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Opinion | Birmingham superfund scam extends well beyond federal courtroom

Josh Moon

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A scam took place in Birmingham.

It involved an EPA superfund site. It involved political corruption. It involved poor, mostly black people getting the absolute shaft by the people who swore oaths to protect them.

No, this scam isn’t part of the ongoing Oliver Robinson federal corruption trial.

It is very specifically not part of that trial.

Because that’s the scam. That only Robinson and three others are being shamed for their abhorrent actions.

It’s so absurd, it’s laughable.

I’ve followed along with this case since the beginning — pulling court filings, talking to those involved, talking to people on the fringes, discussing it with lawyers and former prosecutors. I’ve also followed the work of the reporters — mainly al.com’s Kyle Whitmire and John Archibald — who have been reporting this story on a daily basis.

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If you’ve somehow missed what’s happening there, here’s the gist: The EPA discovered massive, people-killing pollution in the ground in north Birmingham, allegedly from decades of pollution from nearby coal plants. The EPA was starting a cleanup project, which it planned to force the coal companies to pay for, and was looking to designate the site a “superfund site.” Doing so would’ve expanded their testing and put coal companies on the hook for millions more in cleanup.

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Drummond Coal, one of the biggest coal producers in the country, was particularly annoyed by this. So, working through its lawfirm, Balch & Bingham, Drummond (allegedly) bribed former state Rep. Oliver Robinson to fight the superfund designation both in the Legislature and in the affected neighborhoods.

At least, that’s the story if you believe what the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham is pushing.

In reality, as we know from the court evidence in this case, that’s far, far, far from all that was happening. And Robinson, Balch attorneys Joel Gilbert and Steve McKinney and Drummond vice president David Roberson — the three men alleged to have bribed Robinson — are far from the only people to have dirty hands in this.

Here’s what we know for certain: The Balch & Bingham law firm was producing documents on behalf of half the elected people in Alabama, and all of those documents were fighting the evil EPA, which had the gall to want to come into Alabama and stop poor black people from dying from pollution cancer.

I’m not exaggerating this.

We know these things to be true. We know it because most of our elected officials are idiots, and because Balch was producing so many pre-written letters it made mistakes, so there’s stone cold hard evidence that Balch wrote letters that then-AG Luther Strange sent to the EPA. And wrote a whole resolution that our entire state Legislature PASSED! And wrote more letters that Robinson and other elected officials coerced affected citizens to sign.

It didn’t stop there, either. Some of Drummond’s business partners and financial partners aided it and other coal companies in the area, contributing millions more to this scam.

But for right now, I want you to think about only the most egregious sellout.

Seriously. Take a moment and really think about the details of this:

There is an area of this state filled with people. That area, over the course of decades, has become polluted to the point that people — elderly people, children, preachers and sinners and Christians and good and decent folks — are dying early and falling sick more often.

A federal agency runs tests that conclusively prove this pollution is present. It believes the polluters are nearby multi-million dollar companies.

Instead of paying what would’ve amounted to a fraction of its annual profits to clean up the mess it made, Drummond Coal, one of the alleged polluters, gets its high-powered law firm to fight it. That firm draws up a resolution against the EPA.

A resolution against those poor, sick people in Birmingham. Against everything that is good and decent and holy.

And a powerful state senator, Jabo Waggoner, sponsors it. And both houses pass it. And the governor signs it.

Now, most of these lawmakers — as usual — had no idea what they were voting on. But that doesn’t matter. Because what they passed sent a message to the poor people of Birmingham. It made it easier to sell them out.

So, yeah, there was a scam in north Birmingham.

But don’t you for a second believe the perpetrators are limited to the people in that federal courtroom.

 

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