Industrial air pollution in our communities

The ripple effects of industrial air pollution 

Industrial air pollution has and continues to unfairly burden Black and Brown communities, other communities of color, and low-income areas throughout the South, often to the detriment of public health and quality of life. 

As a result of decades of racial segregation and residential redlining, polluting sources including fossil fuel plants, cement factories, asphalt plants, and rock quarries are often sited in and around Black communities in particular. These industrial operations irreparably change neighborhoods and pose significant environmental and health risks to surrounding residents.

In addition to carbon emissions that contribute to the impacts of climate change, these facilities emit a range of air pollutants, including fine particulate matter, carcinogens, mercury, lead, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, and acid gases. These pollutants can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions and be particularly harmful to sensitive populations, including children and the elderly.

What’s more, many new and proposed facilities are often abruptly brought into communities without adequate public notice to those who are affected most. 

Harm to local communities 

While communities of color have already been forced to compromise their health and wellbeing for generations and despite ongoing efforts to strengthen federal and state air quality protections, industrial air pollution remains a pervasive problem in the South. 

A prime example of the long-lasting presence of polluting industries is the Alabama Byproducts Corporation plant north of Birmingham, Alabama, which is the nation’s largest merchant producer of foundry coke. 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.

Along with other polluting facilities in the area, ABC Coke is one of the biggest sources of benzene contamination for Tarrant, Harriman Park, and other predominantly Black neighborhoods surrounding the site, where residents suffer from cancer, asthma, and lung diseases. 

The Southern Environmental Law Center intervened on behalf of our partner the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, after the Environmental Protection Agency and the Jefferson County Board of Health failed to enforce the Clean Air Act for years and did not require or provide notice that the plant was leaking harmful levels of benzene.

SELC secured a settlement forcing ABC Coke to adhere to a suite of reporting and repair requirements that will last the life of the plant. The settlement also requires the local agency to create a public database of all permitted industrial sources (about 270) in the county, and that any civil penalties that would normally go to the agency must be used to benefit affected communities.

Biomass is another industry increasingly encroaching on communities of color throughout the South, with pellet manufacturing facilities often sited in and around them. Along with carbon emissions, manufacturing and burning wood pellets produces harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, microscopic dust particles, and other hazardous air pollutants that contribute to serious health risks. 

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.

Keisha Brown, Harriman Park, Birmingham Resident

Holding polluters accountable 

We are committed to improving air quality and protecting communities by holding polluting industries accountable, working to strengthen permits and emission limits, and ensuring that federal, state and local agencies are enforcing necessary safeguards. 

SELC’s work includes ongoing efforts to uphold and reinforce federal protections intended to prevent or alleviate any harm to communities, including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards which regulates hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.