Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Council Rejects License for Scrap Metal Processor, Cites Pollution of Black Neighborhoods

Birmingham City Councilor John Hilliard, right, was a vocal opponent of the scrap yard proposal. Councilor Steven Hoyt sits next to him during a recent meeting. (Source: Sam Prickett)

March 20, 2018 — Citing a need to change historical disenfranchisement and pollution of Birmingham’s black neighborhoods, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to deny a scrap metal processors license to a company attempting to establish a scrap-processing yard in the Acipco-Finley neighborhood.

A group of citizens from that neighborhood appeared at the meeting’s public hearing to speak against the proposal from Jordan Industrial Services.

Jordan’s attorney, Mike Brown, argued that Jordan had worked to clean up the property, alleging that its previous tenant, Kimmerling Truck Parts and Equipment, had left “a pretty bad eyesore for the community.”

But residents argued that a new coat of paint and some cleaning wouldn’t address the larger issues of air pollution generated by the yard.

A 2012 report by the Houston Chronicle, found “dangerous levels” of hexavalent chromium — a highly carcinogenic pollutant also known as Chrome VI — in the areas surrounding five metal recycling operations in that city. According to those reports, those high levels are the result of cutting and welding metal, which vaporizes metal particles and sends it into the air. Air pollution resulting from scrap yards also has been reported in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Headaches, in More Ways Than One

John Giovino, a resident who lives near Jordan Industrial Services’ existing scrap metal plant in Avondale, angrily addressed the council, saying that processing yard is responsible for regularly emitting clouds of smoke that “give you a headache immediately.”

Looming over Tuesday’s discussion were the environmental issues that have historically plagued North Birmingham. Last year, former State Rep. Oliver Robinson pled guilty to accepting bribes to push back against the EPA’s efforts to clean up that area. A vice president for coal producer Drummond Company, which operates in North Birmingham, also was indicted.

“We’ve had enough,” said Henrietta Tripp, an Acipco-Finley resident, at Tuesday’s meeting. “We have too much in our neighborhood that we’ve had to encounter through the years.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Meredith Anderson, another resident. “I’ve lived in North Birmingham all my life,” Anderson said. “It’s where my grandparents are from, it’s where my parents are from, and it’s where I want my children to grow up. … Our children have inherited stuff from us that they should not inherit.

“You talk about neighborhood revitalization?” she continued. “This is not it.”

Brown, for his part, maintained that Jordan’s Avondale scrap yard, had “never really had a health citation from the Jefferson County Department of Health,” or from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

He also stated that the new processing yard would create “upwards of 60 jobs,” for which the company “would of course give preference to people in the Acipco and North Birmingham areas.”

But the council was unmoved. District 9 Councilor John Hilliard — in whose district the proposed scrap yard would be located — expressed the firmest opposition to the proposal.

“It just bothers me that always these types of facilities come to black communities,” he said. “I’m for economic development, I believe in jobs and expansion, but not at the expense of my people … . We don’t want it in our community.”

He said the Avondale location employs relatively few Birmingham residents and argued that Jordan had no intention of creating jobs for Acipco residents. “People tell us one thing, and when they get in the community, they do something else,” he said. “Acipco-Finley, I stand with you, I will fight with you, and we will bring it down, and we are going to win.”

District 6 Councilor Sheila Tyson took it one step further. “What are we going to do about the one in Avondale (as well as) this one?” she asked. “You’ve got to kill both roaches, because they multiply … . If you need to pull one, if it ain’t good for the community, you gotta pull both of them. Shut them down!”

Going After Scrapyards

Tyson encouraged the city’s legal department to look for laws that would shut down the existing scrapyard.

“How many lawyers we got?” she asked. “I know they can find something wrong, the right way, to make sure that these people can’t open back up … . If they’re successful with this one, they’re going to turn around and open up one somewhere else. It has to stop.”

The eight members of the council present – excluding Councilor Hunter Williams, who was absent – voted unanimously against giving Jordan its license. But Council President Valerie Abbott warned that Jordan could supercede their decision by acquiring a license from the county.

“What really worries me … is that if we turn this down without documenting all the valid reasons we have for turning it town, these businesses go across (Linn Park) to the court house.” If that happens, she said, the city would need to put significant effort into “monitoring and enforcing all of the environmental laws that apply.”

District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales encouraged residents to fight against such an attempt to go around the council’s decision, but she suggested that they would need to reframe their argument if they hoped to be successful.

“Don’t go talking about, ‘It’s a black problem,’” she said. “You see that hasn’t helped you, right? … Get the law. Any judge that goes against the law by constitution can be disbarred. … I would make sure I showed up with all of the laws associated with having an environmental nuisance in your community.”

She also encouraged Mayor Randall Woodfin to push for rezoning the area to prevent heavy industrial developments.

“We need for it to be rezoned so that all of this junk that keeps getting proposed (doesn’t) come to this city,” she said.

The city, she said, had a chance to break out of its cycle of polluting its poorer neighborhoods. “It’s real simple,” she said. “Our city has been divided for a very long time … . The only way that you rewrite the history is you create your own story.”

District 4 Councilor William Parker – who often serves as the council’s liaison to the EPA, making frequent trips to Atlanta and Washington, D.C., that listed on his travel forms as EPA meetings – was silent throughout the discussion.