Securing Environmental Justice in Birmingham
Race, Class & the Environment
Environmental justice is at the core of who we are for a very simple reason: communities of color and lower incomes are disproportionately affected by pollution. We aim to protect everyone’s right to breathe clean, healthy air.
Birmingham was built in the late 1800s on the strength of the iron and steel industry. Nearly 150 years after its founding, The Magic City has a new identity as a growing hub for finance, education and healthcare. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and other regulations prevent and reduce pollution from manufacturing plants, chemical factories, and other major facilities. However, the fact of the matter is that these operations still pose risks to our health and threaten the vibrancy of our communities still today.
Even today, just a few minutes from downtown Birmingham, thousands of people live in communities boxed in by railroads and heavy industry. Smokestacks rain soot and chemicals down on the residents and their property every day. Those who suffer the most from dirty air tend to have the least amount of power to create and affect change. In other words, pollution is a matter of environmental and health justice. We work with residents, community leaders, and resource partners to find solutions to this ongoing problem.
Our work on ongoing air pollution in the North Birmingham neighborhoods of Fairmont, Harriman Park, Collegeville, and North Birmingham. These communities were unlawfully restricted to live among polluting industries due to unconstitutional, racially discriminatory zoning laws. Research also shows that zoned-for-blacks neighborhoods were located in or near industrial sites and are four times more likely than white neighborhoods to contain heavy industry.
What is Environmental Justice?
The environmental justice movement was born out of research and writing from leaders like Dr. Robert Bullard, who exposed the disparities in environmental exposures and health outcomes between white and black communities. Books like Dumping in Dixie led to the term “environmental racism.” The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In other words, a person’s ZIP code, race, or socioeconomic status should not determine whether or not they can live a healthy life.
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.) Some of the neighborhoods highlighted in the film were subject to Birmingham’s 1926 unconstitutional racial zoning laws — showcasing the intersection of racist house laws, zoning, and environmental policy, the result of which is a textbook case of environmental injustice.
Toxic Risk in Jefferson County
Below is a map of the major sources of air emissions in Jefferson County, Alabama, based on EPA's 2017 Risk Screening Indicators Score (RSEI) data, a model that combines information from the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) about the amounts of toxic chemicals released with factors like the toxicity and potential human exposure. The colors on the map show the percentage of the neighborhood's population that are people of color. Darker red means more people of color. Below the map is a sortable list of the top polluters in Jefferson County based on the most recent RSEI data.
Whether you can volunteer in the community, collect petition signatures, or write a letter to the editor, we need your help!