North Birmingham coke plant violating air regulations as superfund cleanup continues

Your Voice Your Station

This is a Your Voice Your Station Special Report.

INDEPENDENCE DAY
July 04 2021 12:00 am

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Amid a large-scale EPA superfund cleanup of contaminated soil in north Birmingham, residents are also worried about what’s being emitted into the air from local plants.

After complaints from neighbors about different smells and air that’s difficult to breathe, a CBS 42 investigation revealed that not all nearby industries are compliant with EPA guidelines. Jefferson County Department of Health Director of Environmental Health Jonathan Stanton told us Bluestone Coke was issued a notice of violation of local and federal air regulations.

“We had some leaks there that we needed to address,” Stanton said.

Stanton said the violation has been active since July 2020. He explained the notice of violation process can take some time, and the department wants to ensure the fixes are long-term.

Bluestone Coke issued the following statement to CBS 42:

“Bluestone Coke has been working collaboratively with the Jefferson County Department of Health to resolve compliance matters that were brought to our attention in July 2020. Although Bluestone Coke is somewhat new to the Birmingham community, we value the city and our neighbors very much, and we will always strive to be a good, environmentally sound citizen.”

Stanton said ABC Coke was also in violation of air regulations. That case was settled earlier this year.
While residents we spoke with weren’t aware of Bluestone Coke’s violations, they say more needs to be done to reduce air pollution.

“You can’t even go down 35th,” neighbor Kiesha Brown explained. “You be nauseated. You shouldn’t be sick every day of your life. Most people out here take so much medication to function, if they don’t they’ll die.”

Brown has lived on the 35th Avenue Superfund her whole life. She told CBS 42 she’s watched friends and family die at the hands of environmental contamination.

“Like every week, we were having four or five funerals, people dying from cancer or lung diseases or things we had never heard of,” Brown said.

A superfund is a site with contaminated soil or groundwater that puts people at risk and needs cleanup. According to the EPA, cleanup of contaminated soil in North Birmingham began a decade ago, and is still ongoing.

The EPA site-coordinator told CBS 42 that out of about 2,000 homes, 1,970 have been tested for dangerous contaminants. Approximately 660 of those properties have unsafe levels. So far, contaminated soil has been removed at 562 of those sites.

That still leaves dozens of homes that need testing or possible cleanup, but the EPA said it’s not that simple. They’re still working on finding who owns these properties and asking permission to excavate the soil.

The main contaminants of concern are lead, arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene. According to the CDC, lead causes development issues in children and the other two chemicals can be cancer-causing.

The EPA told CBS 42 it is now in Stage 4 of soil cleanup, which could take another two years to complete. When it comes to air pollution, that’s mainly monitored by the Jefferson County Department of Health.

Stanton said over the years, the air quality in Jefferson County has improved and they’re always working on ways to make it better.

CBS 42 reached out to Rep. Terri Sewell’s office regarding the latest on the political efforts involving the 35th Avenue Superfund.

Her office issued this statement to CBS 42:

“The North Birmingham community has suffered from environmental injustice for decades. For too long, companies took advantage of minority communities and their neighborhoods, leaving community members to deal with the effects of pollution and toxic substances for generations.

As we build back better from COVID-19 and look toward making big, bold investments in our infrastructure, it is critically important that equity remains our priority. Building a more equitable future will require significant investments to address environmental injustices in underserved communities. To achieve justice, we need to hold polluting companies accountable, provide resources for clean-up, and promote economic revitalization where needed.

In Congress, I support strengthening the Superfund program and restoring the expired taxes on polluting companies so that communities like North Birmingham get the resources they need. I will continue to work with Mayor Woodfin, local officials, and community leaders to complete the cleanup effort in North Birmingham and make sure that equity and environmental justice are at the center of any infrastructure package considered by Congress.”

By: Landon Wexler

Following CBS 42’s YOUR VOICE YOUR STATION report on the North Birmingham neighborhoods the superfund site has affected over the years, we learned from the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) how to best report a situation.

“Call us first because time is critical,” Director of Environmental Health for JCDH Jonathan Stanton said.

He said once they get a call, the Department of Health will try to get to the site that same day.

“Call the Health Department, call JCDH, because we are the air permitting authority here in Jefferson County. We are the person that makes the determination about compliance and things like that,” said Stanton.

For those who live around a Jefferson County industrial site and have questions:

“We’ll gladly talk with you, give you any information that you need to learn about the facility. And then you can become an active participant in this process. That’s very important for residents to know,” said Stanton.

If you would like to get in contact with the Jefferson County Department of Health, you can call 205-930-1276.

You can also visit them in at their Downtown Birmingham office at 1400 6th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233.

The EPA released a document that details soil sampling activities and how you can help.

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