Former Lawmaker’s Message Led to Concerns About Property Values

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The Jefferson County Department of Health will have hearings Thursday on a proposed renewal of the air emissions permit for ABC Coke in Tarrant.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM

Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson abruptly resigned his legislative seat last November. Recently he confirmed to WBHM that he is under investigation, following an Alabama Media Group report. The details of that investigation aren’t known, but reports suggest it’s tied to his interference with efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to test for contamination in his former district.

The stretch of quarries, rail lines, and smokestacks on the north side of Tarrant and Inglenook is where hundreds make their living, producing coke and other industrial goods.

But environmental groups say these factories emit toxins, polluting the air and the soil in communities around Hwy 79. Former State Rep. Robinson told residents that if the EPA were to declare their neighborhoods a Superfund site, property values would go down and that a cleanup could take at least 15 years.

Carolyn Cauthen, president of the Inglenook Neighborhood Association, says Robinson’s daughter spoke at one of their meetings, and lots of residents had concerns.

“What we were told and what was stated was that if the EPA come in and test your soil, then it would probably be hard to get loans or anything because it would make your property value go down,” Cauthen says.

It may hurt property values, but here’s the issue: a high-profile law firm, Balch & Bingham, paid Robinson $135,000 through a foundation in part to communicate with residents on the issue. That firm represents ABC Coke, a company environmental groups say is responsible for pollution in the area.

Robinson’s non-profit launched a campaign in 2015 that blanketed the community with pamphlets and signs. Robinson told residents that if they consented to EPA testing, they should demand another company test the soil at the same time to independently confirm results. Recent attempts to reach Robinson for comment were unsuccessful.

Michael Hansen, executive director of the environmental watchdog group GASP, says more residents would have allowed their soil to be tested had it not been for Robinson’s campaign.

“That was their goal to make people doubtful and fearful and question the EPA’s motives,” Hansen says.

 He says residents have a right to know their environment is safe.

That’s especially true “in historically disenfranchised communities like the low-income areas of North Birmingham, Tarrant, and Inglenook that are primarily African American communities,” Hansen says.

A 2016 EPA report said contamination levels in Tarrant and Inglenook showed no need for EPA intervention.

Arthur Blackwell, a retiree who lives in Tarrant, had his soil tested by the EPA and says results showed no contamination. He says the air there is better than what it used to be.

“Every once in a while I’ll get a foul smell,” he says, “but hell, I get that from the septic tank systems from any of the other places. But it’s nothing that’s detrimental to my health.”

The Jefferson County Department of Health monitors air emissions and says there are no current violations with industries around Tarrant and Inglenook. But environmental activists question whether the small amount of testing that has been done is enough to give a true picture.