Press Release | October 20, 2009

New Report Calls for Swift Action to Clean Up Birmingham Air

The metropolitan Birmingham area ranks #1 for the worst soot pollution of any urban region in the South, with levels high enough to put more than 400,000 children and adults directly at risk for heart and lung disease. For most of the past 20 years, the area has exceeded federal standards for another pollutant, ozone, which also causes or worsens breathing disorders like asthma.

These are serious health risks, borne by all in metro Birmingham. Cleaning the region's air is imperative, and although there are several straightforward steps to achieving that goal, each has its own challenges.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) released a report today that for the first time provides a comprehensive overview of the multiple pieces of Birmingham's air-pollution challenge in layman's terms to better engage the broader Birmingham community in understanding and solving the problem. In the report, Clean Air for the Birmingham Area, SELC identifies the major sources of Birmingham's air pollution and offers seven recommendations for reducing the pollution while ensuring a strong economy and a vibrant quality of life.

“Although the air has improved from the days when the steel mills blackened the sky, we still have a ways to go to bring pollution to a level that protects the health of all our citizens, especially children, the elderly, and those with respiratory disease, all of whom are most at risk from breathing dirty air,” said SELC senior attorney Gil Rogers, a principal author of the report. “With increasing scientific understanding, we now know that even at incredibly small amounts, ozone, soot and mercury can do great harm in humans, and in wildlife.”

SELC is distributing the report to government officials and citizens who are interested in improving air quality in the region. The report is available for free to the public at

Highlights from Clean Air for the Birmingham Area
The problems:

  • The American Lung Association ranks metro Birmingham #5 in the country for soot (particle pollution), worse than industrial hubs like Detroit and larger urban centers like Atlanta.
  • Over 17% of Alabama teens between 15 and 18, and 7% of adults are asthmatics, a condition worsened and sometimes caused by ozone and soot pollution.
  • In 1998, asthma cost Alabama about $100 million in direct costs of medicines and health-care services, and about $76 million in indirect costs such as lost productivity in the workplace. Asthma rates have risen since then.
  • Jefferson and Shelby counties have lost $5 billion in economic investment and have had to turn down 15 major manufacturing projects due to dirty air.
  • Mercury, emitted from power plants and other sources, turns deadly in rivers and estuaries. The Alabama health department has imposed fish consumption restrictions due to mercury on 36 water bodies including Opossum Creek, Valley Creek, and Lewis Smith Reservoir.

The sources:

  • The primary sources of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – which form soot pollution – are three old coal-fired power plants: Gaston (1960), Gorgas (1951), and Miller (1978).
  • Even with pollution controls currently planned for the facilities, they will still account for 89% of sulfur dioxides and 50% of nitrogen oxides in metro Birmingham in 2012.
  • The three plants are also the primary source of the nitrogen oxides that make ozone, while vehicles are responsible for a third of the other ingredient, volatile organic compounds.
  • Gorgas, Gaston and Miller are also the leading source of mercury emissions in the region – 75% in 2007. About one gram of airborne mercury falling in a 20-acre lake makes the fish unsafe to eat.)
  • Miller ranked #1 in the country for mercury in 2007, emitting 2,000 pounds that year. It is ranked the 2nd dirtiest power plant for all the pollutants combined.

Climate change concerns:

  • Alabama emits more carbon dioxide that most other states. Per capita, it ranks 9th. And carbon emissions are growing faster than most states as well – 23% between 1990 and 2005.
  • From the energy sector, more than half of Alabama's carbon emissions come from power plants.
  • The Miller plant ranks #2 nationally for power plant carbon emissions.


SELC's seven solutions: 

  • Strictly limit nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions from the three coal-fired power plants, and ensure that Alabama Power installs and fully utilizes required pollution controls.
  • Require concrete reductions in mercury emissions from the Miller, Gaston and Gorgas plants and other coal plants in the state. * Expand the ozone “nonattainment” to include more counties surround Birmingham to ensure comprehensive cleanup and to benefit more people.
  • Pass state legislation mandating cuts in power plant emissions to supplement federal standards.
  • Develop a long-range transportation plan that boosts mass transit and accounts for connection between land use and transportation needs.
  • Cut soot pollution from heavy-duty diesel engines. * Make energy efficiency and renewable energy sources a top priority.


The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.