Flawed consent decree fails locals impacted by ABC Coke’s illegal pollution

ABC Coke is emitting excessive and illegal levels of benzene pollution. (© WVTM 13)

A proposed consent decree is woefully inadequate in addressing the impacts of excessive and illegal levels of toxic benzene pollution being pushed on Alabama communities by ABC Coke.

ABC Coke, owned by the Drummond Company, is the nation’s largest merchant producer of foundry coke. The plant creates coke by superheating coal and, in the process, burns off impurities, including several carcinogens, heavy metals, and fine particle pollution.

The Jefferson County Board of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered a consent decree with the Drummond Company in February in an attempt to address the plant’s illegal benzene emissions and other leaks. Benzene is a known carcinogen.

Under the proposed consent decree, Drummond has agreed to pay $775,000 in penalties, with the Jefferson County Board of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency each receiving $387,500. It also requires Drummond to take steps to stop its unlawful emissions, more than eight years after inspectors first discovered that the plant was emitting excess amounts of benzene.

However, the agreement reached by both parties lacks essential safeguards to ensure that the violations have stopped and that the public will be able to identify and enforce compliance.

SELC has filed comments to advocate for an increase in penalties, an independent audit of benzene levels, additional public reporting requirements, and for the Jefferson County Department of Health to establish a trust for area residents for which a third party with community-ties would administer.

“After years of violations that the Jefferson County Department of Health has known about and failed to act on, it cannot continue to turn a blind eye when it should be holding ABC Coke’s feet to the fire to permanently address this pollution,” says SELC Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes. “It is past time for these agencies to be held accountable and to be fully transparent.”

SELC filed comments on behalf of Gasp, a Birmingham-based health advocacy nonprofit.

“If the Jefferson County Department of Health is truly committed to transparency with the public as it claims, taking long overdue steps to restore assurances that it will act in the community’s best interests rather than powerful corporations will require meaningful actions, not just words,” says Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen. “At the bare minimum, the community must have a say in how the penalty paid by ABC Coke should be spent—this money should not just go back into the Department’s pocket.”

In related news, the Jefferson county Health Department has issued ABC Coke’s final Clean Air Act 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 the Environmental Protection Agency to object to the permit last month. The agency has not yet made a decision whether or not to object to the permit.

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