35th Avenue Site North Birmingham, Alabama Source: ATSDR North Birmingham Air Site Fact Sheet

By Kaley Beins

It has been well established that low wealth and minority communities are subject to greater risk of industrial pollution. The factories and manufacturing plants that pollute these neighborhoods drop the market value of homes, making them more affordable for lower income families. However, these families rarely have the money necessary to fight the legal and political battles with the plants over the ubiquitous industrial pollution that puts their community at risk. North Birmingham, a predominantly black community with a median household income that is over 50% lower than Alabama’s average, has been trying to address ongoing soil and air pollution from the surrounding factories for over 10 years.

Source: EPA TRI Chemical Release Fact Sheet North Birmingham, AL

Walter Coke, a subsidiary of Walter Energy that produces coke for furnaces and foundries, has a plant in North Birmingham that pollutes the surrounding neighborhood. Studies from the EPA and ATSDR have found high levels of arsenic, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the soil and particulate matter in the air. Children are at risk from playing in their own backyards and studying in their schools, asthma patients may have heightened reactions, and the likelihood of cancer in the area is elevated.

EPA’s recommendation? Wash children’s hands when they come inside. Eat a balanced diet to dilute potential lead poisoning. Limit time outside if the air pollution seems problematic. Hope that you don’t get cancer.

CHEJ’s Lois Gibbs and Teresa Mills worked with the Birmingham community organizers to help advocate for separating themselves from the EPA and Walter Coke agendas. EPA’s 2011 letter used CERCLA (the Superfund Act) to explain their authority to have Walter Coke mitigate the pollution, and Walter Coke has cleaned up 24 sites of high risk soil pollution, but this is only the beginning of the steps necessary to address the community’s needs.

Currently CHEJ Science Director Stephen Lester and Science Intern Neggin Assadi are reviewing the soil pollution data and studying the connection between the Walter Coke pollutants and the elevated toxin levels in the soil of neighborhood yards. The ATSDR is also reviewing soil samples from 2012 to 2015 for another study, while maintaining that both the air and soil quality have improved as a result of past clean up efforts.

But the residents of North Birmingham shouldn’t have to wait for yet another ATSDR study. As Mr. Chester Wallace, President of the North Birmingham Community Coalition puts it, “The air quality’s not good for the people in the neighborhood, and we hope that the polluters can find a way to right that.”