In northeast Birmingham and Tarrant, Alabama, ABC Coke’s illegal emissions of benzene and its impact on nearby communities have prompted conservation groups to file a motion to intervene in ongoing efforts to approve a proposed consent decree to address the pollution.
On behalf of environmental nonprofit Gasp, SELC filed the motion and proposed complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama today in response to the lax terms set out by the consent decree, which was agreed to by the Jefferson County Board of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency with ABC Coke owner the Drummond Company.
The members of the JCBH are tasked with governing the Jefferson County Department of Health, which is responsible for regulating ABC Coke and its ongoing violations of benzene pollution, a known carcinogen.
“With ABC Coke’s lengthy history of violations and a pattern of practice of hiding them, we continue to have significant concerns about the lack of transparency,” says Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes. “We must hold Drummond, EPA, and the Jefferson County Department of Health accountable to a plan that results in a protective, permanent solution to this legacy of pollution – anything short of that is unacceptable.”
Joining concerns expressed by local community members and elected officials, the conservation groups claim the proposal lacks essential safeguards to ensure that the violations have stopped and hinders the public’s ability to identify and enforce future violations.
In the proposed consent decree filed in February 2019, JCDH has agreed to post Drummond’s semiannual reports to its website verifying Drummond’s progress. The groups contend that Drummond’s self-reporting is not adequate and are urging the agencies to require an independent audit to assess what’s been done to reach compliance.
Also under the proposed consent decree, Drummond has agreed to pay $775,000 in penalties, with $387,500 going to JCBH and to EPA. It requires Drummond to take steps to stop the unlawful emissions, more than eight years after inspectors discovered that the plant was emitting excess amounts of benzene.
“We must hold Drummond, EPA, and the Jefferson County Department of Health accountable to a plan that results in a protective, permanent solution to this legacy of pollution – anything short of that is unacceptable.”
—Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes
The JCDH recently renewed ABC Coke's Title V permit despite numerous objections from the community and elected officials, and without addressing the benzene violations that are the subject of the consent decree. On behalf of GASP, SELC petitioned EPA to object to the permit in June 2019. EPA has not yet made a decision whether or not to object to the permit.
Echoing comments submitted by Gasp and SELC last summer, the motion to intervene asks that Gasp be a party to the consent decree in order to be able to call for an increase in the penalty amount for violations, an independent audit of benzene levels, additional public reporting requirements, and for the JCDH to establish a trust fund for area residents which a third party with community-ties would administer.
“The families and workers who have been breathing ABC Coke’s toxic and illegal pollution for close to a decade deserve better,” says Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen. “Drummond should get more than a slap on the wrist. It’s past time for the Health Department to work with impacted communities to ensure tangible steps are being taken to put their health and wellbeing ahead of Drummond’s bottom line.”