By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Charlie Powell, of People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) in Birmingham, AL shared his experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership series. He has been fighting to get his community relocated since 2012 from toxic facilities.
Before moving to Birmingham, Powell was in Phoenix, AZ. Because his father was in the service and traveled, his family could not go with him. Around 1962, after his father was out of the service, the family relocated to Birmingham. Powell was 9 years old. He described life in Alabama at that time as “experimental.” There were dirt roads, and no running water, leaving them to drink out of wells and springs. He recalled that he was not aware of how poor they were because everyone around him was in the same situation.
Birmingham at the time was known as the Steel City of the South. There was an abundance of mills and refineries. The options, careerwise, were to get a job at at a facility, continue on with school, or go into service. Though, no matter what, a job at a facility was always guaranteed because more so than not, family members would also work in those same facilities. Working in these places was hard, dirty, and nasty work, as Charlie describes it. As protection workers would wear a suit, face mask, ear protection, a hard hat, elbow and knee pads, boots, and gloves. Even with all this, you could still get residue all over your face. Often, he would need to go to the doctor and get residue removed from his ears. To this day, Powell has marks on his arms from when he was burned while working. The working environment was so extreme that workers would bring raw chicken for lunch and put it near radiating heat, and by lunch time it would be ready to eat. Though, the chemicals that went into the food were most likely harmful to the workers’ bodies.
“It was a big health risk out there.”
Because the pay was good, and he held jobs that no one else wanted — leading him to never being laid off, Powell continued working at the facility despite harsh conditions. He had a car, motorcycle, and a boat that he never even put in the water. Charlie said, “They was killing me alive, but I had more than I had ever had jumping up coming out of school.” He believes if he were able to do it over again, he would have chosen to go to school in order to preserve his health. Money and job stability was a big incentive to keep working in these facilities, creating more harm than good by polluting workers and the community.
While in a truck with his brother, Powell realized he needed to get out of his current employment and go into truck driving as a safer alternative. After an explosion occurred at the plant that affected and injured many workers, Powell knew it was time to leave. Some of his colleagues that stayed after he left died after retirement as a result from working at the facility. The facility eventually shut down, not as a result of the explosion, but because of the numerous fines it was not able to keep up with. Even though it shut down, there are many facilities still in operation in Northern Birmingham today.
The chemical exposure in the community was intense. You could smell it. You could physically see it at night in what looked like fog but was actually chemicals. Cars had to be washed multiple times a week because of the buildup, and if you waited long enough, you would have to scrape it off. Cows that would graze near the facility would also get contaminated, and the community would drink their milk.
Powell did not realize how bad the contamination was until he started paying attention to the news. He then found out he and his wife were both positive for asbestos. His wife was later diagnosed with cancer twice, colon and liver. She is still battling to this day. Because of this, Powell has a personal vendetta and needs to fight. One day while truck driving, he had a delivery to the facility he previously worked at. He refused to deliver and told his supervisors he would never go back there again.
CHEJ’s own, Lois Gibbs, held a meeting in his community and said they needed a group to fulfill people’s needs. Charlie volunteered to lead the group, and in 2012, his wife came up with the name and PANIC was formed.
“It got silent in the room, and I don’t know why I did that, but I stood up and said that I’d take it on and from that day to this one PANIC was formed.”
After the creation of PANIC, Powell held a meeting with the neighborhood and asked what they wanted and what their needs were. Some wanted relocation and some just wanted compensation. And since then he has been fighting for both.
The soil on his property was 15 times the limit of contamination. It contained chemicals like lead, arsenic, and benzene from the plant. It was said that much of the dirt was actually field dirt placed in people’s lawns for aesthetic purposes such as filling holes. Though, this was not always the case as the contamination on Powell’s property was found in clay. The area where his property is located is known as the 35th Avenue Superfund Site.
There has been much corruption in Northern Birmingham. In 2017, one of the many people who were corrupt, former State Rep. Oliver Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery, tax evasion, and four counts of fraud. He received $360,000 from Drummond Company and the law firm Balch & Bingham to advocate against the site being put on the National Priorities List (NPL) and the clean up. Powell says the corruption should have been enough proof that the community should be relocated. The money used for the cover up could have been put towards clean up.
In the summer of 2020, 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. The next step for Powell is to get a response from Governor Kay Ivey to their demands for justice for those living in and near the Superfund site, and getting on the NPL. Powell has been told that getting on the NPL is not going to do any good, but he says to put the site on there anyways and let the community decide for themselves.