Abandoned railroad tracks, with rotted ties and weeds growing, lead to a pile of black waste from the neighboring coke plant.

Birmingham’s pollution ‘master class’

Industry, lack of accountability permanently poison neighborhoods

by Sydney Cromwell

To live in North Birmingham is to live surrounded by pollution.

From her home in Harriman Park, Keisha Brown can see it hanging as a haze in the air, spewing from smokestacks. In Collegeville and Fairmont Park, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found it in the soil the very neighborhoods were built on. On the waters of Five Mile Creek, Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke finds it seeping into the river from nearby industrial plants.

Despite cleanup efforts by the EPA, some residents believe the neighborhoods are too deeply polluted to ever recover their health or economic opportunities.

“We got a lot of issues in our community that, when you address them, nobody knows what’s going on,” Brown said. “… We need help. Where’s the help at?”

THE HEALTH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD

North Birmingham has been dotted with industrial facilities for decades, producing cement, coke, steel, iron and other materials.

“It’s heavy industry that’s been there for, you know, a hundred-plus years. So this isn’t new, but it’s definitely gotten a lot more attention,” said Shauntice Allen, an environmental health sciences professor and health behaviorist at University of Alabama – Birmingham.

Industrial buildings, smokestacks and a pile of black waste at the inactive Bluestone Coke plant.
The Bluestone Coke facility, right next door to the Harriman Park neighborhood. Photo by Sydney Cromwell.

The activity in these facilities produces toxic pollutants, which can escape into the air, soil and water, whether by accident or through negligence.

Some of those pollutants — including lead, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — seeped into soil that was later used to fill and level the ground under homes, schools and other buildings in the North Birmingham neighborhoods of Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont.

Unknowingly, residents carried these toxic chemicals into their homes on the soles of their shoes or through the vegetables they grew in their backyards.

“This is a community problem. This is not a North Birmingham-only problem,” Allen said.

Those who have lived in these communities for many years, like Brown or former Collegeville resident Charlie Powell, have long lists of friends and family who have gotten sick or died of cancer, respiratory problems and other diseases.

“Your health is the main thing. Your everyday life,” Brown said.

Powell created People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) in 2012. Through donations and volunteered time, the nonprofit has continued its awareness efforts “because this is what I really believe in,” he said.

Because of the contaminated soil underneath North Birmingham’s communities, the EPA declared the area a Superfund. Since then, the EPA has been sampling properties and cleaning and replacing contaminated soil.

EPA on-site coordinator Subash Patel said the agency has sampled around 2,030 properties out of the 2,100 within the boundaries of the 35th Avenue Superfund site. Of those, around 669 required cleanup. As of July, Patel said the EPA had cleaned up 643 of them.

Last year, the EPA extended the boundaries of the Superfund site twice, based on sampling of contaminated sites in Fairmont. 

“We discussed it with the community leaders in the Fairmont area” before the extension of the boundaries, Patel said.

That added 130 more homes to the area, about half of which had been sampled and a dozen cleaned up as of July.

A satellite map of Fairmont, with a blue overlaying several streets to represent the new properties added to the Superfund site.
The area of Fairmont that the EPA added to the 35th Avenue Superfund site in 2021. Photo courtesy of the EPA.

Patel said the plan is to finish the majority of the property cleanups by the end of 2022. He doesn’t expect the Superfund site’s boundaries to expand further, unless new contamination is found.

Read more from Southern Science about the Superfund process and Alabama’s Superfund sites.

“THEY ALL KNEW”

Despite this progress, the history of North Birmingham’s industrial contamination has been a rough road.

Brooke said health and environmental officials at the local, state and federal levels were all aware of the health hazards of the 35th Avenue area long before it became an official Superfund site.

“They all knew how bad this coke plant was, they knew how contaminated the area was for decades, and they didn’t do anything about it. And not only did they not do anything about it, they didn’t tell anybody,” Brooke said.

Brown said she and her neighbors continue to feel like information is being kept from them. Most of her information about the Superfund cleanup’s progress comes from the news, not the EPA or the companies responsible for the pollution.

When the EPA first began testing properties for contamination in 2011, there was a concerted effort by Drummond Company, one of the companies considered potentially liable for the site’s cleanup, to prevent the area from becoming listed on the National Priorities List (NPL), even though the 35th Avenue site met all the criteria.

A satellite view of the Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont neighborhoods, with a blue line representing the boundaries of the Superfund site. Railroads and industrial plants are visible, alongside residential neighborhoods.
The boundaries (in blue) where the EPA is testing properties within the 35th Avenue Superfund site. Photo courtesy of the EPA.

According to reporting by AL.com, Drummond paid more than $1 million a year in legal fees to fight the EPA’s testing efforts in Birmingham. The company also bribed a state representative, Oliver Robinson, to oppose the NPL listing.

Brooke said listing the site on the NPL would have put more responsibility on the companies that originally contaminated the soil to pay for the cleanup. The EPA’s investigation into soil pollution also originally included a neighboring city with a Drummond coke plant, Tarrant.

The Get Smart Tarrant campaign, paid for by Drummond and other potentially liable companies, tried to block and discourage any efforts to test soil on residential and school properties. The campaign included telling property owners that the EPA’s soil sampling would cause their homes to be labeled as toxic waste dumps.

The EPA dropped its efforts to put 35th Avenue on the NPL in 2015.

“There was so much pushback coming from ADEM and the attorney general and the state Legislature … that they [the EPA] backed out of it,” Brooke said.

In 2018, a Drummond executive, the state representative and an attorney from the Balch & Bingham law firm were all convicted on bribery charges. The damage, however, was already done.

The 35th Avenue site is a “master class in studying why Superfund is important and why Superfund is flawed,” Brooke said.

  • The front yard of a green house, with a sidewalk and part of a two-lane road, are in the foreground. Behind it is an abandoned brick church. Even further in the background, beyond some trees, a steel plant's buildings are visible.
  • A white sign that says "Collegeville Center" stands in front of a row of attached brick houses. Behind a metal fence, a few back porches and yards can be seen.
  • A row of dilapidated houses line the left side of a street.

Even today, Patel said many property owners continue to deny the EPA access to test their soil, either because they don’t want the federal government on their land or because they don’t see the need.

Without that access, the EPA can’t clean up contaminated soil.

Patel said the EPA continues to call those property owners monthly, in hopes of convincing them to see the need for testing. After a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the EPA has restarted its regular neighborhood meetings as well, and met with community leaders in July to give a progress update.

Allen said those community meetings are important, and it’s critical for people to feel that what they’re saying is being heard.

“People need to have a space where they can honestly and authentically talk about what they think are barriers and challenges to the community,” Allen said. “… We’re talking about communities that have been marginalized in so many ways, you cannot put a cap on how long people can show up at a meeting and say the same thing.”

She said that the corporations that own these facilities haven’t felt enough of the financial burden of pollution to push them to change.

“They’re not proximate to the problem so it’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind thing. So that needs to change,” Allen said.

“North Birmingham is dead. It’ll never be another thriving community now.”

Charlie Powell, People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination

The 35th Avenue Superfund site still is not included on the NPL. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin wrote a letter to the EPA in 2018 asking once again for the site to be added to the list. According to reporting from ProPublica and AL.com, Woodfin has also drafted a $37 million plan to buy out homeowners and provide funding for renter relocation and revitalization efforts.

Woodfin’s office did not respond to Southern Science’s request for comment.

Although the site isn’t on the NPL, Patel emphasized that it is still being cleaned up to the same standards, and that he has never had any issues with receiving additional funding when needed.

“We’re here to clean up and we’re trying to get it back to where it was before the contamination,” Patel said.

WHEN CLEANUP ISN’T ENOUGH

The EPA’s Superfund cleanup focuses on past contamination. But Michael Hansen, the executive director of the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP), says not enough attention is being paid to the current, ongoing pollution of the neighborhoods of North Birmingham.

“People have been exposed to that during the entire time EPA has done this cleanup. So our contention has been and continues to be that soil removal isn’t enough,” Hansen said.

Bluestone Coke, for instance, was a major contributor to the area’s air pollution until it was forced to close last fall due to violations of the Clean Air Act. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, a trial is scheduled for November.

ProPublica recently released an extensive investigation into Bluestone Coke’s operations
and the history of industrial pollution in Birmingham.

Drummond Company was also found to be violating the Clean Air Act at its ABC Coke plant in Tarrant. The company is now monitoring for leaked emissions as part of a 2019 consent decree with the EPA.

The consent decree also included a penalty of $387,500, which was given to the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham as a grant fund for projects benefiting Tarrant, North Birmingham and Inglenook. Eleven local organizations received grants from this fund.

According to Jefferson County Department of Health records, the Tarrant plant violated clean-air standards again in August 2021 and April 2022, for which Drummond Company paid fines of $42,000 and $52,000, respectively.

Neither Bluestone Coke nor Drummond Company responded to Southern Science’s request for comment.

  • An orange train travels through a crossing at a two-lane residential street. Behind it, several gray industrial buildings are visible.
  • Behind a chain-link fence, a yellow construction crane sits among piles of gravel and other materials for creating asphalt.

“The dirt is not the main issue,” Brown said. “… Putting some more dirt isn’t making me happy, because I still can’t grow a garden, I still can’t go and have a get-together.”

When Brooke patrols Five Mile Creek to sample the water quality, he always sees black-brown water running into the creek from the coke plants that operate nearby.

“They discharge really disgusting wastewater in large quantities and on a regular basis,” Brooke said.

Powell believes replacing soil while industry is still polluting North Birmingham every day is inadequate.

“What sense did that make? None whatsoever,” he said.

While the Bluestone plant is closed, Powell and Brown said they’ve noticed better air quality and less odor in the neighborhood, “so that’s a blessing,” Powell said. But they won’t rest easily until its closure is permanent.

“The community in general, they always want us to do more, which is fine. They’re really big into wanting to revitalize,” Patel said.

“Putting some more dirt isn’t making me happy, because I still can’t grow a garden, I still can’t go and have a get-together.”

Keisha Brown, Harriman Park resident

Hansen said recovery from decades of industrial contamination requires a “more holistic approach.” It’s not just about replacing the soil; living in a contaminated neighborhood has also depressed property values and driven out businesses at the same time as it has sickened neighbors.

“I know one of the biggest complaints that residents have is they feel like there’s a stigma to living in an area that’s called a Superfund,” he said. “… People feel like it’s never going to be redeveloped if that stigma remains.”

Grants and other opportunities for revitalization are a major part of the picture when it comes to rebuilding North Birmingham, Hansen said. And the city of Birmingham, since its history of redlining property segregated majority-Black communities near heavy industry in the first place, bears some of the greatest responsibility, in Hansen’s view.

“So the city, I think, has one of the biggest obligations of all to right the wrong,” he said.

Allen said that’s a pattern that is repeated all across the country: zoning has pushed minority and impoverished communities next door to pollution. There are 9,000 federally subsidized housing developments across the nation, including Collegeville Center, located close to Superfund sites.

“You can’t erase decades of racially restrictive zoning. This has been happening for a very, very long time and in some ways it still is,” she said.

A brick two-story elementary school, with a metal awning over the sidewalk.
Hudson Elementary School in North Birmingham. Photo by Sydney Cromwell.

While some people want to stay in their neighborhood, either because they want to redevelop it or because it’s simply been their home for so long, others feel the only way to go is out.

“North Birmingham is dead. It’ll never be another thriving community now,” Powell said. “… They ain’t going to have any reason to have any business going back into North Birmingham again.”

Brown agrees: “The long-term is over. … The neighborhood is over. It’s just barely existing.”

That’s why Powell and Brown, among others, want the EPA, state or local sources to provide funding to relocate residents out of the Superfund site, or compensate them for the value their homes would have if they weren’t sitting on contaminated land. 

“Those of us who want to leave should be able to leave and choose where we want to live… and that’s more than fair,” Brown said.

The Superfund properties, in Powell’s view, are only fit for industrial purposes anymore. He has repeatedly brought this concern to the Birmingham City Council.

“Would you live in that area?” Powell said.

Hansen agreed that the federal government or the city should provide assistance to those who want to move.

The EPA has funded temporary and permanent relocations for residents in certain Superfund sites. However, Patel said it’s rare, used for situations like the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, where homes were destroyed.

“Some community people do want to be relocated and others do not. It’s kind of like a split divide,” he said.

Black sludge and piles of coal ash, with several homes visible in the background.
The Kingston, Tennessee, coal ash spill. Photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons.

Relocation is chosen when there is an immediate health threat with no other feasible solutions, or when buildings are preventing an effective cleanup. Patel said the 35th Avenue site doesn’t meet that criteria.

James Pinkney, the EPA’s senior public affairs officer for Region 4, said that relocation compensation likely wouldn’t be the silver bullet those residents are wanting.

“If that was even an option on the table, they wouldn’t receive fair-market value for their properties. … I think it would put them in a worse economic position than they are now,” Pinkney said.

“You can’t erase decades of racially restrictive zoning. This has been happening for a very, very long time and in some ways it still is.”

Shauntice Allen, UAB environmental health sciences

Though the cleanup work is incomplete and the future of North Birmingham uncertain, Hansen said he has seen more engagement from the EPA and the city recently.

“I’m pretty optimistic that they’ve got the memo,” he said.

There are more conversations, but are the concerns of North Birmingham being listened to? “Yes and no,” Allen said.

“I don’t know if they are feeling heard. They are definitely speaking up,” she said. “… I think we’re getting there, but these problems certainly did not emerge overnight and so they’re not going to be solved overnight. It’s going to take a lot of trust-building and people showing up.”

Powell, on the other hand, still feels like local and state leaders are avoiding the tough but necessary conversations.

“Give my people some relief,” he said.

Main article image by Sydney Cromwell.

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