By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Oliver Robinson is going to jail.
Quite a few others should be going with him.
If Robinson, a former State Representative, wants to redeem himself and maybe help the constituents he’s sold out, he’ll spend the next few weeks and months working to make sure the jail cells around him are filled with other suit-wearing, fast-talking, greased-palm hustlers who have hijacked our State political system.
Because make no mistake about it, Oliver Robinson, dirty and slimy as he is – and he’s got a coating like a nightcrawler worm on him right now – is not the dirtiest and slimiest of the bunch.
And I am happy to explain.
Robinson pleaded guilty, it was announced on Thursday by the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, to fraud, conspiracy, bribery and tax evasion charges. It was also announced that Robinson is actively working with the FBI, IRS and other agencies to build cases on other conspirators.
All of this stems from Robinson’s involvement, as a representative from Birmingham, in the North Birmingham Superfund Site (officially tabbed the 35th Avenue Superfund by the EPA).
That site, located in the area of Birmingham where steel mills operated for decades, is an environmental mess. Testing has found toxins in neighborhoods to be so high that the top layers of soil have been removed from hundreds of yards, businesses and school grounds. There’s pollution in the waterways and in the air, as well.
There have been various reports of significantly increased cases of cancer and off-the-charts-high reports of pollution-related illnesses, such as respiratory illnesses.
Care to guess the racial and economic makeup of the affected area?
Mostly black and poor? Why, you’ve lived in Alabama longer than 5 minutes, haven’t you?
You could also probably guess that even after decades of complaints and warnings from local activists and residents, it took the EPA – and released testing results from Walter Energy – to finally get something done. After more than 100 years of contamination, the EPA arrived in 2011. The site was designated a superfund in 2014.
When the EPA designates a pollution site as a superfund, it automatically goes about investigating and testing that site to determine the likely source(s) of that pollution. They did that in North Birmingham, and they returned with five likely suspects: Drummond Coal, Alagasco, Walter Coke, US Pipe and KMAC.
Those companies have fought the EPA, refusing to pay their shares of an estimated $20 million cleanup, according to reporting from al.com.
To put that $4 million-per-company payout in perspective, Drummond is listed in Forbes as one of the country’s largest private companies, with $2.2 billion in revenues for 2015.
So, multi-million dollar companies on one side. Poor, black residents in a depressed area on another side.
Guess which side the State of Alabama picked.
Both the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and then-AG Luther Strange took on the EPA, with Strange – a real man of the people – declaring that “no State money” will be spent to clean up the site. (No one asked him, but he probably would have been against spending the $30,000 in campaign contributions that Drummond has given to him the last two election cycles on the site, too.)
And yet, the EPA persisted.
What eventually happens in these cases is that the EPA compiles its evidence, reaches its conclusions, tries to work with the named parties, and then demands payment. If the parties continue to protest, lawsuits and legal actions are taken. And those things rarely work out well for the named parties.
And so, according to acting US Attorney Robert Posey, Drummond went a different way. Using an attorney from the law firm Balch & Bingham as basically a bagman, at least one Drummond exec funneled money to Robinson to undercut the EPA.
And Robinson did the job he was paid to do.
He fought the EPA at every turn, and went so far as to record meetings he had with EPA officials and with local environmental groups and give those recordings to Balch & Bingham and Drummond.
All of that makes Oliver Robinson the villain. He deserves to be the villain. In the shadows of Fred Shuttleworth’s church – a church that was firebombed three times because its trouble-making pastor was fighting to give black citizens a chance in Alabama – Robinson sold out those same people for a few thousand bucks.
But Robinson is not the only villain in this story, nor is he the main villain.
There are many others – from the CEOs who have enjoyed comfy lives while poisoning the communities where they earn their paychecks to the state officials who ignored the pleas from the affected neighborhoods and effectively turned their backs on dying children to the state officials who have joined the wrong side of yet another fight.
And then there’s the biggest villain: this persistent, and consistently failing, mindset in this State that places profits and wealth before people and their wellbeing.