By: Leija Helling, Communications Intern
This summer, community organizers in Birmingham, Alabama, coordinated a series of caravan protests calling for racial and environmental justice at the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham.
Communities living in and around the 35th Avenue site are facing decades of unabated industrial pollution, and after years of fighting for the EPA to intervene, people are tired of waiting. The contaminated area, encompassing three predominantly Black North Birmingham neighborhoods, was designated a Superfund site almost a decade ago due to high levels of lead and carcinogens such as BaP and arsenic, yet the community has seen little response from officials since. Meanwhile, coke oven plants, steel production facilities, asphalt plants and quarries continue to pollute the land, water and air, exacerbating health disparities.
“We are just going to have to start taking to the streets like everybody else,” said Charlie Powell, founder and president of the advocacy group People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC). On July 11, members of the Right to Breathe Caravan gathered for a socially distanced rally where speakers shared stories and enumerated demands, most importantly calling for officials to move the site to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List. Afterwards, the group drove dozens of cars decorated with signs and posers through neighborhoods in North Birmingham to raise awareness about the problem and galvanize the community into action. The events were live-streamed via Facebook and Zoom.
PANIC coordinated the protests alongside the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) and other local partners including the Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter. According to GASP executive director Michael Hanson, the caravan was largely inspired by protests and calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. Hanson says the global movement provided an opportunity to “highlight the way that environmental issues intersect with systemic racism and oppression.”
On Aug. 27, a second Right to Breathe Caravan traveled from Birmingham to Montgomery, the state capital, seeking a response from Governor Kay Ivey to their demands for justice for those living in and near the Superfund site. PANIC and GASP have been requesting a meeting with Gov. Ivey for months with no response, and she has yet to take a public stand on the issue. So, organizers, residents and their allies took matters into their own hands and drove to the Governor’s Mansion, seeking her support. With racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic further highlighting the need for racial health equity, the community needs remediation more than ever. “This is an environmental injustice, and we want relief,” Powell said.