The American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report today and it showed that Birmingham has made significant improvements in air quality over recent years. The Birmingham metro area ranked 53rd most polluted for ozone, 22nd most polluted for year-round particles — the region’s best rankings ever. Ozone and particle pollution are criteria air pollutants regulated by the U.S. EPA.
In light of this report, Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen released this statement:
“Birmingham’s air quality has come a long way since the Clean Air Act was adopted in 1970. The Magic City continues to improve its rankings for both ozone and particle pollution, thanks to a combination of strong citizen advocacy and common-sense policy. Exposure to ozone and particle pollution threatens the health of hundreds of thousands of Alabamians.”
“According to extensive scientific research, exposure to these harmful pollutants is linked to serious health outcomes including premature death, worsened asthma, inflammation of the lungs, heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, low birth weight, and preterm birth. Researchers have even found correlations between hospitalizations related to autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases and long-term exposure to pollution.”
“While I welcome both our improved rankings and our improved overall air quality, I must reiterate that better is not good enough. There is no safe level of exposure to air pollution. Children, teens, seniors, pregnant women, people who work outside, people with lung or heart diseases — hundreds of thousands of Alabamians are vulnerable to the damage air pollution wreaks on our bodies.”
“In particular, low-income families and minorities are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Gasp receives calls from folks who live near pollution ‘hotspots,’ where soot covers their homes and property, and unpleasant odors fill the air. Reducing exposure to air pollution is not just a matter of sound public policy, but also of environmental and health justice.”
“Finally, it’s important to remember that better is merely a comparison to the past, not a health standard. We’re on the right track: our air quality is objectively better than it was before. But Birmingham still has a ways to go before it can consider ourselves a healthy community for everyone who wishes to live, work and play here.”
Almost exactly 17 years ago today, I wrote an essay entitled “Fitzgerald’s Fools: Corruption in The Great Gatsby.” The thesis of that paper was that naivete, greed, and fragile masculinity are the toxic cocktail that destroys the American Dream. Daisy Buchanan’s snobbery, Tom Buchanan’s brutishness, and Jay Gatsby’s foolishness are destructive forces that, when combined, ruin lives and crush hope. This is hardly groundbreaking literary analysis, but I couldn’t help but reflect on the novel and that essay when I read this Terry Jarrett op-ed about what the so-called “war on coal” means for Alabama.
According to the Jarrett’s rhetorical emissions, coal is still king. An attorney and former utility regulator from Missouri, Jarrett has made a name for himself in the media — euphemistically identified as an “energy consultant” — penning opinion pieces in news outlets all across the United States. In fact, he has represented coal industry groups and utility companies.
It’s no wonder, then, that a simple Google search reveals that Jarrett has authored dozens of essays in local newspapers and online news outlets in March alone decrying the “war on coal” and celebrating the Supreme Court’s stay of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. His Alabama piece mentions coal 17 times. It’s worth noting that not once did he utter the words “health,” “jobs,” “climate change,” or “clean energy.”
Speaking of health, Physicians for Social Responsibility has said, “The time has come for our nation to establish a health-driven energy policy that replaces our dependence on coal with clean, safe alternatives. Business as usual is extracting a deadly price on our health. Coal is no longer an option.” PSR published a report titled “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” that noted the health consequences of burning coal, including respiratory effects, cardiovascular effects, nervous system effects, and climate change.
According to recent estimates, Alabama Power generates 55 percent of its energy from coal, well above the national average. It generates 17 percent from oil and gas. Combined, that means at least 70 percent of the electricity produced by Alabama Power comes from fossil fuels.
Miller Steam Plant in north western Jefferson County outside of Birmingham is one of the top carbon emitters in the United States
Fossil fuels are like the Buchanans: wealthy and powerful, and ultimately toxic. It’s no secret that oil, gas and coal companies wield enormous influence in the halls of Washington, D.C. and in state capitals across the country. It’s why people like Twinkle Cavanaugh, elected to literally serve the public, hold press conferences to “pray away the EPA.” The money and clout dirty energy still offers is no doubt intoxicating. Folks like Terry Jarrett remind me of Jay Gatsby’s naivete, romanticizing fossil fuel as the one, true source of reliable and affordable energy, blinded by love to the lethal consequences of their obsession.
Jarrett celebrates the stay of the CPP as a “huge sigh of relief.” He complains about the EPA “imposing regulations without regard for expense.” Utility companies across the United States benefit from cost-recovery mechanisms whereby they recuperate fuel costs by adding them to consumers’ bills. There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s how business works, after all.
But let’s also talk about the hidden costs of coal that the American people pay. Health costs caused by air pollution. Black lung. Water pollution. Land degradation. Climate change. To put it another way, when do we get to recuperate the cost of our kids’ asthma attacks on high ozone days? The short answer is: we don’t.
The more complex answer is that there are mechanisms we can employ to incentivize energy efficiency programs and clean, renewable energy like wind and solar that together will reduce the burden of pollution and potentially limit the impact of climate change on future generations. These solutions will pay dividends that won’t be realized for years, but such is the nature of the best investments.
The Clean Power Plan, while an important step in fending off global climate change, is almost beside the point. It’s merely a means to an end. Burning fossil fuels continues to be a threat to our health and our environment. Reducing carbon emissions is the responsible thing to do.
Gaston Plant in Wilsonville, Ala.
The bottom line is that the market is driving the downward spiral of coal, not EPA overreach or environmental activism. People are waking up to the reality that continuing to burn fossil fuels threatens the future of their kids and grandkids, and the planet itself. The market is driving demand for clean, renewable energy. Businesses and residential consumers alike are insisting that their electricity be generated from sustainable fuels that don’t pollute the air, water and land.
According to The Solar Foundation, the solar installation sector “employs 77% more people than the domestic coal mining industry.” And for all the talk of the American gas and oil boom, the TSF also says that solar installation “has created more jobs than oil and gas pipeline construction and crude petroleum and natural gas extraction combined” since 2014. Alabama ranks a dismal 45th in the nation in solar jobs. If anything, Alabama’s health, economy and environment all stand to gain immensely from pro-clean energy policies.
The times aren’t changing. They’ve changed. The sooner folks like Terry Jarrett and his fossil fuel cronies snap out of it, the better. It’s time to move on from fossil fuels and marketing slogans like “clean coal.”
Dr. Ray Watts, then-senior vice-president and dean of the UAB School of Medicine, established the Clean Air Initiative in 2012. Combining private and public dollars, it was designed to be an interdisciplinary partnership of UAB’s Schools of Medicine, Public Health and Engineering; Birmingham-Southern College; the Southern Environmental Law Center; the American Lung Association in Alabama; and GASP.
As the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees was vetting Watts, the Clean Air Initiative apparently came under scrutiny. Recall that Watts himself established this research and education effort at UAB.
Dismantling the Clean Air Initiative
Soon after joining GASP, I was engaged in the planning for the Clean Air Initiative Symposium to be held on Sept. 21, 2012 at UAB. The draft agenda included Garrison, Watts and Marchase. Abruptly, Watts informed the Clean Air Initiative partners that the Southern Environmental Law Center would not be permitted to participate in the Symposium. It was clear, even to a newcomer like me, that the move was purely political.
I had already been told the Birmingham Business Alliance was unhappy about the Initiative and that Birmingham-Southern was pressured to drop out as a result. It also became evident that the Clean Air Initiative would be discontinued altogether after the Symposium. UAB drastically gutted the event’s agenda without consulting still-named partners GASP and the American Lung Association.
I was horrified at the ethical implications of Watts’ decision in the first week of September 2012 to dismantle the Clean Air Initiative. I had just received my copy of the Summer 2012 UAB Magazine featuring the Initiative in an article titled “Something in the Air.”
As a long time health and research advocate, I’m certainly not naïve and am fully aware of political pressures brought to bear at major research universities. And when I earned my doctorate at UAB, I experienced firsthand some of the ugliest internal politics you can imagine.
This was different. This was the leadership at my alma mater directly and blatantly compromising the integrity of its research and education mission.
What Might Have Been
The Clean Air Initiative was marketed by UAB as a “multi-disciplinary effort to solve air pollution problems.”
A significant portion of the air pollution that keeps Birmingham ranked in the top 25 cities for dirty air nationally comes from the industrial plants just three miles north of downtown and four miles north of UAB.
“UAB has a strong commitment to improving the health of the people of Alabama,” a brochure read, “and will use a multifaceted approach through its medical research and engineering talent to deal with health issues tied to environmental origins.”
The research funded under the auspices of the Clean Air Initiative included studies on the health impacts of people residing in northern Birmingham neighborhoods just a few miles from UAB’s campus.
CBS 42 had just aired an exposé, “Deadly Deception,” on the toxic contamination of the neighborhoods surrounding industrial plants such as Walter Coke and Drummond’s ABC Coke. The investigative report pushed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish the 35th Avenue Superfund site (also known as the North Birmingham Environmental Collaboration Project).
When the Clean Air Initiative was unceremoniously dismantled by Watts, funding for research to understand the effects of ongoing industrial pollution in Collegeville, Fairmont, Harriman Park and North Birmingham dried up. Only one study came to fruition that I’m aware of and its results were published in October 2014. It shows adverse birth outcomes associated with living within 5 kilometers of the north Birmingham coke plants.
We need a credible research institution like UAB to help us “understand air pollution problems that have long plagued this state,” to use the university’s own words.
Just as he built the Clean Air Initiative, Watts tore it down, apparently, because it went against the financial interests of Alabama’s polluting industries — specifically against the personal interests of Trustee Emeriti Garry Neil Drummond. Based on the events I witnessed, Watts chose to serve corporate profit and his own advancement over the health and education mission of UAB.
Our city and our state have been held back by corrupt pay-to-play politics that perpetuate archaic and ineffective governance. We have systemic problems that keep Alabamians disproportionately unhealthy and economically compromised. UAB became an economic engine in Alabama precisely because enough of its leaders worked to elevate UAB’s mission and reputation above the regressive attitudes traditional Alabama “leaders” dictate.
Just as he built the Clean Air Initiative, Watts tore it down, apparently, because it went against the financial interests of Alabama’s polluting industries.
We are all members of the greater Birmingham community and we are therefore all affected by the dirty air emanating from polluting industries in our area. We need a credible research institution like UAB to help us “understand air pollution problems that have long plagued this state,” to use the university’s own words.
The deadline to comment on the Proposed Rule No. 61 is two weeks away. The proposal would add north Birmingham’s 35th Avenue Superfund Site to the National Priorities List, an Environmental Protection Agency designation that would allow the federal government to fund the ongoing cleanup of the contaminated area.
GASP has been working diligently to procure comments on the proposal in light of the state’s obstinate opposition to the listing. In October, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management Director Lance LeFleur and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange both sent scathing letters to EPA decrying the process and the potential listing as potentially harmful to economic development.
Those sentiments were echoed by the entire Alabama congressional delegation except for Rep. Terri Sewell, the one congressperson who actually represents the entire area in question. In a letter dated October 17, 2014 to EPA Region 4 Administrator Heather McTeer Toney, Representatives Robert Aderholt, Mo Brooks, Martha Roby, Bradley Byrne, Mike Rogers and former-Rep. Spencer Bachus wrote:
“While we appreciate EPA’s efforts to protect Alabamians from the effects of hazardous substances in the environment, we are concerned that EPA’s proposed listing is unsupported by reliable evidence and that it may undermine economic development in the area.”
Unfortunately for LeFleur, Strange, and Alabama GOP congressional delegation, those claims do not hold water. Researchers at Duke and Pittsburgh universities found listing a site on the NPL may actually increase housing prices. Such a listing signals that a site is headed towards remediation. The researchers also found that once all cleanup remedies are in place, nearby properties also increase in value.
Let’s take the current situation into account: According to real estate website Trulia, the median home listing price in Birmingham is $228,939. Meanwhile, the median listing price in Collegeville, the heart of the 35th Avenue Superfund Site, is less than $18,000. There is literally nowhere to go but up. The Duke-Pittsburgh research suggests that’s exactly where the area will be headed … once the NPL designation puts the area on a path towards remediation.
In addition, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a basic health assessment that concluded that “past and current exposures to contaminants and particulate matter in the communities adjacent to Walter Coke resulted in both short and long-term harmful effects in sensitive* individuals.” (This includes elderly individuals, children, pregnant women, and people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and immune disorders.)
So not only are these economic development claims false, but the evidence also says that residents’ health has been and continues to be in jeopardy. Exposure to the contamination and ongoing pollution will keep these northern Birmingham neighborhoods unfairly economically depressed and disproportionately unhealthy.
GASP drafted a resolution in support of the proposed NPL listing. The Norwood Neighborhood Association passed the resolution unanimously, which will be submitted to the EPA as a supporting document. We encourage all entities — especially community organizations and neighborhood associations — to pass such a resolution in support of this critical measure. We are happy to provide a copy of our resolution and/or advise you on how you can support the NPL process in the final two weeks of the comment period.
For information on how to submit formal comments, click here.
The following op-ed was published on al.com Tuesday, Dec. 22. View it and weigh in here.
In following recent local news, I am struck by the similar circumstances between the demise of UAB’s football program and the way in which Alabama Power’s electricity rates are determined.
Starting next month, customers will pay 5 percent more for electricity, courtesy of our Public Service Commission’s rate-setting “system.” Around the same time, the UAB Faculty Senate will be taking a no confidence vote in university President Dr. Ray Watts. In both instances, decisions that affect a great many Alabamians were made with zero public or customer input.
Alabama Power is a monopoly. With no competition to put downward pressure on prices, what faith can customers have that we are not getting fleeced? In most states, there is a formal and public process overseen by government officials designed to protect the interests of you, the customer. Not in Alabama.
For decades now, the decisions about how much you pay for electricity and where that energy comes from have been made behind closed doors. Your representatives in these decisions are the three commissioners: President Twinkle Cavanaugh, Jeremy Oden, and Chip Beeker.
As reported by al.com political reporter Mike Cason, Cavanaugh analogized a Dec. 9 PSC meeting on Alabama Power’s rates and environmental compliance to “a press conference after a football game. The coaches can answer questions, but the score is already in the books.”
Underscoring that point, Michael Churchman, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, said, “Once a year the public gets to ask questions, and yet is derided for asking those questions, given very little time.”
John Garner, the chief administrative law judge who presides over PSC meetings, repeatedly made clear on Dec. 9 that questions about the lack of transparency in how rates are set were “outside the scope of the meeting.” Questions about clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar were quickly quashed.
Back to Twinkle’s football analogy, did you catch what she said? The game is rigged. The plays have been called. The “score is already in the books.” We, the stakeholders, are not even a part of the game. We’re bystanders relegated to merely observing the inconsequential song-and-dance routine after the fact. It’s all for show.
It’s time to throw a penalty flag. As columnist Kyle Whitmire wrote about the UAB debacle, “football shouldn’t define a university, this fight is about who gets to define UAB — the real stakeholders there, including faculty, students and alumni, or a bunch of absentee landlords 60 miles away.”
In the same way, those of us who have no choice but to buy electricity from Alabama Power have no say about what we pay for electricity, where it comes from and how — those decisions are made by politicians who are legally corrupted by campaign donations.
These decisions affect our pocketbooks and our quality of life. Transparency will help clear the air.
On Wednesday, July 30, the Jefferson County Department of Health held a press conference in which Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson — our Doctor-in-Chief — presented “cancer data, death rate data and birth outcome data related to residents’ environmental concerns for the North Birmingham area compared to other areas of Jefferson County.” (See below for documents.)
The gist of the presentation was that the residents in the heavily industrial 35207 ZIP code — including North Birmingham, Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont — do not suffer worse health outcomes than other Jefferson County residents. Specifically, they evaluated data over a 10-year period among African-Americans living in 35207 compared with African-Americans living in the rest of Jefferson County.
GASP enthusiastically welcomes the efforts of Dr. Wilson and JCDH to study the health problems facing residents concerned with air pollution.
According to Fox 6, Wilson went on to suggest that some of the health problems residents of 35207 are facing are a result of personal choices, and implicitly not because of environmental factors. “Wilson says he will also still stress health concerns of North Birmingham looking at their diet and lifestyles.”
Mike Oliver of The Birmingham Newsreported the story as follows: “Health data compiled by local and state departments of health appear to show good news for North Birmingham’s ‘toxic city’ neighborhoods that have battled pollution for years.”
How can that be? GASP has documented countless stories of residents whose family members have died from cancers, whose neighbors suffer from COPD complications, whose children suffer severe asthma. We know that the stories told in “Toxic City” and in investigative reports like CBS 42’s “Deadly Deception” are just that: stories. Anecdotal evidence, if you will. How does our own qualitative observation square with Dr. Wilson’s claim that an elevated risk of premature death and disease “does not exist”?
Numerous studies (e.g.,here, here and here) have shown that air pollution disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities, which tend to have poorer environmental standards. The result is disparate health outcomes among people of color compared with the population at large. One study found the Birmingham metro to be in the top 15 urban areas with the largest disparities in exposure to air pollution between whites and nonwhites.
In other words, comparing the cancer rates of African-Americans in 35207 to the cancer rate of African-Americans in the rest of Jefferson County is bad science: Cancer rates among African-Americans are already higher than the white population who are not exposed to the same extent. Therefore, the rates appear statistically similar to one another. We already know that cancer risk in Jefferson County is higher than the rest of the state of Alabama. What science tells us is that health inequities among African-Americans are due in part to the disparity in environmental exposures everywhere. This problem is not confined arbitrarily to one ZIP code.
“Death Rates by Race/Ethnicity and Sex” via cdc.gov
The bulk of JCDH’s presentation relied on data from death certificates alone and did not take into consideration morbidity data such as hospitalization rates, or ER visits. This has broad implications about both the significance and the generalizability of JCDH’s analysis.
“The death rates from asthma and COPD,” Oliver writes, “were statistically the same between residents in Collegeville, Fairmont and Harriman Park compared to the rest of the county.”
People living with obstructive lung diseases are often not diagnosed as having COPD. This is particularly true in low-income areas and communities of color where a much higher percentage of residents lack health insurance and therefore lack the resources required for such a diagnosis. Most people who have undiagnosed COPD die from pneumonia, coronary artery disease, heart failure or diseases caused by atherosclerosis.
In summary, GASP enthusiastically welcomes the efforts of Dr. Wilson and the health department to study the health problems facing residents concerned with air pollution. But we implore JCDH to conduct a real health assessment for the entire county, and not simply spin insufficient data as evidence that a problem does not exist. This serves only to further confuse the people of 35207, and all of Jefferson County, about a very real, well-documented problem for which we all pay the price.
Or to put it another way, as astrophysicist Carl Sagan explained, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”