• Donald V. Watkins

Betrayed: The Death of a Community from Dangerous Pollutants


By Donald V. Watkins


©Copyrighted and Published on May 11, 2019


In 2014, nearly 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan were exposed to dangerous levels of lead poisoning in the water they drank and used for cooking, showering, cleaning, and bathing. The water contamination caused Coliform bacteria, THMs, lead, and a Legionnaires disease outbreak. An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 children were exposed to lead poisoning. The State of Michigan declared a public health state of emergency in Flint. Twelve people died from Legionnaires’ disease. The public health crisis from this tragic event is ongoing.


Flint residents did not know that they were being exposed to lead poisoning in their water supply. The State of Michigan, headed by former Republican Governor Rick Snyder, was responsible for supplying water to this mostly black city. Early warning signs of lead poisoning in the water supply were quickly dismissed by Gov. Snyder and his political cronies as the pesky babbling of local community organizers in Flint and outside troublemakers.


State and federal environmental protection agencies are still trying to clean up the environmental disaster Gov. Snyder created in Flint.


The Next Victims -- Five Points West Residents in Birmingham, Alabama


According to the most recent demographic profile published by Weichert Realtors, the Five Points West Community in Birmingham, Alabama has a population of 39,340 people living in 14,772 households. Forty-one percent of these households have children living in them. Fifty-one percent of the residents in this community own their homes. Eighty-four percent of the adults in this community graduated from high school and/or college. The median income in this community is $35,498.


During the Jim Crow era, Birmingham’s all-white government accommodated white corporate property owners that needed zoning for hazardous waste and commercial-scale industrial operations. Their zoning requests were routinely granted for properties located in the Five Points West community (and other black residential neighborhoods). At the time, there was nothing black residents could do to protect themselves or their properties from the devastating effects of environmental racism.


When Dr. Ricard Arrington, Jr. became Birmingham’s first black mayor in 1979, the city embarked upon a long and focused journey to improve the Five Points West community and other neglected black neighborhoods in Birmingham. Arrington, together with mayors Bernard Kincaid, Larry Langford, and William Bell, invested huge amounts of time, human resources, and money to revitalize the Five Points West community.


For example, they developed a $55 million CrossPlex facility in the community. They encouraged Starbucks to build a training facility in the area. They got the Boys and Girls Club to locate its building in the community. A new hotel recently opened in the Five Points West area. The City upgraded the infrastructure connecting Five Points West to the developing Ensley community. An entertainment center and amphitheater are also planned for the community.

These four mayors took pride in purging the industrial polluters from the Five Points West community and replacing them with safe, clean, socially responsible businesses.


A Resurgence of Environmental Racism


On January 24, 2019, Birmingham city officials learned that Sherman Industries, an affiliate of the HeidelbergCement Group (in Heidelberg, Germany), planned to relocate its downtown concrete manufacturing plant to property the company has owned in the Five Points West community since the 1930s. This move is intended to accommodate the predominantly white residents in the booming Railroad Park and Region Field areas in downtown Birmingham who want to avoid the dangerous pollutants released from the plant.


The relocation plan was quietly supported by Mayor Randall Woodfin and his Department of Planning, Engineering, and Permits for more than four months after its introduction on January 24th. After neighborhood residents learned of the relocation plan in April, they immediately protested against it. These protests are growing daily.


In recent weeks, the relocation plan has turned into a political ”hot potato” for Mayor Woodfin. During the May 7, 2019 city council meeting, Woodfin reversed course and announced his opposition to the relocation plan. He then tossed this “hot potato” to the city council and asked that body to kill the relocation plan by rezoning the Sherman Industries’ property in Five Points West. Woodfin, who is a lawyer and who worked in the city’s law department for several years before becoming mayor, knew at the time that the city council could not lawfully enact an ex post facto change in the zoning for the property. However, this PR gesture, gave Woodfin political cover for the unpleasant things that are sure to come.


According to a May 7, 2019 Facebook post by Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp (the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution): 

“The primary concern for concrete batch plants is fugitive dust — particles of cement, pozzolan, aggregate and sand — is the primary pollutant of concern. Particle pollution is a dangerous and common air pollutant composed of tiny bits of solids, liquids, and gases that can be small enough to penetrate the lungs and even get into your bloodstream. The fugitive dust can come from operations of the plant, but also from trucking raw materials in and finished products out. In other words, there is definitely reason for residents to worry about their health and well-being. Birmingham overall ranked 14th for year-round particle pollution in this year's State of the Air Report. That isn't good! Adding more fugitive dust pollution near the Crossplex is just a bad idea all around.”


Hansen provides additional information about this matter on GASP’s website in a May 10, 2019 article titled, “What’s Up with that Sherman Concrete Plant.”


Doomed by a Catastrophic Failure of Leadership


Mayor Woodfin did not use the power of his office to kill Sherman Industries’ relocation plan when he had a chance to do so. Under the Mayor-Council Act, Woodfin, alone, has the power to enforce all laws and ordinances. This power is the first one listed in Section 4.06 of the Act.

The two most powerful mayors in Alabama history – Richard Arrington, Jr., and former Montgomery mayor Emory Folmar – routinely used this power to stop company operations that threatened the public health, safety and welfare in their respective cities. Sherman Industries knows that Randall Woodfin will not use this power for the benefit of Five Points West residents.


After Woodfin signed off on Sherman Industries’ relocation plan in January, the company quickly and quietly applied for an air permit from the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) to operate its toxic concrete manufacturing facility in the Five Points West community. This is the same agency that has issued air permits for well-known polluters in the North Birmingham area of the city.


As expected, Sherman Industries did not engage the Five Points West community or District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt (who represents the residents of that area). Instead, Sherman Industries got the JCDH to post the company’s application for an air permit on the JCDH website on April 14, 2019, along with an abbreviated public comment period which ended on April 30, 2019. A hearing on the permit application has been scheduled for June 6, 2019.


Sherman Industries is confident that its concrete plant will (a) receive JCDH approval for an air permit and (b) operate in the Five Points West community, as planned. Its parent company, the HeidelbergCement Group, has plenty of experience in permitting concrete manufacturing facilities for commercial operations. The company has run over timid mayors like Randall Woodfin countless times in the course of permitting its concrete plants in 3,000 locations worldwide.


The objective evidence in this case suggests that the residents of Five Points West are doomed. Sherman Industries has already agreed to sell its downtown site for $3,375,000 to a Colorado-based mix-use property developer named Residential Ventures. Sherman Industries believes it has a “lock” on the JCDH air permit application process.


The HeidelbergCement Group has all of the technical documentation that Sherman Industries needs to secure approval for the company’s state and federal environmental permits (especially in the era of President Donald Trump’s deregulation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Governor Kay Ivey’s “benign neglect” of the Alabama’s black community).

The HeidelbergCement Group also knows that the Woodfin administration lacks the political backbone to withhold the issuance of the necessary construction and operating permits for the relocated concrete manufacturing facility, which he has the power to do under Section 4.06 (1) of the Mayor-Council Act. After all, Woodfin has never used this power to fight any major business on any issue.


Finally, the HeidelbergCement Group knows that any attempt by the city council to rezone its Five Points West property at this time will likely be struck down in court as an unconstitutional ex post facto law.


Unlike Birmingham’s weak and submissive city officials, the HeidelbergCement Group has shown throughout history that it will do whatever it takes to win. The company demonstrated this commitment to Adolf Hitler when it collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. The blood of six million Black Germans, Jews, Gypsies, and Gay victims who were exterminated during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany is still on the hands of the HeidelbergCement Group.


Today, the company is demonstrating its disregard for innocent human life by ramming Sherman Industries’ Birmingham concrete manufacturing plant down the throats of concerned Five Points West residents.


Epilogue


It appears that the fate of Five Points West residents is sealed. Mayor Woodfin will not use the power of his office to fight Sherman Industries/the HeidelbergCement Group for their benefit. The city council will not fight for these residents, either. Instead, the mayor and council will issue “feel good” statements of support that are designed to appease the affected community, but that’s about all they will do.


Ironically, District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott is the city council president. Her concern in this matter is superficial, at best. After all, Abbott views the mere presence of innocent young black children who wanted to attend a proposed Major League Baseball-sponsored Youth Baseball Academy in the 100-acre George Ward public park as a “toxic” condition that threaten the safety and security of the adjacent, predominantly white, Glen Iris residential neighborhood. This kind of perceived “pollution” caused her to kill the Youth Baseball Academy project.


Unlike the unsuspecting residents of Flint, Michigan who did not know they were being poisoned and harmed by the lead in the city’s water supply, Birmingham officials know right now that 39,340 vulnerable, innocent residents in the Five Points West community might be exposed to dangerous pollutants from Sherman Industries’ concrete manufacturing plant. Yet, these officials do not have the political will, personal courage, or determination to stop it.


Furthermore, money has already changed hands. The Five Points West community has been sold out. We are witnessing the ultimate act of betrayal -- the needless death of a viable residential community from avoidable environmental pollution.


The only unsolved mystery left at this juncture is whether Mayor Randall Woodfin, or the city council (as a whole), will bear the political blame and fallout from knowingly allowing a toxic concrete manufacturing plant to poison up to 39,340 residents in the Five Points West community without waging one hell of a “do or die” fight for these deserving constituents.

From what I have seen to date, these elected city officials are “bought and paid for” political puppets, not committed environmental protection fighters. Just ask Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Pine Street Strategies. They are in the best position to know.


PHOTO: Sherman Industries' downtown concrete manufacturing plant.


© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.