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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Death and Doom: The Saga of Sherman Industries and the HeidelbergCement Group

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on May 9, 2019

Birmingham, Alabama residents never paid much attention to Sherman Industries, LLC, before the company’s name exploded in the local news last month after District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt and former SCLC (Gadsden, Alabama Chapter) president Joseph Cole exposed the company’s plan to relocate its downtown concrete manufacturing plant to a site it has owned in a predominantly black residential neighborhood since the 1930s. These two “whistleblowers” have valiantly tried to avert a potential environmental disaster of massive proportions and deadly consequences. Their efforts may be too late.

On January 24, 2019, Sherman Industries presented its relocation plan to Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Department of Planning, Engineering, and Permits (PEP). Woodfin, who is a first term mayor, blessed the plan without doing his homework on Sherman Industries and its global parent company, the HeidelbergCement Group.

For the next four months, Sherman Industries and the Woodfin administration quietly worked together to facilitate the company’s concrete plant relocation to the Five Points West community. PEP officials kept Mayor Woodfin in the loop as the plan moved forward.

From the beginning of their interaction with Woodfin’s team, Sherman Industries knew how dangerous and toxic its concrete manufacturing plant was. Woodfin did not know anything about these dangers.

Sherman Industries and Woodfin were trying to accommodate the wishes of predominantly white residents in the booming downtown areas around Railroad Park and Regions Field. Like Sherman Industries, these downtown residents were well aware that concrete manufacturing facilities release toxins into the air, ground, and water that can be extremely dangerous to the health, safety and lives of humans in the surrounding communities. They wanted the concrete plant removed from their neighborhoods.

Woodfin knew the company’s site in Five Points West was already zone for heavy industrial use. However, he did not know until recently that this zoning designation was made in the 1930s by an all-white Birmingham city government that forced its black citizens to live in neighborhoods that were sandwiched between properties that were zoned for hazardous waste and those that were zoned for heavy commercial and industrial use.

The HeidelbergCement Group’s History of Collaboration with the Nazis

The HeidelbergCement Group is no stranger to death and doom. Sadly, Woodfin did not know the following historical facts about the company that wants to manufacture concrete in a black residential neigborhood:

1. Sherman Industries is an affiliate of German-based HeidelbergCement Grop. HeidelbergCement was founded in 1873 in Heidelberg, Germany. It is the world’s largest producers of cement and ready mix concrete. In 2018, the HeidelbergCement Group generated revenues of €17.3 billion Euros (or $19.3 billion U.S. dollars). The company has 59,054 employees who work in 3,000 locations in 60 countries.

2. After the Nazis won political power in Germany, the Reichswirtschaftsministerium (i.e., Germany's national economy ministry) passed a law that automatically enrolled the HeidelbergCement companies and other German cement factories in the Deutsche Zementverband, the Nazis’ newly founded trade organization. During World War II, the HeidelbergCement Group and other German cement companies became a vital part of the Nazis’ war and death machine.

3. During the Nazis’ reign, black Germans were socially isolated and forbidden to have sexual relations and marriages with Aryans by the racial laws. In continued discrimination directed at the so-called “Rhineland bastards,” Nazi officials subjected some 500 black German children in the Rhineland to forced sterilization.  Blacks were considered "enemies of the race-based state" along with Jews, Gypsies, and Gay people. The Nazis originally sought to rid the German state of Jews and Romani by means of deportation (and later extermination), while black Germans were to be segregated and eventually exterminated through compulsory sterilization.

4. Prisoners of war (POWs) faced mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, who did not uphold the regulations imposed by the Geneva Convention (the international agreement on the conduct of war and the treatment of wounded and captured soldiers). Black soldiers of the American, French, and British Armies were worked to death on construction projects or died as a result of mistreatment in concentration or prisoner-of-war camps. Others were never even incarcerated, but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo. Black prisoners received harsher treatment and less food than white POWs, and while most white POWs were imprisoned, many of the black soldiers either worked until they died or were executed.

6. After Germany's surrender, Allied troops occupied the partly-destroyed cement factories which were managed until 1948 by three trustees. One of them was Dr. Erhard Schott, who was one of the HeidelbergCement Group's top managers and the director of the Leimen, Germany factory. Dr. Schott was the only HeidelbergCement Group executive who was forced to resign after the Nazis won political power in Germany because of his “distant attitude” toward the Nazi regime. The other HeidelbergCement Group executives supported Adolf Hitler, the Nazis' war efforts, the Holocaust, and the mistreatment of black Germans and black POWs.

Decades later, the HeidelbergCement Group acquired Lehigh Cement company in 1977. This acquisition gave this German concrete company a presence in the United States. Then the HeidelbergCement Group acquired U.S.-based Hanson PLC in 2007. Today, Sherman Industries is a Lehigh Hanson company, whose global parent is the HeidelbergCement Group.

When he met with Sherman Industries, Randall Woodfin was woefully lacking in his knowledge of the HeidelbergCement Group’s role in facilitating death and doom in Nazi Germany. Woodfin was also unprepared to deal with a global concrete manufacturing company that collaborated in the systematic abuse, inhumane treatment, and killing of tens of thousands of black people (in Africa) and at least six million German Jews, Gypsies, and Gay people in Germany.

Beyond that, Mayor Woodfin was not aware that the City of Nashville, Tennessee had stopped a similar concrete manufacturing plant relocation plan by Nashville Ready Mix (which is NOT a HeidelbergCement Group company). In 2015, Nashville Ready Mix presented Nashville officials with a plan to relocate its concrete batch plant to another site the company owned in northeast Nashville. Residents in the affected community protested the planned relocation of the toxic concrete plant and super-prepared city planners recommended that the Metro Planning Commission disapprove construction. The company withdrew the plan before the Planning Commission voted on the plan.

The HeidelbergCement Group Knows How to Fight Local Governments and Win

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 JCDH that has issued Air Permits for notorious 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.

The HeidelbergCement Group has plenty of experience in getting concrete manufacturing facilities permitted for commercial operation. The company has permitted concrete plants in 3,000 locations worldwide.

Woodfin has NO prior experience in stopping this kind of environmental permitting activity by a global giant in the concrete manufacturing business.

According to confidential and reliable industry sources, the HeidelbergCement Group plans to outthink, outwork, outspend, and outmaneuver Mayor Woodfin at every turn. They do not respect Woodfin as a mayor and fell betrayed by him now. The HeidelbergCement Group hoodwinked Woodfin once and it believes the company can hoodwink him again.

What is more, the HeidelbergCement Group has NOT directed Sherman Industries to withdraw the company’s relocation plan because: (a) 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; (b) Sherman Industries believes it has a “lock” on the JCDH Air Permit application process; (c) the HeidelbergCement Group has all of the technical documentation 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); (d) the HeidelbergCement Group knows the Woodfin administrative team lacks the technical expertise and backbone to withhold the issuance of the necessary construction and operating permits for the relocated concrete manufacturing facility; and (e) 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 by the courts as an unconstitutional ex post facto law.

Mayor Woodfin Woke Up Too Late and is Doing Too Little

Unfortunately for the residents of Five Points West, Mayor Randall Woodfin woke up to what is happening in this matter too late to stop Sherman Industries’ relocation plan. The HeidelbergCement Group has shown throughout history that it will do whatever it takes to win. They demonstrated this commitment when the company collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and they are demonstrating it today by ramming the concrete plat down their throats of Five Points West residents.

Meanwhile, Mayor Woodfin has engaged the services of a couple of local “political hustlers” in a feeble attempt to rehabilitate his “street" credibility. They are NOT fighting the HeidelbergCement Group or Sherman Industries. Instead, they are attempting to battle the media fallout from my investigative reports.

Woodfin has also attempted to pass off the responsibility for this self-inflicted mess from his office to a “do-nothing” city council in the hopes that the council can kill Sherman Industries’ concrete plant relocation plan through a zoning change that will likely be defeated in court. This is viewed as wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, the HeidelbergCement Group has sized up Mayor Randall Woodfin and the Birmingham city council, as a whole. The HeidelbergCement Group does not believe that this body of weak, unprepared, naïve, inexperienced, and lazy public servants is capable of protecting the Five Points West neighborhood from the dangerous toxins that will surely but slowly poison these residents.

When one considers the HeidelbergCement Group’s assessment of the Woodfin administration, which gave Sherman Industries a four-month head-start on the unsuspecting residents of the Five Points West community who are opposing the relocation plan, the 142-year-old concrete manufacturing company just may be right.

Unfortunately for the West Points West neighborhood residents, the Woodfin administrative team does not know history and does not value institutional knowledge.

PHOTO: The HeidelbergCement Company collaborated with Führer Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany during World War II. Only one HeidelbergCement Group company manager/director resisted Hitler's campaign of death and doom that was perpetrated in a Holocaust that killed an estimated six million Black Germans, Jews, Gypsies, and Gay people. Now the concrete manufacturing giant, which operates through its Sherman Industries affiliate in Birmingham, is seeking to relocate a toxic concrete manufacturing plant to a stable black residential neighborhood on property that benefited from the city's redlining of residential neighborhoods and racially discriminatory zoning decisions in the 1930s.

PHOTO: A Black German (right) eats his bread in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

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