Something is very wrong in the Land of Cotton



Dr. Robert Bullard
Environmental Justice Movement Founder

Monday, July 11, 2011

Churnalism, Inc. and the North Birmingham Walter Coke Contamination

In an editorial from the Birmingham News on July 9, 2011, once again the editorial board missed the mark of accuracy, and either failed to gather the known facts or purposefully spun the the issue of the Walter Coke contamination in north Birmingham. Either way, the idea of verify first and print second is absent in our state media.

The editorial started out in the right direction and raised the importance of testing new and proposed school sites before construction begins. It's unthinkable that the Birmingham School Board and the City of Birmingham would embark on erecting a new school, especially in an area of years of heavy industry, without doing an environmental assessment first. They were forewarned about the existing problems as far back as 1989.

An ounce of prevention would have been well worth the proverbial pound of cure for students attending the Hudson K-8 school in Collegeville. The CBS 42 series "Deadly Deception" (DD) has been following the Walter Coke contamination story in north Birmingham for months now, and once again, print media is slow to catch up to the fast moving train of hard-hitting investigative reporting that CBS 42 has led with.

What makes the mistakes by the BNED so disappointing is that CBS' series has done the work for them, and all it takes to run an accurate editorial is to spend a little time looking through the video reports from Sherri Jackson and Ken Lass, lead reporters for the DD series. We wonder if they even bothered, based on their editorial, and hope that they did not rely too heavily on press releases and conversations with Walter Coke and Birmingham officials in forming their print opinion.

Here's what they got wrong:
"Walter Coke has been under an EPA enforcement order since 1989, so the agency can require Walter Coke to perform testing and cleanup, which the company is doing voluntarily now."
When you are under an enforcement order, clean up is not voluntary. It's ordered, as in you have to do this. Walter Coke has spit out the same angle; "we are doing the remediation on our own motivation to be a good neighbor." 
"-- arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or benzo(a)pyrene -- are associated with Walter Coke," said the EPA's Brian Holtzclaw, although a spokesman for the company said they can come from a number of sources, "even nonindustrial sources, other than us."
Still, Walter Coke is doing its part and voluntarily paying to replace soil at Hudson K-8 and residential properties in the area where high levels of contamination were found. 
'Voluntarily doing their part' is a repetition of repeating the illusion that the company is 'doing the right thing just because.' It's interesting they allow the company to slip in the possibility that 'something else' may be causing the contamination besides the coke plant that has been operating at that site since 1967. Walter Coke even went so far as to blame the residents in the area for some of the contamination in previous correspondence with the EPA, read: "non-industrial sources." CBS included those documents in their series, all it would have taken to find them was for someone on the BNED to bother to look.
While Birmingham school officials said they didn't know about the contamination and didn't conduct environmental tests, they should know better now.
Yes they should, but they did know and CBS 42 made that clear in their previous segments on DD. Birmingham School Superintendent, Dr. Craig Witherspoon knew about the contamination in 2010, according to a document from the EPA, and he did nothing to inform the parents despite being asked to do so. The City of Birmingham also had to know prior to construction because of the 1989 order from the EPA documenting the contamination in the area. Why is the editorial board unable to put two and two together and report it decorously?
The most recent soil tests at Hudson showed "unacceptable levels" of contamination, said Holtzclaw, which led Walter Coke to strip out six inches of soil, put down a vapor barrier, fill in with new soil and resod the contaminated area. Soil testing will continue. 
The contaminated soil can and should be replaced we agree, but if the source of the contamination persists recontamination of the 'new soil' is certain and inevitable. Considering that it took decades for action to begin on any remedial action, it's not a stretch to presume additional remediation will not be timely.
 "If the pollution is coming to the soil...you can clean up that individual soil. but it's still going to be getting dirty and polluted so you gotta look at the source of the air pollution."---Dr. Anne Turner-Henson. 
Despite the residents calling for the school to be closed, the EPA is incredulously claiming that's not necessary, and the residents remain unhappy with the over-their-heads technical speak coming from the Jefferson County Department of Health:
The level of chemicals found at Hudson doesn't warrant closing the school, Holtzclaw said, but the testing will continue. Meanwhile, the county health department is monitoring air quality to make sure the school and surrounding areas are safe. 
Completely glossed over and absent from the editorial was the statement of EPA official Holtzclaw who said he was "shocked" that the Hudson K-8 school was built on ground that the EPA had already deemed contaminated. As far as the surrounding areas being safe, that's wide open for debate too, and we'll put that monkey squarely on the back of the EPA who has a nasty habit of raising the levels of acceptable exposure to allow big polluters leeway.

Birmingham News writer Marie Leech included in her story the glaring problem that happens in Alabama and other states, about the lack of a federal mandate that cities test for contamination before building new schools:
For most states, including Alabama, "EPA has recognized over the years that there were no guidelines or oversight when it came to the safety of building school properties," Holtzclaw said.
That led the EPA in November to establish a set of voluntary guidelines for school sites that suggests site reviews, environmental reviews and public involvement.
Environmental testing before schools are built is not required in Alabama, officials say, which could lead to more problems like the one at Hudson. 
The BNED did take issue with the nonsense of not testing first, but why did they let the city officials who knew off the hook? If there is something upsetting in this whole ordeal that ought to rank high on the list, although the EPA and ADEM are the most deserving of harsh criticism because they knew first and did nothing for decades. The EPA added insult to injury and failed miserably in making recommendations "voluntary" not federal requirements. However, even if there had been mandatory guidelines, Alabama would have found some way to challenge the legality of it, preventing adoption of the rules until the lengthy legal battle ran it's course.
Bob Morgan director of capitol projects for city schools gets dangerously close to sounding like an utter incompetent when he feigns 'whadda ya want from me, nobody said anything': 
Morgan said several community meetings were held when plans for the new school were being drafted, and nobody raised any concerns.
"In fact, everybody in the community said they wanted a new school," he said. "As long as we have people living in the community and sending their children to school, we have to provide them a school to go to." 
No one in the community knew they were living in a carcinogenic soup Mr. Morgan or they would have raised the same concerns (and hell) they are raising right now. But the city and state knew. Did you know too? Is it appropriate for you to assign any blame to parents for wanting new schools for their children to attend? We cry foul on that and you too, sir.

The worst transgression continues to be the blase attitude of our media who fail to get the facts straight and present honest stories on matters of tremendous public interest in a timely manner. The information was there since 1989 why didn't anyone in the print media find it?

The new motto of the Birmingham News is "this is our story" and they've taken some flack from some who felt the motto would have been better suited to 'this is your story.' Many are now distrustful of the News and their trend in recent years of filtering news stories with a biased interest, slanted in favor of business, established politicians and deference for certain advertisers endeavors.

Their position seems to have shifted to a predetermined discourse on particular issues  that doesn't rock the boat too hard and create a spillage of revenue dollars. Or political tempers. 

What took them so long to offer an opinion about the contamination in north Birmingham, and once they did, why does the BNED 'voluntarily' swing at the issue with velvet gloves and allow Walter Coke, the Birmingham School Board and city leaders some leeway? We suspect it's rooted in the bending of news stories and editorials to fit news values, political interests and media logic--the new norm in the age of press releases from governmental and corporate propagandists permeating news rooms.

The end result is more 'churnalism' than journalism.

Children continually being exposed to deadly toxins and city leaders acting dangerously irresponsible is not an issue to come late to reporting on, and if you are going to be tardy, at least make every effort to be 'dressed appropriately' in accuracy.

Anything less is not the real story.
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  1. i'myourhuckleberryJuly 11, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Still snacking on those rusty nails and barbed wire I see. I expect nothing less.

    Who's been playing hide the information besides everybody? Or maybe a better question is has it been hiding in plain sight?

  2. The Birmingham News Editorial Board b-b-biased????
    Nah, not them.

  3. They are killing those people right in front of all of our eyes! How does this not register as a huge crime against humanity?
    Seven funerals in thirty days. And the city of Birmingham and Walter Energy don't close the factory, get rid of the ginormous coal piles or anything else I can see of consequence.
    We'll test and put your soil and wood back everything will be fine.
    Everything is NOT FINE! WHO CAN'T SEE THAT?

  4. What do you expect from the No Nuze rag?
    Integrity? Probably not. Truth in reporting? Nope we are fresh out of that too. All the news that's fit to print? Might be onto something there after all it is their story.

  5. Worst excuse for a paper ever, besides so many other Alabama rags that is! They don't REPORT, they REGURGITATE!

  6. All the news that's not fit to print unless we get an okay from the usual suspects first.
    Now there's a motto with reality.

  7. Television news is usually spineless, but I'm glad to see CBS 42 get the praise they deserve. And don't forget that it was 42 who shone light on the Jefferson County sewer scandal ages before it became too obvious for other news media to ignore any longer.

  8. I stopped reading them after that shake up they had a few years ago and Kathryn Bouma was run off. I ran across her a couple of times since and she couldn't even talk about it. Must have been bad is all I can think.
    They have systematically gotten rid of everybody good and what you have left is mediocre at best and worthless at worst.
    Pam Siddall is the darling one of the BBA and there's your end of any objectivity. Look at all the mess the city is in. It stands to reason the city newspaper is in a similar disarray.

  9. I think ADEM and Alabama Power put a bug in someone's ear to cut Bouma loose. She gave them so good hell while she was there. Great gal, great reporter.

  10. CBS 42 should get an award for their awesome reporting! Birmingham News not so much.

  11. I'm dumbfounded about the superintendent of schools being allowed to slide on suppressing the information to the parents of the children! There is no excuse for that!
    Who told the Birmingham News hands off so he can get his yearly 2% pay raise?

  12. Another brilliant move by the Birmingham Schools.
    BOE stands for Board of Extinction. They are idiots!

  13. Who brought Walter HQ to Birmingham? The BBA.
    The BBA throws a soiree' for News publisher Ms. Siddall as soon as she hits town. I like to think that was more of here's your orders ma'am get the picture instead of a party.
    The News is done, it's and obsolete out-dated model with no competition after the demise of the Post Herald.
    At least it is useful for fish wrapping.

  14. The best stories are human ones. For instance, go over to the area and find a resident or two who really has a poignant story to tell and print it.
    Forget the corporate and political bs and do a real story about a real person and how they are affected by corporate Birmingham. Don't make excuses or allow propaganda to enter into it. Be an advocate for the little guy.
    Now that's story that the people would like to read.

  15. I agree but let's not hold our collective breaths that will happen. It doesn't fit the corporate model of the News.

  16. You can blame a lot of the problem on the buyouts a few years ago that "500 years worth of experience" go.
    The News values profit over product and all the bells and whistles in the world on an old jalopy don't turn it into a corvette.
    The only thing that will end this huge vacuum in the local news area is the rise of another paper that places the appropriate value on honest reporting and investigative journalism. There's more than enough to investigate in Birmingham and Alabama. Who knows? There may even be a real worthy Pulitzer prize winner around, not some pseudo want to be.
    In the meantime, as much as the media elite denigrate them, bloggers have stepped into the gap quite nicely and are doing a tremendous public service to us all.

  17. Is it really a matter of cost that keeps newspapers from doing investigative journalism, media laziness or is it politically based?

    Longtime investigative reporter Laura Frank, in a 2009 piece for Expose, a PBS program on investigative journalism, wrote:

    The story line has been repeated time after time: The Internet is killing mainstream media, sending the Fourth Estate into record-breaking revenue declines. Online ads garner only a fraction of the dropping print revenue. When faced with cuts, investigative reporting is often the first target.

    Investigative journalism takes more time and more experienced journalists to produce, and it often involves legal battles. It ís generally the most expensive work the news media undertakes.

    But Frank found a different story in her investigation.

    She discovered that the push by newspapers for high profit margins that began in the 1990s led to cost cutting that severely limited the quantity and the quality of newspapers and, specifically, investigative reporting long before the advertising crisis hit.

  18. Yep and here is a prime example of the bias from the Birmingham News in today's paper by the very full of himself Joey Kennedy:
    "One of Witherspoon's best characteristics is he practices what he preaches. He said from the first day on the job that the top priority is the schoolchildren."
    Really? Witherspoon's first priority is the children? The same ones he knew were being exposed to toxins that he kept quiet about? Those children?
    Get off your high horse Joey Kennedy and stop with the hand clapping for this guy!
    Yeesh! What a useless rag of a newspaper!


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