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 [email protected]
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.
The following is a statement from Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen regarding corruption & bribery charges related to North Birmingham:
I was stunned to learn the extent of the conspiracy involving former-Rep. Oliver Robinson, Balch & Bingham, and Drummond Company to block EPA’s efforts to remediate contamination in northern Birmingham and Tarrant. We learned via Twitter that meetings with Robinson and Gasp representatives were recorded and shared with Drummond and their attorneys.
Gasp has been working in north Birmingham neighborhoods for years. In 2014, we petitioned the EPA to investigate whether or not additional cleanup was necessary in the Inglenook community and city of Tarrant. Between advocating for the National Priorities List (NPL) for the 35th Avenue Site (the NPL listing would have released millions of dollars for clean up) and additional testing in the Pinson Valley Site, we’ve been at odds with some of the most powerful interests in Alabama for years now.
This case is a sad commentary on the lengths to which unchecked greed will go for a buck. People deserve to live in a healthy community, including clean air, clean water, and clean soil. Residents have been complaining of respiratory illnesses, cancers, asthma, and other diseases. Despite Birmingham’s reputation for being a hub of medical advances, there has never been a study to see how the pollution is harming the communities’ health. We know there is a higher rate of pre-term birth and lower birth weight in the areas near heavy industry.
Toxic pollution literally kills people and makes them ill. Attempts at covering up pollution and avoiding responsibility for cleaning it up are among the most egregious forms of public corruption, and it must be rooted out.
This story is not simply about corruption. It is about harm to real people. For decades, people living near ABC Coke and other polluting industries have been breathing toxic emissions and growing gardens in contaminated soil. They’ve been telling us for years that they believe their families, their children are being exposed to serious environmental hazards and that their health is suffering from it. Everyone from the polluters to politicians to regulators turned a blind eye to these concerns, claiming there is no health risk. Well, now we know why.
The folks living in impacted communities deserve answers. Who else was involved in this scheme and how long has it been going on? How deep is this conspiracy? Will others be held accountable? Why aren’t the leaders in our state condemning these actions? What recourse do the residents have now that they know powerful interests conspired to thwart community cleanup efforts?
We won’t rest until we have answers and the residents of the northern Birmingham area are protected from toxic pollution and corruption.
Below is a statement from Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement:
“Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement jeopardizes our role in the world as leaders on climate action. Global problems demand global solutions — and we cannot go it alone. Climate change is real, and it is a health issue that we cannot simply ignore.
“In Alabama this is especially perilous. We have no comprehensive plans in place to mitigate climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies. We barely fund state agencies like ADEM — the lowest funding level per capita in the entire nation. As a result, climate solutions in Alabama are virtually non-existent.
“We lag behind other states in clean energy jobs despite ample land and abundant free fuel (namely, the sun). We rank at the bottom in energy efficiency, resulting in the highest utility bills in the country as a portion of income, which impacts poor and fixed-income households the hardest. Alabama lacks adequate water management policies in the event of droughts. Our infrastructure is not ready to handle extreme weather events, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.
“Former Attorney General Luther Strange literally sued the EPA over climate regulations. That is what we’re up against in Alabama. We are woefully unprepared to deal with the health and environmental impacts of climate change. It is now on us to demand better policies from the our elected officials and agencies.
“Call your mayor and city council and ask them to pass 100% renewable energy standards. Call the PSC and tell them to rescind the regressive solar ‘tax. Call your state legislators and demand responsible action on climate change. There is no Planet B, so we must take action and fight for change.”
Multiple news outlets are reporting that President Trump will announce this week his intentions to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. The move is likely to upset U.S. allies across the globe, especially considering that the accords were agreed to by 197 nations.
This is further evidence that the onus is on us to fight climate change. Here in Alabama, some of our vulnerabilities include extreme heat, increased ozone pollution, drought, wildfire, or coastal flooding. And yet our state government has not taken any action whatsoever to assessing climate change impacts.
Alabama has no plan in place for future climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies. State funding and resilience policies are virtually non-existent. Alabama is woefully unprepared to deal with the health and environmental impacts of climate change.
The support is bipartisan, too. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans think the U.S. should remain a part of the accords. Even a plurality of Trump’s supporters (47 percent) support staying in.
Regardless of the overwhelming bipartisan support for participating in the Paris climate change agreement, we cannot lose sight of what matters most: the science.
Inaction is not a viable action, nor is going it alone. We have to work collaboratively with other nations to solve the intractable problem of our changing climate and start implementing solutions now. The health of our planet and, most importantly, future generations is at stake.
The Alabama Supreme Court today denied a petition from ABC Coke (a division of Drummond Company) and the Jefferson County Board of Health for writ of certiorari in ABC Coke and Jefferson County Board of Health v. GASP, Inc. In other words, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled in our favor, just as the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and Jefferson County Circuit Court did.
They were seeking review of the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals decision affirming the Circuit Court’s decision reversing the Board of Health’s dismissal of our request for hearing on the ABC Coke air pollution permit.
Next, we will go to hearing before the Board of Health and its hearing officer to contest the permit issued by the Department of Health to ABC Coke. This tug-of-war has been going on since the Jefferson County Department of Health reissued the ABC Coke permit in 2014. Our goal is stronger public health protections for residents who live near the facility, which is one of the top sources of toxic air pollution in the Birmingham area.
The Board of Health should never have sided with Drummond and ABC Coke and against public health. Three courts have agreed that they should have granted us a hearing from the start rather than spending years on costly court costs and appeals. The communities who are affected by ABC Coke’s toxic emissions deserve a hearing, and we intend to make certain that happens.
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It’s been a few weeks since I updated everyone on executive and legislative actions. Sadly, this is not because there has been nothing to update; so this will be a long one! However, one reason this update is delayed is because I attended an inspiring conference two weeks ago that replenished my “hope budget” and gave me new energy to tackle the many and ever-growing attacks on clean air. Since I blogged last month, several new developments have cropped up and we have new updates:
March 6, 2017: White House Announces Plan to “Close Out” Energy Star program: A spending blueprint would slash Energy Star and related programs, leaving $5 million “for the closeout or transfer of all the climate protection voluntary partnership programs.” According to our friends at ACEEE, Energy Star spend about $50 million through EPA and $7 million through the Department of Energy. According to the Obama administration, the Energy Star program saved consumers $34 billion in electricity costs and prevented more than 300 million metric tons of GHGs in one year while improving ambient air quality.
March 8: The HONEST Act (H.R. 1430): This proposed bill is sponsored by Lamar Smith, R-TX. The bill works “[t]o prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” This bill is an attempt to revise the EPA’s scientific review process that guides their rulemaking. The bill was introduced on March 8, 2017 and passed by recorded vote in the House (228 – 194) on March 29, 2017.
March 13: Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch: President Trump signed this Executive Order, where the stated purpose is “intended to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch by directing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Director) to propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies (as defined in section 551(1) of title 5, United States Code), components of agencies, and agency programs.”
March 15: Republicans Joint Resolution on Climate Change: A group of 17 Republican members of Congress signed a resolution vowing to seek “economically viable” ways to combat global warming. It pledges to “study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates” and seek ways to “balance human activities” that contribute.
March 21: President Trump is Not Considering a Carbon Tax: despite a meeting between Republican elder statesmen and Trump Administration officials, President Trump announced he is not considering a carbon tax.
March 28: Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth: President Trump signed this Executive Order. The goal is to halt the United States’ government’s attempts to curb carbon dioxide emissions with the goal of encouraging American business. We borrowed the words of our friends at NAACP on this day to express our extreme disappointment with this negligent and potentially disastrous change in course for addressing the impacts of climate change.
April 5: Congressional hearing on the RECLAIM Act of 2017 (H.R. 1731): At the hearing, ranking member Alan Lowenthal, D-CA, stated “[t]he idea behind the RECLAIM Act is to take part of the large unexpended balance in the [AML Fund] and devote it to projects where cleaning up mines leads to economic and community benefits. This is, quite frankly, a win-win.” There was testimony from the bill’s lead sponsor, Hal Rogers, R-KY, and three witnesses. The hearing itself was a major milestone for the RECLAIM Act.
FOLLOW UP ON ACTIONS PREVIOUSLY COVERED
Congressional Review Act put into play by U.S. Congress: The CRA allows senators and representatives who disapprove of a regulation to enter a resolution eliminating it. The resolutions require the signature of the president. So far this year, the following rules protecting the environment and human health have been targeted under the CRA:
The Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule: Update: On February 16, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule.
Department of the Interior Methane Flaring Rule: The House voted on February 3, 2017 with no action so far from the Senate as of the date of this post. Update: on March 21, 2017, some Republican lawmakers came out against using the CRA to repeal this rule. Specifically, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he believed the rule could be subject to improvement, not just cancellation. “I think we can replace it with a better reg, rather than a CRA.”
Drilling and Mining on Public Lands: On January 31, 2017, the House introduced a joint resolution that would repeal the rules that allow the National Park Service to manage private drilling and mining in 40 parks across the country.
Status of Bills in U.S. Congress covered in previous posts:
Jason Smith, R-MO
Establishes a commission to identify obsolete and unnecessarily burdensome regulations to be repealed. It also sets goals for the commission to reduce costs by 15 percent and to prioritize major rules that are more than 15 years old and rules that can be eliminated without diminishing effectiveness.
No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
Paul Mitchell, R-MI
Requires independent agencies to submit rules to the Office of Management and Budget before they are published—essentially giving the president tight control of the rule-making process
No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
Tim Walberg, R-MI
Would require agencies to publish more detail of forthcoming rules and regulations
No action since the bill passed the House on 3/2/2017.
Gary Palmer, R-AL
Blocks the EPA’s ability to address climate change
No actions taken since the bill was introduced. You can read our analysis of the bill here.
Matt Gaetz, R-FL
Would abolish the EPA effective December 31, 2018
No actions taken since the bill was introduced.
Sam Johnson, R-TX
Would leave EPA with a budget of less than $1 billion. This bill would eliminate EPA climate change programs and would also close all of the EPA’s regional offices, halt new regulations on ground-level ozone pollution and require the agency to lease unused property
OMB Proposed Budget Cuts to EPA and NOAA: The proposed budget cuts would reduce EPA’s staff by one fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs. Specifically, EPA’s staff would be slashed from 15,000 to 12,000. The proposed budget would also cut EPA’s grants to states, including air and water programs, by 30 percent and eliminate 38 separate programs in their entirety. Media outlets also discovered a four page budget memo that would slash NOAA’s budget by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs. Any such cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process. Update: U.S. Congress is currently in recess for the Easter holiday but are expected to consider OMB’s budget proposal upon their return.
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