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.
Eleven Conservation Groups Call for ADEM Director’s Resignation or Termination ahead of Annual Job Evaluation
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (July 30, 2018) — The bribery and corruption trial U.S. v. Gilbert, et al yielded many disturbing revelations, including the failures of leaders at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Environmental Management Commission (AEMC) to avoid conflicts of interest with those whom they regulate.
There and in many other instances, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur has failed to lead the Department in a manner that advances its official mission “to assure for all citizens of the State a safe, healthful and productive environment.”
Coincidentally, LeFleur’s annual job evaluation and public comments are due today, July 30.
This morning, Black Warrior Riverkeeper emailed its evaluation of Director LeFleur to the Personnel Committee of the AEMC, which oversees ADEM. The letter calls for LeFleur’s resignation or termination due to his consistent failure to lead and advance ADEM’s mission.
Groups signing Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s letter include Alabama Rivers Alliance, Cahaba River Society, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Environmental Defense Alliance, Friends of Hurricane Creek, Friends of the Locust Fork River, Gasp, Little River Waterkeeper, and Tennessee Riverkeeper.
For more information, contact Black Warrior Riverkeeper Staff Attorney Eva Dillard at [email protected] or 205-458-0095.
About Black Warrior Riverkeeper
Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore the Black Warrior River and its tributaries. The citizen-based nonprofit organization promotes clean water for the sake of public health, recreation, and wildlife habitat throughout the Black Warrior River watershed.
Ask Trey Glenn to Recuse Himself
EPA Region 4 Administrator Trey Glenn was paid by Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company as a consultant on the 35th Avenue Superfund Site. He has a clear and lasting conflict of interest and therefore must recuse himself permanently from all EPA matters involving the 35th Avenue Site or former clients.
Corruption Convictions First Step in Securing Justice for North Birmingham
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (July 23, 2018) — On Friday, July 20, a jury found Balch & Bingham Attorney Joel Gilbert and Drummond Company Vice President David Roberson guilty of six counts each of federal corruption charges, including: bribery, conspiracy, honest service wire fraud, and money laundering. The two men are expected to be sentenced in three months.
Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson pleaded guilty in 2017 to conspiracy, bribery, tax evasion, and four counts of fraud. Robinson received bribes totaling $360,000 from Drummond and Balch & Bingham through the Oliver Robinson Foundation to advocate against EPA efforts to clean up contamination in and around north Birmingham and Tarrant. He will be sentenced in September.
As a result of the guilty verdict, Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen issued the following statement:
“This was a great outcome for the people of north Birmingham and all of Alabama. It is rare that corruption is rooted out, and it’s even more rare that those who do the corrupting are held accountable. We could not be more proud that our years of dogged legal and advocacy work led to the exposure of corruption.
While we are thrilled that justice was upheld for the people of north Birmingham, we are cognizant of the fact that this is not the end, but rather a beginning. We are calling all of our friends and neighbors to join us in committing to the fight for environmental justice for every Alabamian. Now is the time to become a member of Gasp and to join with us as we reaffirm our commitment to the people of Collegeville, Harriman Park, North Birmingham, Fairmont, Tarrant, Inglenook, and all of the city’s 99 neighborhoods.”
Headquartered in Birmingham, Gasp is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit health advocacy organization working to reduce air pollution in Alabama through education and advocacy. Our vision is a healthy, just, and sustainable Alabama. We strive to educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality and to encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy development.
“Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret”
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 above.) In 2014, Gasp 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. We also have two pending Title VI complaints with the EPA against the Jefferson County Department of Health alleging the the air permits for Walter Coke and ABC Coke have a disparate impact on predominantly African-American communities.
Financial disclosures show the EPA Region 4 Administrator was paid at least $5,000 by Balch & Bingham for ‘Drummond/ABC Coke project’
by Michael Hansen | March 9, 2018
Yesterday I wrote a lengthy story about then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the corruption scandal related to the north Birmingham Superfund site. It turns out that his office was intimately involved with trying to pressure the EPA to back off cleanup efforts that Gasp has been working on for the past 7 years.
Today, I’d like to let you know about another shady piece of the puzzle. Back in August 2017, Onis “Trey” Glenn was appointed as EPA Region 4 administrator, which oversees the agency’s mission in eight states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. You may recall that Glenn was the director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management from 2005–2009. His tenure as head of ADEM was controversial.
While he was pushing for the job as director of ADEM, Glenn approved invoices for engineering firm Malcolm Pirnie (which has since changed its named to Arcadis). It just so happened that at the time, Malcolm Pirnie executive Scott Phillips was chair of the Environmental Management Commission and therefore responsible for selecting the next ADEM director. In 2007, the Alabama Ethics Commission unanimously concluded that Glenn violated state ethics laws in order to get the job at ADEM, though he ultimately escaped criminal charges.
Glenn also billed his family’s private plane trip to Disney World to a PR firm — which he said he eventually paid back. It was so bad that former ADEM attorney David Ludder (who now represents Gasp on several legal matters) urged the EMC to pass a rule banning Glenn from receiving gifts from companies regulated by the agency.
Federal agency appointees like Glenn have to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report and report any income over $5,000 in the 12 months preceding the appointment. In his filing, Glenn listed “technical consulting” work for Balch & Bingham for the “Drummond/ABC Coke project.” (Click on the image to view a PDF of Glenn’s complete filing, which was revised on Nov. 29, 2017.)
Balch & Bingham is the law firm at the heart of the corruption scandal related to the north Birmingham Superfund site. Two of the firm’s attorneys, Steve McKinney and Joel Gilbert, were indicted in September 2017 on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.
David Roberson, who was vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Drummond Company, was also indicted on the same charges.
On Jan. 10, 2018, I sent a letter to Trey Glenn to “respectfully request ask for further explanation” of the compensation he had received from Balch & Bingham. Below is an excerpt from the letter:
“Due to your own disclosure of connections to these two powerful companies, Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company, we believe you may have an inherent conflict of interest. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Your friends at Balch and Drummond allegedly teamed up to make sure health and the environment were not protected for the residents of the northern Birmingham communities and Tarrant. Real people, many of whom are members of our organization, are being harmed by the toxic pollution spewing from Drummond Company’s ABC Coke facility. Furthermore, if you are to oversee permit renewals, enforcement actions, further action taken to ameliorate contamination at the 35th Avenue Site etc., it is imperative that the public be informed of every detail of the consulting work you performed for the ‘Drummond/ABC Coke project’ that was paid for by Balch.”
Trey Glenn’s office has yet to respond to my request for more information. Copied on the letter were: President Donald J. Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Sen. Doug Jones, Sen. Richard Shelby, Rep. Gary Palmer, Rep. Terri Sewell, Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sen. Chris Coons, Sen. Cory Booker.
“Real people, many of whom are members of our organization, are being harmed by the toxic pollution spewing from Drummond Company’s ABC Coke facility.”
That’s Not All
There were a couple of other items on Glenn’s disclosure form that stood out. For example, he listed compensation of more than $5,000 from Big Sky Environmental for “consulting.” You may recall the recent uproar over the so-called “poop trains” that were parked in the North Birmingham neighborhood. The rail cars — which were recently banned from sitting in the town of West Jefferson after residents protested — contained sewage sludge from New York and New Jersey for disposal at the Big Sky Environmental landfill in Adamsville. Speaking of Big Sky Environmental, check out this bizarre story about the company that’s sure to leave you scratching your head.
That wasn’t the only thing that raised our eyebrows. Glenn also reported more than $5,000 from Matrix, LLC — the notorious “communications” firm favored by politicians and powerful business interests. The reason? Also for “consulting.” The Energy and Policy Institute describes Matrix as a “lobbying and opposition research firm that has provided political consulting services to Alabama Power for decades.”
Between Glenn’s past behavior and the recent revelation that he’s been paid by Balch & Bingham to work on the “Drummond/ABC Coke project,” coupled with consulting for questionable actors like Big Sky Environmental and Matrix, LLC, we have come to the conclusion that Trey Glenn must recuse himself from any and all matters related to north Birmingham or Drummond Company.
Write your own letter asking Trey Glenn to recuse! Or call Region 4 and relay your concerns.
Hon. Trey Glenn Regional Administrator U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4 61 Forsyth Street, S.W. Mail Code: 9T25 Atlanta, GA 30303-8960 (404) 562-9900
Jeff Sessions, Balch & Bingham and Drummond CoMPANY
Environmental Injustice in North Birmingham
by Michael Hansen | March 8, 2018
Mother Jones is reporting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was “deeply involved in coordinating the effort to thwart the EPA cleanup” in north Birmingham — more than we initially thought.
“Not only did his office take the lead on drafting the letter of complaint, it arranged a contentious meeting with EPA officials to press them to back off their efforts to clean up the polluted neighborhood.” (Mother Jones)
The former junior senator from Alabama has for years had deep connections to Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company. The two companies were the second and third largest sources of Sessions’s senate campaign contributions. That’s why we sent a blunt letter to Sessions on August 25, 2017 asking him to recuse himself “from any and all future involvement in the ongoing investigation into public corruption related to the so-called North Birmingham Superfund Site.” Unfortunately, the AG’s office has not deigned to respond to our request. We’ve not heard back in writing or via phone call.
Former EPA Region 4 Administrator McTeer-Toney recalled to Mother Jones that Sessions’s staffers, “were really, really pressing, trying to press senior officials to overrule what our decision was in the region. They wanted to go over our head, way over our head.” McTeer-Toney has since been replaced by former ADEM Director Trey Glenn as Region 4 Administrator.
According to Mother Jones, a December 2015 Balch & Bingham newsletter “touted a meeting with Sessions to discuss the 35th Avenue site and predicted a letter, signed by top Alabama lawmakers, would shortly be sent to the EPA expressing concerns over the agency’s methodology when it came to assigning blame.” Sure enough, Sessions, Sen. Richard Shelby, and Rep. Gary Palmer sent exactly such a letter to the EPA.
“I wish I could say it’s surprising how deep and how wide the public corruption goes with this scandal,” says Gasp Staff Attorney Haley Lewis. “I am disgusted at how many people who are supposed to be acting as public servants are going out of their way to go against the public interest in the northern Birmingham and Tarrant communities. If Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, it’s even more clear he needs to recuse himself from any investigation into the corruption affecting much-needed relief for the residents of the northern Birmingham communities.”
The North Birmingham Environmental Collaboration Project spans four neighborhoods north of downtown Birmingham: Harriman Park, Collegeville, Fairmont, and North Birmingham. Formerly known as the 35th Avenue Superfund Site, the project began in earnest in 2009 when an EPA air toxics study at three Birmingham schools was at the upper end of the range for acceptable levels of risk. The EPA in 2012 tested over 1,100 properties in the area for semi-volatile organic compounds, metals (e.g., arsenic and lead) and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(a)anthrocene, and benzo(b)fluoranthene. This lead to a large scale remediation plan to remove and replace contaminated soil from properties.
The EPA in 2013 named five companies were named as “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs): Drummond Company, Walter Coke (now ERP Coke), KMAC Services, U.S. Pipe & Foundry Company, and Alagasco (now Spire). Typically PRPs negotiate with the EPA to either cleanup contamination themselves or to reimburse the EPA for their “share” of the cleanup costs. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) gives the EPA the authority to seek repayment through settlement agreements or through the Justice Department. By January 2014, all five PRPs declined to negotiate with the EPA to assist with the cleanup. Soil remediation efforts began the following month with the 52 most contaminated properties.
Gasp has been involved with the community since about 2010 when we began attending Community Advisory Board and neighborhood association meetings. Since then, we have assisted residents by providing technical assistance and legal intervention where possible. On April 18, 2014, Gasp filed extensive comments on ABC Coke’s Title V air pollution permit. A few months later, we did the same with the Walter Coke permit.
On August 26, 2014, Gasp petitioned the Jefferson County Board of Health to disapprove the ABC Coke permit and requested a hearing to argue our case. The Board of Health oversees the Jefferson County Department of Health, which is granted authority from the EPA to regulate air emissions in the county. They rejected our request for a hearing, setting off a lawsuit against the Board of Health that eventually made its way to the Alabama Supreme Court — where we won last year. We have yet to have a hearing on the ABC Coke permit, which is up for its five-year renewal next year.
On July 1, 2014, Gasp petitioned the EPA to conduct a site inspection for hazardous substances near the ABC Coke plant in Tarrant, a suburb of Birmingham that was not included in the 35th Avenue Superfund Site boundary. The EPA ultimately granted that request finding grounds for further investigation. In September 2014, the EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue Superfund Site to the National Priorities List (NPL), which would have unlocked additional federal funding from the Superfund Trust for cleanup efforts regardless of whether or not the PRPs paid their share. Gasp strongly supported this effort and helped community members submit comments advocating for a comprehensive cleanup and long-term community revitalization. The proposal was never approved.
“I am disgusted at how many people who are supposed to be acting as public servants are going out of their way to go against the public interest in the northern Birmingham and Tarrant communities.” (Haley Lewis, Gasp staff attorney)
Meanwhile, some local and state lawmakers were weighing in opposing our efforts. The Jefferson County Commission passed a resolution condemning our work. The mayor of Tarrant, Loxil Tuck, sent a truly bizarre letter (pictured) via utility bills complaining about us to her constituents. State Sen. Jabo Waggoner sponsored a joint resolution (SJR97) in the Alabama Legislature admonishing the EPA for its actions in northern Birmingham. Attorney General Luther Strange wrote multiple letters to the EPA opposing the cleanup work — and received $50,000 in well-timed campaign contributions from Drummond around before and after those letters were sent. The list goes on and on. (The City of Birmingham was dead silent on the NPL proposal.)
Last year, former-Rep. Oliver Robinson, one Drummond Company executive (David Roberson), and two Balch & Bingham attorneys (Joel Gilbert and Steve McKinney) were indicted by the Department of Justice on corruption charges related to the ongoing environmental cleanup efforts in northern Birmingham. AL.com columnist John Archibald and reporter Kyle Whitmire broke the Robinson story in April 2017 — before he was indicted — detailing how he took more than $130,000 from Balch and Drummond to undermine the EPA’s cleanup efforts and, in particular, Gasp’s work.
Robinson pleaded guilty to the charges and is expected to be sentenced soon, facing up to 100 years in prison. Roberson, Gilbert, and McKinney pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Federal investigators appear to still be trying to gather information.
AL.com natural resources reporter Dennis Pillion wrote an explainer piece for The Birmingham News last year that helps explain the history of the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in the context of the recent corruption revelations: North Birmingham’s 35th Ave EPA Superfund site explained.
In light of the latest revelations from the Mother Jones story today, Gasp is renewing its call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from this investigation entirely.
Ask Jeff Sessions to Recuse Himself
Two powerful lobbyists. One coal company executive. One state legislator. That’s who has been indicted so far in the ongoing North Birmingham corruption investigation. The stakes of the investigation into Drummond & Balch’s pollution-enabling corruption scheme are too high to be trusted to Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a man with an indisputable conflict of interest. Send a letter to Mr. Sessions asking him to recuse himself from this matter.
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.