By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

Nina Morgan is a Climate and Environmental Justice Organizer with the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) in Birmingham, Alabama. Morgan fights for communities located near heavy industry that are suffering from pollution-related illnesses like asthma and cancer. These communities have been unlawfully restricted to these unsafe areas due to a history of racially discriminatory zoning laws.

Morgan and her family have a long history with Alabama. She was raised in the small rural town of Sipsey. It was and is a historic coal mining community located near Mulberry Creek which is a tributary to the Black Warrior River. The mine was always in and out of operation. It was not unusual to feel the ground shaking beneath your feet. As a child, Morgan thought it was exciting to feel the rumbling, but would later understand the consequences, struggles, and stress the rumbling would cause on her family. The stress of surviving while having to deal with a house that is about to fall to the ground was prevalent for her family and those in the community. Panels on the roof would fall and even the foundation would crack. To further the stress, it was common for folks to refuse to drink the tap water in fear that it was contaminated by the nearby mining. Ironically, as a child Morgan would visit the McWane Science Center, not realizing until much older that the same company that owns the science center owns the surface mine in her hometown.

Like many who grew up in small towns, she wanted to get out and experience new things. This led her to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she received a degree in anthropology and sociology. As a college student she was extremely involved in campus activities. She was in the Black Student Awareness Committee and held rallies and began organizing. Morgan moved away from campus organizing when she got involved with the Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter where she was surrounded by older, more experienced, radical organizers. She learned how to be an effective grassroots organizer at the community level, and this put her in the trajectory of where she is today. At just 26 years old, she is now the Climate and Environmental Justice Organizer at GASP.

“I kept showing up, kept building relationships, kept getting involved, kept surrounding myself as a young person around other people who knew more than me… [I] developed a kind of community of folks.” 

When asked about some of the most effective ways of organizing, Morgan said to speak from experience. She shares how her community has been impacted by pollution, the story of the 35th Avenue Superfund site, and the stories of those who live across the street from the coke plant. 

“Telling the stories is really, I think, one of the most important things. I think we’ve seen in just the political arena right now you can throw facts, you can throw numbers at people, but if you don’t kind of tell stories in a way that makes people feel you and where you’re coming from and people’s lived experiences then things don’t change…conversations just don’t cut it with some of these people, and that’s when you kind of have to take direct action and use that to try to amplify the fights on the ground and the things that people are going through and being impacted by, because it polarizes the public and forces a conversation.”

GASP, like many others, struggled to organize during COVID. Organizing heavily depends on face to face interactions. In a unique way of amplifying their voice, working with PANIC and Charlie Powell, they set up the “Right to Breathe” caravans in Birmingham. The caravans were a way to take action and keep the issue alive in a safe way. People who saw the caravan waved and encouraged them to keep fighting. At the end of the caravan there was a drive in rally with speakers and spoken word. Additionally, a caravan went to Montgomery in order to get Governor Kay Ivey to respond to the community’s concerns and to put pressure on her because she has the power to push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to put the 35th Avenue site on the National Priorities List. It also connected COVID to environmental justice since the coke plant is emitting pollution during a time where those impacted by air pollution are more likely to die from COVID. 

Another way Morgan and GASP helped members of the community last year, and an effort they are continuing this year, was by creating pop-up markets across the street from the coke plant. At the beginning of the COVID crisis in the United States, because of hoarding, many did not have food or cleaning products. The market was used to distribute PPE and make sure people had access to canned goods and fresh produce. The market also served as an information distribution site, a way to stay in contact with members of the community, and a way for neighbors to catch up in a safe way. Although the help that GASP is providing is astounding and goes above and beyond, their work also demonstrates the failure of the city, state, and agencies to help their constituents in a time of need. 

GASP, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, redefined the terms of a consent decree that addresses ABC Coke’s exceeding limits of benzene emissions. Previously, the decree agreed to by the Jefferson County Board of Health (JCBH) and the EPA with the Drummond Company was insufficient. Because of GASP and the Southern Environmental Law Center’s work, the Drummond Company will need to follow a Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) program. Additionally, the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) will need to issue its share of the civil penalty ($387,500) to be managed by the Community Foundation. The foundation will provide grants for projects benefiting the public health of affected communities. Although this is a win, and people are happy that something is being done to fight back against the polluter, some believe they deserve more.

“People deserve more. You can’t put a price on a life. What value can you put on a plant that is, first of all, polluting in a community and exceeding the levels of emissions that they’re supposed to be polluting under the Clean Air Act…How can you put a price on life?”

Morgan and GASP are going above and beyond to help those in their community live in a better, safer, and cleaner environment. 

“We’re in this together so let’s amplify each other’s stories about environmental injustice, environmental racism, and the failure of the state to protect us.”