Birmingham-based clean-air advocate Gasp and the Southern Environmental Law Center have announced “significant improvements” to a consent decree to address ABC Coke’s illegal emissions of benzene and its effects on communities around northeast Birmingham and Tarrant.
SELC intervened on behalf of Gasp in January 2020 to protest requirements set out by the consent decree agreed to by the Jefferson County Board of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with the Drummond Company – which owns ABC Coke. SELC made the case that the requirements were inadequate to address ongoing violations and control of pollution from benzene, a known carcinogen.
The groups found the consent decree problematic because its requirements would have ended in three years. The initial consent decree didn’t include any public reporting requirements, and none of the penalty money was allocated to the community.
The Drummond Company will now be required to follow a leak detection and repair program for the rest of the plant’s existence. This program will ensure that the plant catches benzene leaks and increases the frequency of monitoring.
The program also provides an annual leak detection training course for plant personnel and requires maintaining an electronic database of all leaks and the company’s monitoring schedule.
According to the final settlement agreement, the Jefferson County Department of Health also is required to allocate its share of the civil penalty imposed for violations, which is $387,500, 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 direct how funding is allocated.
According to a release from Gasp and SELC, 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 entry into the agreement.
“This is a welcomed, long overdue development that will hopefully bring ABC Coke’s operations and reporting into modern times,” said Keisha Brown, a resident of 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 wellbeing first, and you can’t put a price on people’s health.”
“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,” said Gabriel Mendez-Frances, a resident of Tarrant. “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.”
“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,” said Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen. “The settlement agreement represents positive steps toward addressing this legacy of pollution with permanent solutions, and we remain committed to ensuring that the plant is held accountable for any future violations.”
“This settlement agreement attempts to end ABC Coke’s long history of violations by creating essential checks and balances,” said SELC senior attorney Sarah Stokes. “ABC Coke’s rigorous monitoring and reporting requirements, as well as 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.”