Something is very wrong in the Land of Cotton



Dr. Robert Bullard
Environmental Justice Movement Founder

Sunday, May 1, 2011

CBS 42 Investigates "Deadly Deception" Sloss/Walter Energy Contamination in North Birmingham

*Updated 5/17--We hear that there are two more lawsuits in the works against Birmingham industries with one that may be filed in the next two days.

CBS 42 reports on the results of a four-month long investigation into the decades long contamination of a northern Birmingham area and the assigned culprit--Walter Energy aka Walter Coke, Inc. But is there another company more responsible for the toxic assault that is off the radar of the EPA and the CBS 42 investigation? And why did it take more than two decades for any action to begin to clean up the contamination?

North Birmingham has long been the site of some of Birmingham’s heaviest and dirtiest industries--steel manufacturers and the coal and coke companies (Sloss, Walter Energy, Drummond ABC Coke) that work hand in hand with them. These industries are situated in areas that are overwhelmingly black and economically challenged, long the favored prime targets of environmental injustice by corporate Alabama.

In this story, CBS 42 focuses its investigation into a deadly issue that has gone on for twenty-two years, since 1989, according to EPA and state environmental agency documents (ADEM) that the investigative team uncovered. Cancer rates in this area of Birmingham are abnormally elevated, along with higher than normal for the city as a whole cardiac and respiratory illnesses.

What’s poisoning these people is obvious, but what’s not so obvious is the motivation to keep quiet, and deny these residents important public health information that some of the leaders of Birmingham and the EPA, along with ADEM, knew about and did not tell the citizens they are charged with representing and projecting.

Instead, what’s happened is all of these entities have protected the corporate interests before the people’s interests resulting in completely preventable extrinsic factors that have caused a spike in sickness and deaths here. One could say it’s a form of murder by omission, defined as “a duty to perform a particular act and the defendant knows (and consciously accepts) that their failure to act would probably result in death or grievous bodily harm.”

Who knew it and when did they know it?

As we stated above, and according to CBS 42, the EPA and ADEM knew in 1989 there were known carcinogens in the area from Sloss, (now Walter Energy) and nothing began to happen to correct it until the EPA came back into the area in 2009. The investigation reports that letters to the nearby community of Riggins did not go out from the Birmingham School system until April 6, 2011.

On March 21, 2011, a town hall meeting was held that was unrelated to the contamination with Birmingham Mayor William Bell, School Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon and other officials. Walter Energy had already started removing soil from the Opportunity Center at Riggins and the residents began asking questions of Bell and Witherspoon, whose answers were less than truthful:
Witherspoon--”We met with the EPA…the levels are good. I’m not sure on that, that’s something we’ll have to check on.”
Bell--”I hadn’t heard that they had been involved (referring to Walter Energy), but we’ll check on that.”
The investigation team shows a letter from the EPA dated October 2010, indicating the EPA had previously met with Dr. Witherspoon and his staff to discuss the results of the soil testing. The results weren’t good and showed levels of toxic chemicals above regulatory limits for human exposure. Additional meetings took place in April and May of 2010 to discuss the results.

Dr. Witherspoon knew, but he claimed to these residents he did not. He lied, willfully and purposefully. As for Mayor Bell, it is possible he did not know, but we highly doubt it.

Mayor Bell was in a very contentious race in the last election and the bulk of his campaign contributions came from the corporate community, similar to his days as a city councilman for Birmingham. Bell had one large expenditure to the political hit team of the notorious Matrix Group, and the mere presence of Matrix always signals political hard ball to the extreme, covert operations and corporate collusion.

In other words, Bell is beholden to special interests first and foremost and therein lies his misplaced loyalty and irresponsibility to his constituents. He should be held publicly accountable for his inaction in this matter. Witherspoon should be out of a job and investigated for knowingly keeping this information from the public.

Mayor Bell, in our opinions, is sleeping with the enemy, an enemy he will protect before his people. He’s not motivated to go against his corporate gifters even when those same interests are causing residents in his city to get sick and die because of industrial poisoning.

Birmingham spokesman for schools, Michaelle Chapman (11:59 mark in the video) didn’t help this situation with her air of indifference and foot in the mouth interview for the news segment by saying things like this:
“I’m not aware of what was done there (regarding the school site), I just learned of that…”
“We send information when we have the information that we believe the people need to know about.”
“What we believe the people need to know about.” That speaks volumes about the total lack of judgment and maybe an orchestrated campaign to hide vital information of great concern to the affected population.

Chapman was asked “What can parents count on you doing?” Her response is very disturbing to hear and watch:
“That we…I don’t kn--…please don’t…turn the camera off!”
Clearly she was frustrated, caught off guard and in no mood to deal with hard questions. Maybe she needs to find another job better suited to her attitude, such as a correctional officer.

Walter Energy spokesman, Walter Monahan claimed the company was doing the testing and soil removal "simply because they are being good neighbors” and blamed the tar on the roof of the Riggins building for that specific site contamination. The EPA spokesperson cast doubt on the "good neighbor" claim and debunked Monahan's spin by stating "the facility is under an Administrative Order...of testing, evaluation and cleaning."

We found an Administrative Order from the EPA that revealed the serious contamination was known even before 1989. ADEM and EPA Region IV knew in 1986:
Page -8-
Samples from those wells (GWM wells) collected by ADEM on April 17, 1986 as part of a Comprehensive Monitoring Evaluation. Analyses of groundwater samples taken from these wells revealed the following hazardous waste constituents:
Well #1--chromium (over primary drinking water standards), phenol, copper, cyanide and arsenic.
Well #2--chromium (over "), arsenic (at a concentration of more than twice that of any other wells), and copper.
Well #3--flourene, phenanthrene and cyanide.
(Results continue through Well #6)
The order also states that US EPA Region IV collected samples on February 11, 1986 that were equally alarming.

Walter Coke did their own testing in 2009 and the predicable blame the residents game and it's not our company's fault came out in force:
Local industries probably have contributed to the presence of arsenic and cPAHs in the neighborhoods due to the following:
  • Birmingham’s rich industrial history
  • Local industries in proximity to the neighborhoods
Historical and current residential activity also has contributed to the presence of arsenic and cPAHs in the neighborhoods. These include the following:
  • Historic use of coal for residential heating in the neighborhoods
  • Residential yards used as driveways
  • Use of pesticides and/or treated lumber in yards
  • Storage of household chemicals in yards
On the basis of the data and their evaluation, there is no clear indication that the arsenic and cPAHs found in the neighborhoods are attributable to historic or current operations of the Walter Coke facility.
The EPA in 2010 did not agree with their conclusion, and performed their own tests leading us to where this is now in 2011, and Walter Coke still trying to save face with the "good neighbor" ploy.

The "Main Enforcement Order" that was applied to the company in May of 1989, three years after known contamination was occurring, could have stopped this, ADEM & EPA Region IV could have stopped it, but instead of meaningful action being taken back then, toxic contamination was allowed to go on for decades unchecked.

This has been a long campaign of ineffectiveness, hands-off, cover up and skirting responsibility that defies logic that is all too commonplace in Alabama. It's truly “Deadly Deception” by all involved with a high price for these north Birmingham residents.

We applaud CBS 42 for revealing this story, but we have to wonder why Walter Energy is the only violator targeted when they are not listed as the first culprit causing contamination to this area:
Why is there no mention of Drummond in this investigation?

And wouldn't the lawsuit filed against Drummond for "Filthy Lucre" by other residents in North Birmingham, that we wrote about in an earlier post, be a compelling addition to the CBS 42 investigation?

The answer is yes, but what's the answer for the omission of the parallel story and the number one polluter?

The coal and coke companies in north Birmingham are not going to change their way of doing dirty business, and in ten years or less (if the EPA bothers to come back) this story will repeat itself.

A large majority of these residents will assume everything will be fine after its been 'cleaned up', the company will follow the rules since they were caught, and there's nothing else for them to worry about.

However, the sources of the contamination will still be there, protected by the non-existent enforcement of ADEM against the state's biggest industry giants, who will continue to allow unabated and unchecked pollution to occur, and make a lot of profit for the state coffers while looking the other way.

And isn't that the true "Deadly Deception?"

*Link to EPA database "RCRA Community Engagement Outreach related to Walker Coke, Inc. Facility"

*Note--if any links to EPA documents do not function, please let us know, we have the documents saved.
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  1. Lots of blame to go around on this one, stretching back for years. The pesky provision in Alabama law about exposure time limits won't help and that is precisely what the legislature, corporations and legal machine had in mind when it was added to the state constitution.
    I would say it is time for more lawsuits though and more media coverage on it, if you can wake them up that is.

  2. Hate to say it, but the general consensus in Alabama among the haves vs the have nots is this is the price of doing business.
    Lilly white corporate Bama does not care about it's poor and people of color.

  3. I saw that story sandwiched between tornado coverage, am glad they did it, but where is the rest of the press on this? Particularly the Birmingham News? This is right in their backyard. Literally.

  4. A case for Region 4 ineptness if ever there was one.
    Shame on you!

  5. Do you get the idea that the name Drummond strikes fear into some minds and that's why they're left alone about what they do in Alabama? And they do plenty, all of it as dirty as possible on every level.
    Or is it because of the strength of the campaign cash Drummond hands out?
    Maybe a little of both?
    Alabama has a dark history with coal, one they apparently insist on keeping going.

  6. OMG where did they get that God awful mess of a woman from??? She's supposed to be a spokesman???
    She's an idiot and a mean one at that!
    She must be the token white woman.

  7. She's a former Post Herald writer, hails from Louisiana I think, hooked into the Arrington crowd and 'friendly' in more ways than one rumor has it.

  8. Perfect place for her if you ask me in the corrupt beyond repair Birmingham school system.
    She is one hot mess.
    I agree that channel 42 should not have glossed over the culpability of the other polluters. Neither should the EPA and ADEM.
    Surely an 'investigative team' would have run across the Drummond angle, but then again maybe not. A team is only as good as the sum of its parts. Maybe they'll do some future reporting and get the story right.
    Good start so far though. Better than most in Alabama considering.

  9. I found it amusing and appalling that the school board sent notices home with the kids rather than telling the parents. The parent in the video made a good point about that.
    Wonder which genius made that call?

  10. Very disturbing..

  11. Witherspoon would be smart to go ahead and get a lawyer, because he can and should get in some serious legal trouble for this!

  12. It doesn't seem much different to me in modern day Alabama as it was during the early industrial age in the state, Birmingham in particular, when the Big Mules ruled the land and every politician in it.

  13. Five Mile Creek has been devastated by Drummond and Sloss and back in 2002 when there was a push to classify the creek as Fish & Wildlife, a step up from Agriculture & Industry, Sloss and Drummond protested it asking for a stay.
    They got it with a little help from the way to involved with EMC and ADEM law firm of Balch & Bingham.
    Of course ADEM and the EMC Commission were only too happy to help:
    The Committee then considered the Joint Legislative Committee of Administrative
    Regulation Review’s proposal to delete a recent amendment to Ala. Admin. Code R. § 335-6-11-.02 that modified the water use classification of Five Mile Creek in Jefferson County.

    That amendment, rejected by the Committee, changed the classification from Agriculture & Industry to Fish, Game & Wildlife.
    The Commission agreed unanimously to return the classification of Five Mile Creek to the Agriculture & Industry use classification.
    Following this development, Sloss Industries Corporation and ABC Coke withdrew their request that the Commission stay those regulations that had previously classified Five Mile Creek as Fish & Wildlife.
    Alabama Environmental Management Commission Meeting June 25, 2002 Balch & Bingham Environmental Update PDF
    Two law firms are are at war with reform for environmental protection: Maynard, Cooper & Gale and Balch.
    Which begs the question of why there are any staff lawyers for ADEM, because the defacto law firms are the two named above.
    It's a serious conflict of interest to represent some of Alabama's biggest polluters and be so intimate with the state regulatory agencies, in addition to the political system of the state.
    It stinks to high heaven and is corrupt to its core.

  14. CBS 42 did do a documentary in 2009 "Poison in the Air" and it won the Edward Morrow award.
    They did mention Drummond, but it was only a brief mention.
    They certainly could have mentioned it again in the "Deadly Deception" program, especially since Drummond is the top polluter of the OCR.

  15. There will be a 1 hour documentary airing on 42 in early August that includes Drummond, ACIPCO and Walter Coke.

  16. ANON--

    That is excellent news!

    We'll be watching for it and hope that they'll provide an embed for the airing.

    CBS 42 deserves high praise for their exemplary coverage of these kinds of issues that most media outlets refuse to deeply investigate.

    Readers, please let CBS know what you think about their reporting. This is not an environmental issue as much as it is a public health issue. Think about it.


  17. Is there any information out there on what the EPA did between 1989 and 2009? Why the two decade gap between the consent decree and EPA testing?

  18. That's a good question. Why don't we add what was ADEM and Jefferson County Dept. of Health and city officials doing for twenty years too?
    Looking the other way maybe? Not caring probably? Acting irresponsibly DEFINITELY!
    That's really a huge tragedy going on in Collegeville that somebody better get a handle on.


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