Alabama Groups File Motion to Intervene in ABC Coke Consent Decree

Alabama Groups File Motion to Intervene in ABC Coke Consent Decree

For Immediate Release

Contact
Emily Driscoll, Southern Environmental Law Center, [email protected], 678-686-8482
Michael Hansen, Gasp, [email protected], 205-746-4666

Alabama Groups File Motion to Intervene in ABC Coke Consent Decree

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.  (January 29, 2020) — Conservation groups have filed a motion to intervene in ongoing efforts to approve a proposed settlement to address ABC Coke’s illegal emissions of benzene and the impacts on communities around northeast Birmingham and Tarrant, Ala., charging that the involved parties have failed to create a consent decree strong enough to ensure that the discharges are halted.

On behalf of Gasp, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the motion and proposed complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama late yesterday in response to the lax terms set out by the consent decree agreed to by the Jefferson County Board of Health (JCBH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the Drummond Company. The members of the JCBH are tasked with governing the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH), which is responsible for regulating ABC Coke and its ongoing violations of benzene pollution, a known carcinogen.

Joining concerns expressed by local community members and elected officials, the groups claim the settlement, as written, lacks essential safeguards to ensure that the violations have stopped and hinders the public’s ability to identify and enforce future violations.

In the proposed consent decree, JCDH has agreed to post Drummond’s semiannual reports to its website verifying Drummond’s progress. The groups contend that Drummond’s self-reporting is not adequate and are urging the agencies to require an independent audit to assess what’s been done to reach compliance.

“With ABC Coke’s lengthy history of violations and a pattern of practice of hiding them, we continue to have significant concerns about the lack of transparency,” said SELC Senior Attorney, Sarah Stokes. “We must hold Drummond, EPA, and the Jefferson County Department of Health accountable to a plan that results in a protective, permanent solution to this legacy of pollution—anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Echoing comments submitted by Gasp and SELC last summer, the motion asks that Gasp be a party to the consent decree in order to be able to call for an increase in the penalty amount for violations, an independent audit of benzene levels, additional public reporting requirements, and for the JCDH to establish a trust fund for area residents which a third party with community-ties would administer.

“The families and workers who have been breathing ABC Coke’s toxic and illegal pollution for close to a decade deserve better,” said Gasp Executive Director, Michael Hansen. “Drummond should get more than a slap on the wrist. It’s past time for the Health Department to work with impacted communities to ensure tangible steps are being taken to put their health and wellbeing ahead of Drummond’s bottom line.”

Under the proposed consent decree filed in February 2019, Drummond agreed to pay $775,000 in penalties, with $387,500 going to JCBH and to EPA respectively. The consent decree also requires Drummond to take steps to stop the unlawful emissions, more than eight years after inspectors discovered that the plant was emitting excess amounts of benzene.

The JCDH recently renewed ABC Coke’s Title V permit despite numerous objections from local communities and elected officials, and without addressing the benzene violations that are the subject of the consent decree. On behalf of GASP, SELC petitioned EPA to object to the permit in June 2019. EPA has not yet made a decision whether or not to object to the permit.

For more information, contact Emily Driscoll at the Southern Environmental Law Center ([email protected], 678-686-8482) or Michael Hansen at Gasp ([email protected], 205-701-4270).

###

About Gasp
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. We strive to reduce 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

About Southern Environmental Law Center
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. southernenvironment.org

Flawed Consent Decree Fails Local Communities Impacted by ABC Coke’s Illegal Pollution

Flawed Consent Decree Fails Local Communities Impacted by ABC Coke’s Illegal Pollution

Flawed Consent Decree Fails Local Communities Impacted by ABC Coke’s Illegal Pollution

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Conservation groups are charging that a proposed consent decree is woefully inadequate in addressing the impacts of ABC Coke’s excessive and illegal levels of toxic pollution on local communities around northeast Birmingham and Tarrant, Ala.

On behalf of Gasp, the Southern Environmental Law Center has filed comments in an effort to strengthen the requirements set out by the consent decree entered into by the Jefferson County Board of Health (JCBH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the Drummond Company regarding ABC Coke’s violations of regulations that prevent benzene pollution. The members of the JCBH are tasked with governing the Jefferson County Department of Health, which is responsible for regulating ABC Coke.

Under the proposed decree announced in February, Drummond has agreed to pay $775,000 in penalties, with $387,500 each going to the JCBH and to EPA. The consent decree also requires Drummond to take steps to stop the unlawful emissions, more than eight years after inspectors discovered that the plant was emitting excess amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen.

In the comments, Gasp and SELC are charging that the proposal lacks essential safeguards to ensure that the violations have stopped and that the public will be able to identify and enforce future violations. The groups are advocating for an increase in penalties, an independent audit of benzene levels, additional public reporting requirements, and for the Jefferson County Department of Health to establish a trust for area residents for which a third party with community-ties would administer.

“If the Jefferson County Department of Health is truly committed to transparency with the public as it claims, taking long overdue steps to restore assurances that it will act in the community’s best interests rather than powerful corporations will require meaningful actions, not just words,” said Gasp Executive Director, Michael Hansen. “At the bare minimum, the community must have a say in how the penalty paid by ABC Coke should be spent—this money should not just go back into the Department’s pocket.”

“After years of violations that the Jefferson County Department of Health has known about and failed to act on, the Board of Health cannot continue to turn a blind eye when it should be holding the Department and ABC Coke’s feet to the fire to permanently address this pollution,” said SELC Senior Attorney, Sarah Stokes. “It is past time for these agencies to be held accountable and to be fully transparent.”

The Jefferson County Health Department has issued ABC Coke’s final Title V permit despite numerous objections from the community and elected officials, and without addressing the benzene violations that are the subject of the consent decree. On behalf of GASP, SELC petitioned EPA to object to the permit last month. EPA has not yet made a decision whether or not to object to the permit.

###

About Southern Environmental Law Center
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. southernenvironment.org

About Gasp
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. We strive to reduce 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

Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

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. 

###

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

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.

↑ back to top

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.”

↑ back to top

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.

↑ back to top

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).

↑ back to top

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.

↑ back to top

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.

↑ back to top

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.

↑ back to top

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).

↑ back to top

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).

↑ back to top

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

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.