GASP and the Southern Environmental Law Center on Monday said that the groups have made significant improvements to a consent decree to address ABC Coke’s alleged illegal emissions of benzene and the impacts on communities around northeast Birmingham and Tarrant.
SELC intervened on behalf of the environmental activist group GASP, making the case that the previous requirements set out by the consent decree agreed to by the Jefferson County Board of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with the Drummond Company were inadequate to address ongoing violations and control of benzene pollution, a known carcinogen. SELC intervened on behalf of GASP in January 2020.
The groups claimed that the consent decree was problematic because its requirements would have ended in three years, it didn’t include any public reporting requirements and none of the penalty amount was allocated to the community.
Drummond will now be required to follow a Leak Detection and Repair program for the rest of the plant’s existence. This program will ensure that the plant catches benzene leaks, increases the frequency of monitoring, provides an annual leak detection training course for plant personnel and requires maintaining an electronic database of all leaks and its monitoring schedule.
According to the final settlement agreement, the Jefferson County Department of Health is also required to allocate its share of the civil penalty — a sum totaling $387,500 — imposed for violations to a fund to be administered by the Community Foundation. The Community Foundation will then be tasked with awarding grants for projects benefiting the public health of communities near the ABC Coke plant, and residents of Tarrant and northeast Birmingham will be added to an advisory committee to direct how funding is allocated.
The agreement ensures greater transparency by requiring that JCDH upload all formal reports related to ABC Coke to its website, as well as all files regarding other permitted industrial facilities and sources throughout Jefferson County, within nine months of the entry of the agreement.
“This is a welcomed, long overdue development that will hopefully bring ABC Coke’s operations and reporting into modern times,” said Keisha Brown, a resident of Harriman Park. “While there will never be a penalty high enough to right the wrongs our communities have endured, ABC Coke’s new requirements puts our health and wellbeing first, and you can’t put a price on people’s health.”
“This is a much better outcome than expected—knowing that the settlement provides accountability with a better monitoring system in place, and good initiatives for nonprofits to benefit our communities provides some peace of mind,” said Gabriel Mendez-Frances, a resident of Tarrant. “I am hopeful that these actions mark the very beginnings of the reconciliation process that our neighborhoods have truly needed and deserved for so long.”
“It is critical that the voices of the families and workers who have been breathing ABC Coke’s toxic and illegal pollution for a decade are finally represented,” said GASP executive director Michael Hansen. “The settlement agreement represents positive steps toward addressing this legacy of pollution with permanent solutions, and we remain committed to ensuring that the plant is held accountable for any future violations.”
“This settlement agreement attempts to end ABC Coke’s long history of violations by creating essential checks and balances,” said SELC senior attorney Sarah Stokes. “ABC Coke’s rigorous monitoring and reporting requirements, as well as the Jefferson County Department of Health’s commitment to put all facilities’ files on a public database, will provide significantly more transparency for communities and the ability to quickly identify any violations going forward.”
GASP is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham. Their stated mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. Their goal is to reduce exposure to air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality and encourage community leaders to serve as role models by advocating for clean air and clean energy.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader.
GASP claims that ABC Coke, which has operated in northern Birmingham for generations, has polluted the area over the course of decades and that residents of the North Birmingham and Tarrant areas have had negative impacts to their health as a result. Drummond Coal is the current owner of ABC Coke. The EPA has declared part of North Birmingham as a superfund site. State officials have opposed expanding and prioritizing the cleanup of the site.