By Hank Black
The North Birmingham community made clear this week that it wants money from an ABC Coke pollution penalty to be used to create a trust fund to benefit residents in the surrounding area.
The Jefferson County Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would each get half of the proposed $775,000 fine, or $387,500 each, for the agreement that the Drummond Company facility mismanaged the carcinogenic chemical benzene in its byproduct recovery facilities.
A proposed consent decree outlining the company’s violation of Title V of the Clean Air Act was announced in February. Shortly afterward, Health Officer Mark Wilson told the Board of Health he hoped to use much of its award to benefit the affected neighborhoods.
That commitment was confirmed in a statement [see statement at bottom of story] today from Jonathan Stanton, director of environmental health services. Any civil penalty received as part of the consent decree “will be used for the public health benefit of communities in the vicinity of the ABC Coke facility,” according to the statement.
Stanton said the Jefferson County Department of Health “is an agency that is committed to transparency with the public and will discuss the funds with the community when the consent decree has been approved and the funds become available.” Legal fees would be paid from the settlement funds, he said.
State Rep. Mary Moore, other community members and the clean-air nonprofit group Gasp said during a news conference Monday that the health board should set up a trust fund for its share of the settlement, with community membership included on an oversight board.
Several community speakers called the settlement terms inadequate and blamed ABC Coke and other heavy industry in the area for damaging their neighborhoods with decades of pollution. Several also accused the county Health Department and other local officials of not doing enough to address pollution issues that they believe cause higher rates of lung disease, heart problems and cancer than in other areas of the county.
Health Department officials have said the county is in compliance with national standards for all emissions required to be tested under the Clean Air Act.
The century-old ABC Coke, the largest producer of foundry coke in the nation, and its byproduct facility are privately owned by Drummond Company and located in Tarrant, within a mile of the North Birmingham community.
A north Birmingham resident, Anna Brown, said, “The best thing (health officials) could do is place the money in a trust, build a committee that includes community people so we can have a say in how that money is spent. We are the ones suffering over here. We are losing family members (to pollution-caused disease). If we stay outside too long, you start having breathing issues.”
The proposed ABC Coke consent decree and fine has not been finalized. The EPA has extended the deadline for comments on the consent decree three times since lodging its notice in the Federal Register on Feb. 8. The current deadline is July 17.
The consent decree is a civil settlement involving Drummond, the county board of health, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice. Among other actions, Drummond agreed to undertake corrective action on benzene handling, institute additional training and increased specialized monitoring for benzene leaks.
The decree, which is before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, cites ABC Coke’s failure to adequately operate its benzene recovery and destruction control system; failure to visually inspect connections on seals for benzene control from at least 2007 through 2013; failure on numerous occasions to make initial repairs to certain leaks; and failure to maintain critical information about the benzene recovery system.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benzene is a byproduct of the coking process, captured and sold as an industrial chemical to make plastics, resins, synthetic fibers, rubber lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides
Kristin Bryant, outreach director of Gasp, agreed that a trust fund should be set up for the settlement to “allow the community to decide how the penalty paid by ABC Coke could be spent.”
Bryant also told the news media that the proposed fine should be larger. She pointed to other cases that garnered multimillion-dollar settlements.
Although crediting EPA and the health officials for bringing the benzene case against ABC Coke, she also pointed out the initial inspection that found the benzene leaks was eight years ago. In 2011, the EPA instituted a nationwide crackdown on the chemical and inspected coking sites handling of the substance. “ABC Coke feels free to have (benzene) leaks for years and did not think it was a smart thing to do to stop it because of people’s lives,” Moore added.
Moore accused industry and the Health Department of being “negligent” in controlling pollution that she said has decimated neighborhoods, including Harriman Park, where Monday’s news conference was held.
Stanton said the health department, the EPA and the Justice Department “invested a vast amount of resources, finances, and staff time to make sure the consent decree provides a valuable impact to the surrounding community.”
Harriman Park, as with much of the six North Birmingham neighborhoods, is heavily dotted with abandoned houses and illegal industrial and garbage dumps. The community center is across F.L. Shuttlesworth Drive from another coke plant, whose mountainous pile of waste material loomed high over the media gathering.
“When I grew up this was a middle-class neighborhood for blacks… When you came here you had to dress up because of the status of this neighborhood,” Moore said. “When I was a child this (waste pile) was not here, and we played out there.”
Moore noted the community center’s new playground, where a light film of soot sprinkled the equipment. “See how well the city has done this playground? They spent last year fixing it up, but most of the parents won’t even let their children come up here (because of air pollution).”
She added, “What we want is for our neighborhoods to be just like everybody else’s neighborhood – a place where we can live and breathe fresh air, a place where our children can come and play.”
The Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) is committed to continuing to promote the public’s health throughout Jefferson County. Jonathan Stanton it is with this in mind that the Department of Health in conjunction with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) invested a vast amount of resources, finances, and staff time to make sure the consent decree provides a valuable impact to the surrounding community. The Department continues to devote significant resources toward the fight for cleaner, safer air, which has been demonstrated by a drastic improvement in air quality.
The consent decree has already provided a valuable impact in resolving alleged violations of the Clean Air Act at ABC Coke’s facility in Tarrant, Alabama. This complaint comes from a national initiative on byproduct plants that was launched in 2011 regarding Coke Plants and refineries to protect the public’s health and to improve air quality.
In response to the findings by JCDH, USEPA, and the DOJ in the 2011 inspection and on-going settlement negotiations, Drummond initiated certain corrective actions at the coke byproduct recovery plant to address some of the alleged violations. Such actions included, for example, hard-piping and enclosing valves on the tar decanters, enclosing the benzene-toluene-xylene (BTX) decanter overflow pipe, hard-piping all of the facility’s condensate drip pots, and hard-piping a seal on a gas holder. During follow up inspections in 2014 and 2018, EPA and JCDH observed these corrective actions that Drummond had taken. A complete list of actions taken by Drummond prior to lodging of the Consent Decree are shown in Appendix B to the Consent Decree.
Even though not required as part of any regulation, the Department made an additional commitment to the community that any civil penalty that is approved by the Court and paid to the Department as part of the consent decree will be used for the public health benefit of communities in the vicinity of the ABC Coke Facility. This use of this fund will be discussed with the community once the funds are received and all relevant legal fees have been assessed.
The decree remains pending before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The JCDH is an agency that is committed to transparency with the public and will discuss the funds with the community when the consent decree has been approved and the funds become available.