What’s in the air in Fairfield? Health officials say it’s safe, residents not so sure

Your Voice Your Station

This is a Your Voice Your Station special report.

FAIRFIELD, Ala. (WIAT) — Neighbors in Fairfield are concerned about the air they’re breathing after U.S. Steel fired up its electric arc furnace last year.

Once dubbed the “Pittsburgh of the South,” the Birmingham area has long been known for its involvement in the iron and steel industry. The industry’s part in creating new jobs and putting Birmingham on the map is what ultimately made Central Alabama what it is today. However, over a century ago, people didn’t know the health and environmental impacts steelmaking would have in Alabama.

Over the last few decades, local health officials have said the air quality in the Birmingham area has gotten much better. However, environmental groups like GASP say the fight for cleaner air continues.

“It’s true that air pollution is better than it used to be, but better than it used to be is not a health standard,” GASP Executive Director Michael Hansen said.

With U.S. Steel’s electric arc furnace now in operation, residents told CBS 42 they have a lot of questions.

“We’d like to know the correlation between our health and the start of the furnace,” Fairfield resident Jessyca McKnight said.

McKnight, who lives 2 miles from the U.S. Steel plant, is one of several residents who have expressed concerns over what they call a “lack of transparency” from the Jefferson County Department of Health, which monitors emissions from companies like U.S. Steel. The company holds a Title V Major Source Operating Permit, which allows them to emit large amounts of potentially hazardous air pollutants.

Neighbors say they did not receive individual notices about the new furnace or information about the emissions. However, Jason Howanitz, senior air pollution control engineer for JCHD’s Air and Radiation Protection Division, said he and the county have been transparent.

“Every single permit that we do, we will send out public notices with a letter to all elected officials in the community, city council,” Howanitz said.

U.S. Steel sent the following statement to CBS 42:

“Community outreach measures included posting the public comment period at the Fairfield City Hall to help inform the general public. In addition, a copy of the public notice was provided to appropriate city and county executives and neighborhood associations.”

The concerns in Fairfield have grown to the point where resident Gilda Walker formed the Fairfield Environmental Justice Alliance.

“I’m coughing more, I’m using Kleenex like five boxes every two weeks or so,” Walker said. “Something is happening. I don’t know what it is, but something is happening. I was not coughing like this when I came to this city.”

Howanitz said JCDH’s Air and Radiation Protection Division has ensured that U.S. Steel’s emissions are in compliance with the EPA’s air quality standards, meaning the levels have been deemed as safe.

The JCDH also monitors harmful toxins like formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, particulate emissions and volatile organic compounds or “VOCs,” which are linked to cancer and other damaging health effects.

A 2020 from JCDH calculated that 114 tons of volatile organic compounds were emitted from U.S. Steel just last year.

From that report, the JCDH stated that more than 100 tons of particulate emissions (PM10 and PM2.5) were released from U.S. Steel. While these levels are all in compliance with the EPA, there’s some debate over whether the legal limits are really safe. Hansen said that given how dangerous particulate emissions are, it’s problematic.

“The thing about particulate matter and exposure to it that people need to understand is that there’s no real safe level of exposure to particulate matter,” he said. “Any amount that you’re breathing can be harmful to your health.”

For now, residents are hoping to just get more clarity on what’s happening in their neighborhood.

“We’re really concerned at the onset of this. If there is something we can prevent, we’d like to know now what we can do to prevent long-term illnesses to our community,” McKnight said.

Birmingham’s air quality is ‘amazingly’ cleaner than it was a decade ago, ADEM says

By Landon Wexler

Following CBS 42’s “Your Voice Your Station” report, CBS 42 asked the Jefferson County Department of Health, Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s air quality division and a recent American Lung Association report to see what the leading contributors to Birmingham’s air pollution are.

Jefferson County Department of Health’s Air Quality Division:

“One of the biggest contributors to air quality in Jefferson County is vehicle traffic,” Howanitz said..

It turns out, further state regulation on emissions is not the answer.

“We’ve just about put every restriction we can on energy,” he said.

ADEM Air Quality Division:

“By the nationally accepted definition, Birmingham has clean air all the way around,” said Ron Gore, director of ADEM’s Air Quality Division. “A lot of people think that air quality is not changing at all, or God forbid getting worse, that is not the case. Birmingham was so clean compared to what it was in the 60s and 70s – even compared to what it was 10 or 20 years ago.’

Gore said that considering how Birmingham used to be considered a poster child for pollution and now has “amazing” air quality, both the Jefferson County Department of Public Health and ADEM predict it will only get better as more electric vehicles replace those that run on fuel.

American Lung Association’s “State of the Air in Birmingham report 2021:

“[The State of the Air report} found that year-round particle pollution levels in Birmingham were lower than in last year’s report. The area was ranked 26th most polluted for year-round particle pollution (improved from 14th worst last year). Birmingham was ranked as one of the cleanest cities for short-term particle pollution, which means that there were no unhealthy air quality days for particle pollution in the area

You can download the full American Lung Association report on Birmingham’s air quality below:

If you’re worried about air quality in your neighborhood, there are ways you can stay informed. You can check the JCHD website for its air quality forecast and monitor for real-time levels of the contaminants in the air.

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