The EPA Superfund cleanup and ABC Coke’s proposed air emissions permit have dominated health concerns of residents in northern Birmingham neighborhoods for months. Now officials and residents of several neighborhoods there are attempting to form a coalition to broaden the concerns to other sources of possible pollution.
The flash point of the new effort is a scrap metal processor’s business license. The license was denied by a unanimous Birmingham City Council vote in March, but the owner successfully appealed the case in Jefferson County Circuit Court, which compelled the city to grant the license.
Catherine Evans, president of the Acipco-Finley Neighborhood Association, and City Councilman John Hilliard led a meeting Saturday of about 30 people, including officers of some other neighborhood associations, to discuss how to proceed after the court decision and how to meet concerns over respiratory illnesses and other health effects possibly related to industrial pollution throughout the largely African-American and low-income area.
Several people at the meeting called attention to the negative health effects of living in the North Birmingham community.
“I don’t care what side of town you live on, what organization you belong to, what neighborhood you’re in, we all are affected (by polluted air). I can tell you when I start smelling it, I cannot breathe, and pollution is injustice,” says Gwen Webb, president of Inglenook Neighborhood Association.
The combination of poverty and air pollution has long been associated with a higher risk of health problems and mortality. An increasing number of recent studies, including some funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, have determined that people of color are exposed to higher levels of some air pollution and that vulnerable populations – including minorities, women, low-income people and the elderly – have a higher mortality risk.
“We’ve invited neighborhoods to come together to combine our efforts to meet problems of pollution in our area,” said Acipco-Finley resident Marsha Forrest, who helped organize the event at the North Birmingham branch library. “Acipco-Finley residents have taken a beating over the years, and we have surrounding neighborhoods that are taking a beating – Hooper City, Collegeville, Fairmont, Harriman Park, Enon Ridge, Evergreen and North Birmingham among them.”
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Carole Smitherman on Nov. 11 ordered the city to approve the license application of Jordan Industrial Services, Inc., to operate at 125 Finley Ave. She said the property was properly zoned and an adjacent business, Rather Recycling, had been issued a license to operate. In addition, a previous, similar business at Jordan’s location had held a license for many years. Jordan also operates a licensed metal processing business in Avondale.
For the city to issue a license to Rather but not Jordan “would be plainly arbitrary,” Smitherman found in her decision.
At both City Council and circuit court hearings, Evans, then neighborhood vice president, led a delegation of residents to protest issuance of the license to Jordan. The protests largely involved concerns about health of nearby residents being compromised by the burning of materials. But the owner of the new processing operation, Stephen L. Jordan, testified the only burning would be from the welding-type torch used in cutting the metals, much of which come from dismantled interstates and train cars. The resulting scrap metal is sold to industries such as Acipco, U.S. Steel, and Nucor Steel.
Smitherman noted that the Jefferson County Health Department had signed off on Jordan’s license application. The health report stated that no public health violations were found during an inspection of the facility, and industrial scrap would be processed “on a schedule that should not present a public health nuisance.”
According to the court order, the city’s inspection services, police and fire departments had recommended approval of the license application. The planning, engineering and permits department also concurred, stating the metal to be recycled would be “clean” scrap and no melting or burning would occur other than from torches used to cut the heavy metal. The business does not purchase residential scrap nor shred cars or grind metal.
Smitherman also noted that Jordan removed 35,000 tires and 12,000 tons of non-recyclable trash left on the property by the previous owner and constructed a new privacy fence.
At the Saturday meeting, Evans disputed the depth of the health inspection, saying she photographed evidence of open burning in off-hours. “They may have a million-dollar fence, but it’s what’s behind that fence that matters,” she said.
Hilliard acknowledged the court defeat but decried that the city’s legal department “was not interested in appealing the judge’s opinion.” Under the Mayor-Council Act, he said, the city’s departments answer to the mayor, not the council. “We’re trying to appeal that,” he said. “We need to be in a position where (they) answer to the council, which is really the people.”
Haley Lewis, an attorney with Gasp, a clean-air advocacy group prominent in the Superfund site and other issues, told the group that Jordan does not need an air emission permit from the county health department to operate if its emissions come only from use of a cutting torch. However, she urged everyone to use photos, videos, social media and written notes to document any signs of possible illegal burning or other pollution in their communities and send it to the health department as well as to Gasp for follow-up.
“It’s not necessarily foul play that the health department doesn’t say (Jordan) doesn’t need a permit, it’s just that these small facilities are all over the county” and officials don’t hear much about them unless someone complains, Lewis said.
While Jordan Industrial Services was the leading topic of the meeting, other businesses also were noted.
“We focus on ABC Coke and (its owner) Drummond, but there are scrapyards all over this area,” Tammy Smith, vice president of Acipco-Finley, said, mentioning one in Norwood. “What are they burning over there? There are never any improvements in north Birmingham as long as everybody thinks this is where they can dump what they don’t want. We are the industrial dumping grounds now.”
Smith added, “We get nothing but they want us to sit back and shut up. I’m saying, ‘Don’t shut up.” You can be radical in a decent dignified way.”
Evans said she was organizing a meeting of ministers concerned with environmental injustice to obtain additional buy-in to the idea of joining forces against pollution in the community. She also will chair a Feb. 28 meeting under the aegis of state Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, to discuss such public health issues. In addition, William Muhammad, a representative of the Committee to Save Jefferson County, said that organization would consider backing the effort.
Jefferson County commissioners Sheila Tyson and Lashunda Scales sent representatives to the meeting. Both voted against granting the Jordan license last year, when they were City Council members.
“This is an issue that will not die,” Hilliard promised the group.