Sharing Stories of Local Leaders

The core of the Environmental Justice movement is powered by communities and local organizers. At CHEJ, we feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work with some of the most inspiring people organizing grassroots movements to restore health to their communities. Here, we want to highlight the stories of some amazing local leaders who are raising awareness for environmental issues in their communities.

Charlie Powell, People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC)

If toxic air was causing your friends and family to get sick and die from cancer, what would you do?

ABC Coke facility in Northern Birmingham

ERP Compliant Coke facility in Northern Birmingham

This is the terrifying reality Charlie Powell and other Birmingham activists have grappled with since 2009, when it became clear that toxic air in Northern Birmingham was making residents sick

The toxicity isn’t equal for the whole city, however: it is concentrated in four neighborhoods in Northern Birmingham: Harriman Park, Fairmont, Collegeville and North Birmingham. All four of these neighborhoods surround the ERP Coke plant, which produces high grade coke for industrial furnaces. 

Coke production is notoriously dirty, and the emissions produced are dangerous to inhale: it’s created by essentially baking coal. If a facility doesn’t have proper scrubbers and air purification technologies installed, exposure to emissions can result in cancer

When EPA and ATSDR surveyed the air and soil in 2009, they found elevated levels of arsenic, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The levels were so bad that EPA recommended families avoid planting gardens and for children to avoid playing outside, and for everyone to wash their hands when returning indoors. 

People were at risk from simply living their lives, and the EPA wasn’t doing anything more than recommending that people try to avoid the toxicity and hope for the best. 

However, for Birmingham residents like Charlie Powell, hoping for the best was a matter of life and death. Powell knew that he couldn’t stand by and watch his community suffer unfairly. It was personal— people were poisoning him, his family, his friends, and worst of all, the organizations that were supposed to be stepping in and stopping this were turning a blind eye.

 Powell’s fight represents the immense pain and suffering people faced with environmental pollution are confronted with, but also incredible strength of character for people who refuse to let unjust corporations take their lives. In the nine years since Powell began his fight, at least 10 of his friends have passed away from cancer, including the secretary and vice president of PANIC, and a city councillor. He’s 66, and is disabled and has breathing-related health problems. His wife, who came up with the name PANIC, was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. 

At this point, Powell is demanding that the EPA release the pain and suffering for the people of North Birmingham, and relocate them to a safe, pollutant free neighborhood. Currently, people are stuck: pollution has plummeted the values of people’s houses, and without this value people cannot afford to move. 

For Charlie, this brings back a painful history of segregation and redlining in Birmingham. In the 1960s, Birmingham was the center of the Civil Rights movement because of its intense segregation system. Today, this system is expressed as environmental racism: many of the Northern Birmingham neighborhoods with toxic air are the very same discriminated against in Birmingham’s racist zoning laws in the 1920s

“If the [the EPA] says the contamination isn’t that bad, then why in the hell don’t they stay here?” -Charlie Powell, president of PANIC. 

It seems like no coincidence that racism and Birmingham’s legacy of intense segregation have played a role in the inaction in Birmingham. Charlie Powell and the activists of Northern Birmingham have faced every roadblock imaginable, including a government conspiracy to falsify pollution data and squash protests from those who dared say otherwise.

The corruption even went as far as hiring a law firm to fight requests for contamination testing and hiring a lobbyist group to sew discord amongst activist groups. However, Powell refused to be silent, and despite everything he was up against continued spreading the word about PANIC and the horrors occuring in his community.

Powell and Northern Birmingham’s tenacity began to pay off when last fall, the former EPA Region 4 Administrator and Alabama’s environmental commissioner were indicted under multiple counts of violating Alabama’s Ethics Act.

Last month, Powell, Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) and CHEJ met with the mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, to ask that he send a letter requesting the 35th Avenue Superfund site be placed on the National Priorities List. Woodfin agreed, and so the process of getting justice for Birmingham is moving forward.

Powell hopes that this will mean relocation for himself and his loved ones. While it may be too late for many, he hopes that he can protect future generations from experiencing the extent of the suffering he, his wife and countless others have been through.

“All we ask is to release the pain and suffering. If you know better, you should do better,” Powell said.

What are coke oven emissions and how are they making Northern Birmingham’s air toxic?

– Coke is produced by burning coal in a high temperature oven to create pure carbon. It’s used in the steel production process.

– Chronic exposure to coke oven emissions is liked to conjunctivitis and lesions in the respiratory and digestive system

– EPA classifies coke oven emissions as a “known human carcinogen”. Chronic exposure has been linked to numerous cancers, including lung cancer, kidney cancer, etc.

– It hasn’t yet been proven that coke oven emissions lead to increased rates of asthma and respiratory disorders, but empirical evidence from communities in close proximity to coke production shows increased rates of asthma

Learn more about PANIC

Watch a documentary from GASP featuring Charlie Powell’s story

Read more stories from Northern Birmingham

Images from Northern Birmingham

Map of showing location on Coke facilities compared to the four neighborhoods of Northern Birmingham