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.
If you’ve been following the North Birmingham corruption investigation involving Drummond Company, Balch & Bingham, and former Rep. Oliver Robinson, you know that our work is a huge part of the story. (Robinson plead guilty on Sept 7.) Yesterday, al.com’s John Archibald reported that newly appointed U.S. Attorney Jay Town is asking for patience in the ongoing corruption investigation — which suggests more indictments may very well be on their way.
We’re trying to do our part to ensure everyone responsible for wrongdoing is held accountable. That’s why we sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to recuse himself from the investigation. His decades-long, lucrative relationships with Drummond and Balch & Bingham could compromise the case, in our opinion, and its better to be safe than sorry.
We are also trying to find possible connections between two $25,000 contributions made to former Alabama Attorney General (now-Senator) Luther Strange by Drummond and actions taken by his office opposing the EPA’s cleanup efforts. On Aug. 23, Gasp attorney David Ludder made an open records act request on our behalf to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. We requested “electronic mail records, letters, or other records of communications” between Luther Strange or any employee or agent of the Office of the Attorney General:
Any employee or agent of Balch & Bingham LLP concerning EPA, Drummond Company, Inc., ABC Coke, or the “35th Avenue site” in Birmingham dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
Any employee or agent of Drummond Company, Inc. concerning EPA, Drummond Company, Inc., ABC Coke, or the “35th Avenue site” in Birmingham dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
Any employee or agent of ABC Coke concerning EPA, Drummond Company, Inc., ABC Coke, or the “35th Avenue site” in Birmingham dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
Any employee or agent of Drummond Company, Inc. concerning contributions to any political campaign of Luther Strange dated, created or received after April 1, 2014.
The AG’s office on Aug. 31 denied our request on the basis that our attorney is based in Florida. That’s not how the Open Records Act works, and we promptly let them know that Gasp is indeed based in Birmingham, Ala., and therefore has every right to review the requested communications. As of today (Sept. 18), we have yet to hear back from Marshall’s office.
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
One has to ask, “Is Attorney General Steve Marshall playing politics with our request because he doesn’t want to hurt his predecessor, Luther Strange, in the runoff election on Sept. 26?”
If that’s the case, we’re even more disgusted than we already were. As a 501(c)(3), Gasp is a nonpartisan, apolitical organization. But we have a right to review public records and we shouldn’t be stonewalled for political purposes. Our members deserve answers, and we won’t stop until we get them.
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.
19 copies of ‘Toxic City’ DVD donated to the Birmingham Public Library
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.- Gasp, a Birmingham-based health advocacy nonprofit, has given the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) 19 DVD copies of “Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret,” an award-winning documentary about the impact industrial pollution has on area citizens.
Gasp produced “Toxic City” in 2014 to shine the light on how individuals in Collegeville, North Birmingham, other communities in the northern part of the city, and Tarrant are impacted by hazardous industrial pollution. The 26-minute documentary explores how the issue arose as well as possible solutions to the problem. Watch a preview here.
“Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret” DVD Cover
Founded in 2009 as Alabama First, the organization changed its name to Gasp in 2010 to honor the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, a group formed in 1970 by young activists, students, public health professionals, elected officials, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham to bring attention to Birmingham’s air pollution problems that created a public health crisis.
Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp, hopes the donation will help educate more citizens of Birmingham about the dangers of industrial pollution. The 19 DVDs will be distributed to all 19 locations across the city in the BPL system. A screening of “Toxic City” was first held at the North Birmingham Regional Branch Library when it was released in 2014.
Sandi Lee, interim director of BPL, said the 19 libraries in the system are appreciative of the DVD donations. “Toxic City” is a teaching tool and Gasp wanted to make sure that it was available to as many people as possible, Hansen said.
“Educators have been using these DVDs since 2014 to teach students about health, environmental justice, the legacy of toxic pollution, and the lingering effects of segregation,” Hansen said. “Now the film will be accessible to everyone through the 19 branches of the Birmingham Public Library.”
Hansen said air pollution is the world’s single greatest environmental health risk factor for premature death, killing more than 5.5 million people a year. A recent study named Alabama’s air quality as fifth-worst in the nation. According to Gasp, communities of color and lower incomes are disproportionately affected by pollution.
The “Toxic City” donation is the third major DVD gift to BPL in 2016. In early December, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Black Warrior Riverkeeper donated to BPL 19 copies of the 2016 version of “Southern Exposure,” a documentary educating the public about Alabama’s natural resources. In July, Jenna Roberts of Decatur gave BPL five books and 19 DVD copies of “Cowspiracy,” an acclaimed documentary promoting a vegan lifestyle.
For more information, contact Roy L. Williams, Director of Public Relations, Birmingham Public Library, at: 205-226-3746 (office), 205-568-0067 (cell), or [email protected].
About Birmingham Public Library
For additional information about the programs and services of the Birmingham Public Library, visit our website at www.bplonline.org and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @BPL. The mission of Birmingham Public Library is to provide the highest quality library service to our citizens for life-long learning, cultural enrichment, and enjoyment. This system—with 19 locations and serving the community for 130 years—is one of the largest library systems in the southeast.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — July 8, 2015 — The Jefferson County Board of Health, the governing body of the Department of Health (JCDH), voted tonight to dismiss a request by GASP for a hearing on the issuance of a key air pollution permit for the Walter Coke facility in Harriman Park in northern Birmingham. The facility, which is owned by the financially troubled Walter Energy Company, is one of five named “potentially responsible parties” by the EPA for toxic contamination in the area.
In light of the Board of Health’s decision GASP issued the following statement from Executive Director Stacie M. Propst, PhD:
“This decision is bad for the health and well-being of everyone who lives and works in Birmingham. It is the responsibility of the Jefferson County Department of Health and the Board of Health to safeguard our health. In denying affected GASP members a hearing, this board has chosen to ignore a systemic threat to public health: toxic air pollution. Everyone deserves clean, healthy air to breathe. Period.
“It should also be noted that Alabama is one of the most unhealthy states in the nation. Nearly one-in-four Alabamians reside in the greater-Birmingham area. It boggles the mind that a board made up physicians and public health professionals would not take such an obvious opportunity to prevent the myriad diseases exacerbated by dirty air.
“The rapidly growing scientific evidence shows clearly that the air toxics emitted from plants like Walter Coke affect not only our lung health, but also can contribute to cancers, heart disease, learning disabilities, premature births, low birth weight and a whole host of neurodegenerative diseases.”
GASP appealed both the Walter Coke and ABC Coke permits in 2014, citing evidence that pollution coming from the two plants exceeds the acceptable risk level according to the EPA and JCDH, and jeopardizes the health and quality of life of folks living in the vicinity.