictments, “This is the worse type of public corruption. It was all done with the greed of a few and at the expense of so many families and children living in potentially toxic areas. It’s cheaper to pay for a politician than it is to pay for an environmental cleanup.”

Robinson pleaded guilty to all charges and testified against Gilbert and Roberson in the trial. Gilbert and Roberson were found guilty and sentenced to 60 and 30 months in prison, respectively. Robinson was sentenced to 33 months.

Below are some of additional ways this highly sophisticated, well-funded disinformation campaign showed up in actions taken by local and state government agents from 2014 until very recently:

  • The Alabama Department of Environmental Management was initially supportive of the proposal with the caveat that the state wouldn’t be able to contribute its 10% share (a statutory requirement, but not a deal breaker).
  • The City of Tarrant passed a resolution in opposition to both the NPL proposal and the EPA’s Site Inspection in the area.
  • The Jefferson County Commission on October 9, 2014, passed a resolution entitled, “A Resolution to Support the City of Tarrant, Alabama, and Its Resolution in Opposition to the July 1, 2014 Petition of G.A.S.P. to theUnited States Environmental Protection Agency to Investigate andDeclare Residential Areas in the City of Tarrant to be a Superfund Site.”
  • Both houses of the Alabama Legislature passed a resolution (Senate Joint Resolution 97) sponsored by Alabama Sen. Jabo Waggoner (Vestavia Hills) opposing and condemning the EPA’s activities in northern Birmingham and Tarrant.
  • Alabama Governor Robert Bentley wrote a letter to the EPA adamantly opposing their actions.
  • Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange did the same thing, twice. It is worth noting that Strange received several objectively large campaign contributions from Drummond during the political off-season. For example, when Drummond donated $25,000 to Strange’s reelection campaign, less than a week later — on October 23, 2014 to be precise — he sent a formal letter to the EPA in which he described the NPL listing “premature” and “futile.”
  • The entire Alabama Congressional delegation except for Rep. Terri Sewell — which at the time consisted of Sen. Richard Shelby, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Bradley Byrne, Rep. Martha Roby, Rep. Robert Aderholt, Rep. Spencer Bachus, Rep. Mo Brooks and Rep. Mike Rogers — signed a joint letter to the EPA opposing its NPL proposal.

Documents Galore

We have uploaded hundreds of documents to our Scribd account. There you will find exhibits from USA v. Gilbert, emails, petitions, and other public records. Don’t see something linked in this article? Check Scribd!

CORRECTING THE RECORD

  • Gasp is a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice across the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. Our mission is not to shut down industry or kill jobs — anyone who says otherwise is lying.
  • Gasp has never received money (i.e., a grant) from EPA or any other government agency (i.e., JCDH or ADEM) for any purpose whatsoever. The overwhelming majority of our funding comes from individuals who live and work in Birmingham. We receive some funding from charitable foundations that support environmental work. We also receive some sponsorships from local companies.
  • Gasp petitioned the EPA to investigate pollution in the Tarrant area in 2014. We believe residents have a right to know what’s in the air they’re breathing and how air pollution is affecting other aspects of their health and the environment.
  • Gasp’s mission and focus is air quality, not soil sampling. We have never sampled anyone’s soil.
  • Gasp has never, and will never, seek to declare anyone’s property a “hazardous waste site.” We do, however, work alongside community members and leaders to address air quality issues.
  • Superfund and/or NPL does not mean your property is a “toxic dump” nor is it automatically a bad thing for property values. Ample research has concluded that while effects vary, remediation of environmental contamination has a positive effect on property values in the long run.
  • Air quality cannot be certified as “good” for an entire city or neighborhood by Gasp, JCDH, EPA, or any other agency or organization. You can check air quality for your ZIP code every day (and a forecast for the next day) on our website or through the AirNow website (airnow.gov).
  • Air modeling is a way to take emissions into account while also considering wind direction, which affects where particles emitted into the air end up.
  • ABC Coke emits pollutants into the air, which can and do settle onto people’s homes and property and can affect their health.
  • If you’d like Gasp to make an Air Quality 101 presentation for you, or if you have any questions at all, please reach out to us (205-701-4270 or [email protected]).

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

  • On July 20, 2018, Balch & Bingham Attorney Joel Gilbert and Drummond Vice President David Roberson were each found guilty of six counts of criminal corruption charges in federal court: conspiracy, bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud, and money laundering. Gilbert was sentenced to five years (60 months) in prison and Roberson was sentenced to two and a half years (30 months). Both men remain out on bond while they appeal the ruling. The charges against Steve McKinney, third man indicted on corruption charges, were dropped. McKinney was the head of the environmental division at Balch & Bingham.
  • Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery, four counts of fraud, and tax evasion. Gilbert and Roberson hired Robinson to oppose the EPA’s NPL proposal for the 35th Avenue Site and site investigation in Tarrant. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison and is currently serving his sentence at a “low-security federal prison in Seagoville, Texas,” according to al.com.
  • As mentioned above, Drummond Company submitted to the Jefferson County Department of Health a permit renewal application for the ABC Coke Title V Operating Permit (aka, its air pollution permit) a year early. Gasp asked for and was granted an extension of the deadline for the public comment period as well as a public hearing so that residents and other interested parties put any issues with the permit and the facility on the record to the health department. We worked with experts to analyze both the ABC Coke permit application and draft permit and submitted detailed comments on the deficiencies and opportunities to better protect public health. You can read our comments here.
  • In August 2018, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin weighed in after the trial of Gilbert and Roberson asking EPA to proceed with the National Priorities List proposal.
  • Shortly after Woodfin sent a letter to EPA, Senator Doug Jones revealed at a town hall that he had sent a similar letter to EPA.
  • Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents the north Birmingham community in Congress, renewed her support for the EPA’s cleanup efforts.
  • On February 8, 2019, the Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, and Jefferson County Board of Health announced that they had entered into a consent decree with Drummond Company as a result Clean Air Act violations. The settlement was a result of benzene emissions from the ABC Coke plant. Drummond was ordered to pay $775,000 split evenly between EPA and JCBH. The consent decree is not yet final as of Feb. 26, 2019. The public may weigh in on the consent decree by March 11 via email at [email protected] or mail:
    Assistant Attorney General
    U.S. DOJ–ENRD
    P.O. Box 7611
    Washington, DC 20044-7611

GLOSSARY (A-Z)

 

  • Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM): This is the state agency charged with regulating pollution and overseeing environmental matters throughout Alabama.
  • Alabama Environmental Management Commission (EMC): The body that oversees the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The EMC is essentially ADEM’s board of directors. Appointments are made by the Governor.
  • Alliance for Jobs & the EconomyThis was an incorporated 501(c)(3) organization created by David Roberson (Drummond) and Mike Thompson (Thompson Tractor). The AJE was formed to create a coalition of polluting businesses and their friends who opposed the EPA’s cleanup and sampling in Birmingham and Tarrant. Members included heavy hitters like Alabama Power.
  • Amanda Robinson: Oliver Robinson’s daughter, Amanda was the point of contact for “Get Smart Tarrant.” She was paid $3,000/month to attend community meetings and perform community outreach encouraging people to not let EPA test their soil (and if they did let EPA test to have their soil also sampled by Get Smart Tarrant).
  • Catrena Norris Carter: A community activist, Carter was paid by STRADA Consulting (SE+C) to help Get Smart Tarrant with community outreach to stop EPA from testing soil in Tarrant and to help recruit people to oppose NPL listing.
  • David Roberson: He is the former Vice-President of Governmental Affairs for Drummond Company, a private, multibillion dollar coal company based in Birmingham. Roberson was indicted alongside Joel Gibert and Steve McKinney (who was dismissed from the charges) for the corruption scheme to bribe Rep. Oliver Robinson to oppose EPA cleanup efforts. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
  • Get Smart Tarrant: This was a front-group for the Drummond anti-EPA campaign. Get Smart was never incorporated as a business or nonprofit organization. The name was used on yard signs and literature distributed in the community by people hired to oppose the EPA in the area.
  • Hezekiah Jackson: The long-time leader of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP, Jackson also attended community meetings and helped with Get Smart Tarrant “outreach.” Of note, he was paid to hold a coat drive in Tarrant to garner goodwill with residents. In exchange for sitting through a pro-Drummond presentation people received a gift card to Burlington Coat Factory. He was outside as the leader of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP after his role was revealed and he faced public backlash.
  • Joel Gilbert: A now-former Balch & Bingham attorney, Gilbert was described by prosecutors in the eponymous trial as the mastermind behind the scheme to thwart the EPA cleanup effort and Gasp. He was indicted on multiple charges in 2017 and convicted in 2018 on six federal corruption counts. He was sentenced to five years in prison. He is currently out on bond pending appeal of the conviction.
  • John Powe: He is currently Chief Deputy Jefferson County Tax Assessor. He was paid to work in the community and both encourage people in Tarrant to not have their soil tested and stop the 35th Avenue Site from being listed on the NPL. He worked closely with Oliver Robinson by meeting with pastors and other elected officials.
  • Lance LeFleur: The Director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. He was pressured by Gov. Robert Bentley, Attorney General Luther Strange, and Joel Gilbert to oppose the EPA’s National Priorities List proposal.
  • Lanier Brown: Brown was Chairman of the EMC. He had drinks with Oliver Robinson, Trey Glenn and Scott Phillips at Daniel George, a fine dining restaurant in Mountain Brook, to discuss NPL listing. He received “talking points” from Trey Glenn to help rebut Gasp’s aforementioned PowerPoint presentation to the EMC presentation. He distributed those talking points to the other commissioners. He also participated in conference calls with Joel Gilbert. On July 23, 2015 Joel Gilbert emailed a copy of Senate Joint Resolution 97 to Brown. On October 18, 2015, Brown sent a letter to his fellow commissioners echoing talking points sent to him by Amanda Robinson about expanding the Superfund site into Tarrant. Gilbert and Brown remained in constant communication throughout 2016 regarding EPA’s sampling in Tarrant.
  • Loxcil Tuck: She is the long-time mayor of Tarrant. She opposed Gasp’s work in the city and circulated a letter bashing us and EPA via customer utility bills. She was in frequent communication with Drummond Co. officials, often via city attorney Ben Goldman.
  • Rep. Oliver Robinson: A former UAB basketball star, Robinson represented Alabama’s 58th district in the state House of Representatives from 1998 until he abruptly resigned in 2016. He was the first person indicted in the anti-EPA Superfund corruption scandal. He was paid more than $360,000 by Drummond Company (and through Balch & Bingham and the Alliance for Jobs & the Economy) for various work to oppose the EPA and Gasp. He was indicted on multiple corruption charges in April 2017 and eventually pleaded guilty. He was sentenced in 2018 to three years in prison.
  • Dr. Samuel Miller: The current Chairman of the EMC. He was on the Commission during the entire period in question.
  • Scott Phillips: A former Environmental Management Commission (EMC) member for ADEM. Phillips resigned from the EMC in 2017. He worked with Trey Glenn at a group called STRADA Consulting (also referred to as SE-C). They contracted with Balch & Bingham (who wrote the checks and were reimbursed by Drummond) to perform community outreach work, technical analysis and strategic advice for dealing with the NPL proposed listing and EPA site inspection in Tarrant. The major issue with Phillips is this work he did to undermine EPA occurred at the same time as he served on the EMC (the governing body of ADEM), whose mission is to “assure for all citizens
    of the State a safe, healthful, and productive environment.” He did many things, but most noteworthy is that he sent to Balch & Bingham (by way of forwarding to Trey Glenn) an advance copy of a PowerPoint presenta-tion Gasp was planning to make to the EMC in December of 2014 advocating for adding the 35th Avenue Site to the NPL. At trial, one of his PowerPoint presentations was presented as evidence. In it he talked about “infiltrating the [North Birmingham Community Coalition]” as a strategy. Phillips was indicted in November 2018 for violations of the Alabama Ethics Law.
  • Steve McKinney: A former Balch & Bingham attorney, McKinney was initially indicted for corruption charges for his role in the anti-EPA campaign but was later dismissed from the case. He was chair of the firm’s environment division at the time.
  • Tina Bennett: Tina was a member of the second class of EPA’s Environmental Justice Academy in 2016 on behalf of the Oliver Robinson Foundation. She also notarized Get Smart Tarrant affidavits and has since attended community meetings, with John Powe, regarding the mineral wool piles on ERP Coke’s property.
  • Trey Glenn: He worked with Scott Phillips and Strada Consulting, where they were con-tracted by Balch & Bingham to perform community outreach work, technical analysis, and strategic advice for dealing with the NPL proposal and EPA Site Inspection in Tarrant. Glenn was subsequently appointed by the Trump Administration to the head of EPA Region 4, meaning he oversaw all EPA deci-sions affecting Alabama. He initially recused himself for a year regarding this situation. Glenn has since been indicted alongside Scott Phillips by the State of Alabama for ethics charges for his role. 

Support Our Work

This work has been incredibly time-intensive and expensive. (We spent well over $100,000 fighting the old ABC Coke permit in court from 2014-2018.) We know that Gasp was under attack from billion-dollar corporations, lobbyists, lawmakers, and “community organizers” whose primary interests were power and greed. We did and are continuing to do the organizing that will ultimately lead to healthier air and environmental justice for the people of Birmingham. And if more people have to be indicted along the way — so be it. We need your support to keep doing this work! We appreciate your financial support and need it now more than ever.

Settlement Alleges Clean Air Act Violations by Drummond’s ABC Coke

Settlement Alleges Clean Air Act Violations by Drummond’s ABC Coke

Drummond Company has reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Jefferson County Board of Health (JCBH) for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act at the ABC Coke in Tarrant, Ala. The consent decree, which was released on Friday, February 8, says Drummond will pay a $775,000 civil penalty for violating the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs) for benzene emissions and waste, equipment leaks and fugitive emissions, and benzene waste at the coke plant. The fine will split equally between the EPA and JCBH.

This is a big deal. Benzene is a toxic chemical and known carcinogen that is emitted by major polluters like ABC Coke. We’ve been sounding the alarm about ABC Coke’s toxic pollution — including benzene — for years, including in our 2014 documentary, Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret. (Watch the film for free at toxicbirmingham.com.) We have been fighting for stronger enforcement and environmental health protections for the residents of North Birmingham and Tarrant since day one.

How does this consent decree impact our work and frontline communities? Last year, Drummond submitted a renewal application for its Title V air pollution permit, which resulted in a public comment period as well as two public hearings at the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) last October. This enforcement action emphasizes the public health concerns Gasp has raised for years. ABC Coke’s Title V air permit renewal has yet to be finalized. JCDH next must formally propose the draft permit as final to the EPA, which will then review the permit and permit application to ensure compliance with the law.

According to nonprofit journalism website BirminghamWatch.org, JCDH plans to use half of the windfall to “benefit public health in the area that was affected by the air pollution at issue”:

“We’ll have discussions with elected officials and others in the area to figure out what kind of projects will help the environment and the public health there. We really want them to be involved in that process and help to guide us as to what they need.” —Jonathan Stanton, JCDH environmental health services director

Jefferson County Health Officer, Dr. Mark Wilson, told al.com that JCDH will ask that their share of settlement funds go toward “public health benefits for communities near the ABC Coke facility.” This is a positive development, though none of this is final yet and there are critical details that need to be sorted out.

The bottom line is that enforcement action demonstrates a clear need to strengthen ABC Coke’s permit and make sure it is significantly more protective of public health for everyone who lives and works in the area near the facility. There will be a 30-day public comment window before the consent decree becomes final.

Stay tuned — we will update you with more information about ABC Coke, this enforcement action, and the Title V permit on this blog!


NOTE: This settlement is unrelated the EPA/Superfund corruption trial last year involving former Rep. Oliver Robinson, Drummond VP David Roberson, and Balch & Bingham Attorney Joel Gilbert. You may recall that former state regulators Scott Phillips and Trey Glenn were indicted in November for alleged violations of Alabama ethics laws. Their trial will begin any day now.

Environmental Agency Leaders Indicted for Criminal Violations in Alabama

Environmental Agency Leaders Indicted for Criminal Violations in Alabama

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts:
Michael Mullen, President, Environmental Defense Alliance, 334-807-1365, [email protected] 
Michael Hansen, Executive Director, Gasp, 205-746-4666, [email protected]

Environmental Agency Leaders Indicted for Criminal Violations in Alabama

Charges Underscore Need for Reform at Alabama Department of Environmental Management

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (November 13, 2018) — Today, Scott Phillips and Onis “Trey” Glenn III, two high profile leaders formerly in charge of regulating Alabama’s environment, have been indicted. Phillips was charged with multiple violations of Alabama’s Ethics Act, and Glenn was charged with multiple counts of conspiracy and/or complicity with Phillips to violate the Ethics Act.

Prosecutors claim Phillips used his public position for personal gain, and Glenn helped him do it. Phillips is a former member and onetime Chair of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission [AEMC], the appointed body that makes environmental policy for the state. Glenn is a former Director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management [ADEM] and currently leads the eight-state Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] Region 4 for the Trump Administration. The charges in the indictment against Phillips and Glenn are merely accusations made by the Grand Jury. Glenn and Phillips are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.

The indictments today arise out of efforts by Drummond Co., which owns ABC Coke in Tarrrant, Ala., to stop EPA’s cleanup of contaminated soils and to avoid financial responsibility for that cleanup in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in northern Birmingham. Drummond VP David Roberson and Balch & Bingham lawyer Joel Gilbert were recently convicted and sentenced to 60 months and 30 months in prison, respectively, on federal charges of bribing former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson to oppose the EPA environmental cleanup program. Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

Gilbert also hired Glenn and Phillips’s consulting firm, Southeast Engineering & Consulting, to oppose the cleanup. At the time, Phillips was a member of the AEMC. The charges made by the Grand Jury today arise out of that relationship. Phillips sat in meetings as an AEMC member when the cleanup and possible designation of the contaminated area as a Superfund site were discussed. He never disclosed that he and Glenn were being paid to provide services to those who had a significant financial interest in opposing the cleanup. In fact, the contract the two signed prohibited them from disclosing the confidential relationship with Gilbert and others

With the Grand Jury’s allegations of criminal activity now reaching into the AEMC, conservation groups are once again calling out the AEMC for failing to avoid conflicts of interest with those whom they regulate:

“The indictments of Gilbert and Roberson, and now Phillips and Glenn, indicate that serious reforms are needed at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and Environmental Management Commission,” said Michael Mullen, president of Environmental Defense Alliance. “The Alabama environmental community will continue to demand those reforms to ensure that Alabamians’ health and environment are protected.”

“These indictments today reinforce what we already know: We need reform and we need it now,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp. “For far too long, leaders in Alabama have put corporate profits ahead of people. We demand that corruption be rooted out and reforms enacted to protect our health and our environment and to ensure environmental justice is a reality for every single Alabamian.”

After the conviction of Gilbert and the Drummond executive, several groups called for reform at the AEMC, but so far have been rebuffed. The Grand Jury’s charges today give these groups renewed hope that meaningful change at the top echelons of ADEM and the AEMC will be implemented.

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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 

Mayor Randall Woodfin Steps Up for North Birmingham

Mayor Randall Woodfin Steps Up for North Birmingham

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin this week sent a letter to the EPA urging the federal agency to place the North Birmingham Superfund Site on the National Priorities List. The EPA first proposed putting the site on the NPL in the fall of 2014. Gasp strongly advocated for NPLbecause it would have made available additional funding for cleanup as well as making it more likely that the responsible polluters pay their fair share for the contamination.

In the letter to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Woodfin emphatically said, “I write to urge your consideration of immediately placing the North Birmingham 35th Avenue Superfund Site onto the National Priorities List.”

The move comes on the heels of the federal corruption trial that found one Drummond Company executive and one Balch & Bingham attorney guilty of corruption and bribery charges. Drummond owns ABC Coke, one of the polluters deemed “potentially responsible” for the contamination. Balch & Bingham represented Drummond on fighting the NPL proposal, as well as a separate (but related) matter in Tarrant.

“As a result of these illegal actions, thousands remain at risk including the 1,070 people living in 394 public housing units and 751 children attending Hudson K-8 school,” Woodfin wrote.

“The necessary remedies include, but are not limited to, screening and health care to address pollution related health issues, relocation and reconstruction of Hudson K-8 school, non-resident redevelopment of the North Birmingham 35th Avenue Superfund Site and reclamation of Village Creek.”

We could not be more thrilled with this action taken by City Hall. This is a significant course correction from the previous administration, which remained silent on the EPA’s proposal. We have reason to believe that silence was one of the many reasons the site has still not been listed on the NPL.

We hope that with this letter there will be renewed interest in placing the 35th Avenue Site on the NPL and helping to remediate and revitalize the communities so that they are a healthy place for everyone to live, learn, and worship.

We’re calling on other Alabama elected officials to follow the Mayor’s lead. Specifically, we’d like to see support from Sen. Doug Jones, Sen. Richard Shelby, Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. Gary Palmer, and Councilor William Parker. We encourage you to call these public officials and urge them to come out in favor of prioritizing the North Birmingham Superfund Site today.

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