Environmental racism is the gift that keeps on giving, as this ProPublica piece on the continued legacy of pollution in north Birmingham demonstrates:
But in the months that followed, the company that had recently bought the plant told regulators it was unable to make millions of dollars worth of necessary repairs to the oven doors and ventilation hood, records and interviews show. The delays carried a tremendous cost: Nearby residents were once again being exposed to dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
No Southern city has experienced a longer and more damaging legacy of environmental injustice than Birmingham. As coke production fueled the city’s rise — powering plants that made everything from cast-iron pipes to steel beams — white leaders enacted housing policies that forced Black people to live in the most hazardous communities. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called Birmingham America’s “most thoroughly segregated city,” and the evidence of oppressive pollution was blatant. The air in north Birmingham residents’ lungs and the soil beneath their feet became more contaminated than in nearly any other corner of America.
Generations of business leaders amassed fortunes by cooking coke without regard to the pollution raining down on neighboring communities. With few exceptions, each plant owner left the facility in worse shape than they found it, passing off costly upgrades to the subsequent owner, who then passed them on to the next. This pattern was able to continue, in part, because powerful industry lobbyists fended off the kind of proposals and policies that better protected communities in other states. Nowhere was that more apparent than at one of the country’s worst-polluting plants, on 35th Avenue in Birmingham.
It was here, in an area with one of America’s highest poverty rates, that the ultrawealthy owners of a coal company named Bluestone Coke spotted a financial opportunity. Bluestone belongs to the family of Jim Justice, the coal baron who became West Virginia governor in 2017. The Justices had racked up tens of millions of dollars in unpaid bills with smaller companies it did business with, according to a ProPublica investigation in 2020. (Forbes dubbed Gov. Justice the “deadbeat billionaire” because of these debts.) After a close business associate suddenly had to offload his Birmingham coke plant in 2019, the Justices bought the decrepit facility, which would prove to be a ready-made customer for the coal their company mined in several Appalachian states.
The Justices, like the owners of other remaining coke plants, sought to preserve the plant’s last years of revenues at a time when steel mill owners around the country were replacing coke-fueled furnaces with cleaner electric ones. To do so, they would cut corners on maintenance on creaky ovens, even though that would dramatically heighten the odds of increased pollution.
In July 2020, after the 35th Avenue plant was found to have released excessive levels of toxic emissions on most days that year, Jefferson County inspectors cited Bluestone for a series of violations. The health department was considering a fine of nearly $600,000, a penalty that’s small compared to fines that regulators in other states have issued for similar infractions but large by Jefferson County’s standards. In fact, it would have exceeded the fines issued to all Birmingham-area industrial sources over the previous decade. Instead of finalizing a settlement that would’ve fined Bluestone, though, Jefferson County scrapped it.
Read the whole, etc. In the end though, we are going to need federal leadership on these issues because the state of Alabama neither cares about environmental sustainability nor the fate of Black people. And we REALLY know that Jim Justice does not care about either of these things.