Settlement agreement reached to address ABC Coke pollution

SELC, GASP make significant improvements to challenged consent decree

Illegal benzene pollution from ABC Coke has long affected the air quality for residents in northeast Birmingham and Tarrant. (© Julie Dermansky)

In a long-sought win for northeast Birmingham and Tarrant neighborhoods, SELC and GASP have made significant improvements to a consent decree that addresses a decade of ABC Coke’s illegal benzene pollution and the threats to surrounding communities.

“This is a welcomed, long overdue development that will hopefully bring ABC Coke’s operations and reporting into modern times,” says Keisha Brown, who lives just over a mile away from the facility in 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 well-being first, and you can’t put a price on people’s health.”

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 well-being first, and you can’t put a price on people’s health.”

—Resident Keisha Brown

Coke plants are notoriously dirty, using ovens that burn coal to produce coke, a high-carbon fuel used for steelmaking. The “coking” process emits carcinogens, such as benzene, and other pollutants such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.

The ABC plant, owned by Drummond, is the largest producer of foundry coke in the United States and Mexico. It's also one of the biggest sources of toxic contamination for Black neighborhoods surrounding the site, where residents suffer from cancer, asthma, and lung diseases. Pollution from ABC and other industries in the area prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose designating an area in close proximity to the plant as a Superfund site on the National Priorities List in 2014. In response, a Drummond executive and its attorney bribed a state legislator to attempt to shield Drummond from clean up liability, leading to criminal convictions by a federal jury.

GASP began its fight against ABC Coke’s pollution in 2013, and has been involved in commenting on and challenging the plant’s permit over the past several years.

GASP and SELC filed a motion to intervene in a consent decree relating to the benzene violations entered into by the Jefferson County Board of Health and EPA with the Drummond Company in January 2020, finding it inadequate because its requirements would have ended in three years, it didn’t include any public reporting requirements for future benzene violations, and none of the penalty amount for violations was allocated to the community.

As a result of our intervention, Drummond has agreed to follow a Leak Detection and Repair program for the rest of the plant’s existence. The program will ensure the plant catches benzene leaks by increasing the frequency of monitoring, provide an annual leak detection training course for plant personnel, and require maintaining an electronic database of all leaks and its monitoring schedule. The modified consent decree now awaits the judge's approval.

“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,” says GASP Executive Director Michael Hansen. “The settlement agreement represents positive steps toward addressing this legacy of pollution with permanent solutions.”

From left to right, an air monitoring device registers benzene levels in the air outside a home. ABC Coke and its pollution can be seen from a local school playground. (© Julie Dermansky)

Under the final settlement agreement, the Jefferson County Department of Health has also agreed to allocate its share of the civil penalty—$387,500—imposed for violations to a fund to be administered by the Community Foundation. The Community Foundation will award 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 advise how funding is allocated.

Churches, neighborhood, and community associations will be able to apply for grants for things like air monitors, insulation for homes to help with air quality, and funding for green spaces and community gardens.

“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,” says Tarrant resident Gabriel Mendez-Frances. “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.”

Finally, the agreement ensures greater transparency by requiring the JCDH to 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.

“Requiring rigorous monitoring and reporting, and 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,” says SELC Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes. “These checks and balances are essential to ending ABC Coke’s long history of violations.”

New, permanent requirements under the settlement agreement will ensure that the plant detects and repairs benzene leaks as early as possible for the remainder of its existence. (© Julie Dermansky)

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