Has Sherman Industries Hoodwinked Woodfin?
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on May 26, 2019
Yesterday, we stood in the 101-degree sweltering heat in front of 3240 Fayette Avenue in West Birmingham for one hour. This is the spot where Sherman Industries intends to construct and operate two industrial-scale concrete manufacturing plants. It is surrounded by several predominantly black residential neighborhoods and is directly adjacent to the City of Birmingham’s new $55 million state-of-the-arts CrossPlex recreational facility.
In recent years, over $100 million in city government and private sector dollars have been invested into developing CrossPlex Village to stimulate additional development in the community. During the same period, the city invested vast dollars into the Parkside District in downtown Birmingham.
Sherman Industries has been asked to leave its downtown location because the predominantly white residents in the new and booming Railroad Park and Regions Field neighborhoods do not want to be exposed to its non-stop air pollution. To accommodate these residents, Sherman Industries has decided to impose its unwanted presence and corporate will on the residents of Five Points West.
This relocation move represents a classic example of modern-day environmental racism, plain and simple. Environmental racism is unlawful. Section 4.06(1) of Birmingham’s Mayor-Council Act authorizes Mayor Randall Woodfin to “enforce all laws and ordinances,” including those laws and ordinances that prohibit acts of environmental racism.
As we stood in the unbearable heat yesterday, I listened to Susan Palmer, Kimberly Chatman, April Williams, and nearly a dozen other dedicated and respected neighborhood leaders express their strong opposition to locating two concrete plants on the Sherman Industries site. These leaders are united in their goal of stopping Sherman Industries from coming to their neighborhood with commercial-scale air pollution and nuisance-level business operations. They are passionate in their advocacy. They are determined to protect the improving quality of life in the Five Points West community. They are committed to winning this fight. And, they are real leaders who mean serious business.
On May 7 and 21, 2019, Mayor Randall Woodfin assured city council members and Five Points West residents that Sherman Industries would not be constructing and operating its two concrete manufacturing plants on this large vacant site in Five Points West. Last Wednesday, he told me the same thing.
On May 21, 2019, Lehigh Hanson spokesman Jeff Sieg issued this carefully worded statement:
“Sherman Industries intends to continue working with the city and the community to improve everyone’s understanding of the scope of our project and trying to identify a mutually acceptable solution at Fayette Avenue in Five Points West, or possibly an equally viable location that is, like the Fayette Avenue site, properly zoned for this business.”
Lehigh Hanson is the U.S. parent company of Sherman Industries, LLC. The German-based HeidelbergCement Group is the international parent company of Lehigh Hanson. The HeidelbergCement Company, which operates 3,000 concrete plants worldwide, was a known collaborator with the Nazis’ death machine during World War II.
On Friday, Sherman Industries made it clear to the local NBC TV news that the company is moving forward with its application for a Title V Air Permit for the Fayette Avenue site. The Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) has scheduled a public hearing on the permit for June 6, 2019.
If Sherman Industries’ air permit is granted, the company will likely get approval from state and federal environmental regulatory agencies for the concrete plants at the Five Points West site.
Based upon my independent research and publicly available information from the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP), here is where we are today:
1. Sherman Industries has no intention to abandon its plan to relocate its concrete manufacturing operations to the Fayette Avenue site.
2. The June 6th hearing is going forward, as planned.
3. The application fees associated with JCDH’s review and processing of Sherman Industries’ air permit ranges from $1 to $2 million.
4. JCHD has issued Title V Air Permits to the most notorious air polluters in the State of Alabama, including (a) ABC Coke in North Birmingham, (b) Alabama Power Company's J.H. Miller, Jr., Steam Electric Generating Plant, (c) ACIPCO in North Birmingham, and (d) 28 other major air polluters.
5. JCDH has zero interest in stopping environmental racism. Major air polluters control this agency.
6. On May 18, 2015, Lehigh Hanson secured an air permit from JCDH for the Lehigh Cement Company in Leeds, Alabama. The issuance of this permit gives Lehigh Hanson a tactical advantage over neighborhood protestors and city officials who are opposing the two concrete batch plants on the Fayette Avenue property because JCDH is already familiar with the Lehigh Hanson family of concrete manufacturing companies.
7. Thanks to JCDH’s issuance of 31 Title V Air Permits, Birmingham ranks in the top 15 urban areas with the largest disparity in air pollution exposure between whites and nonwhites, placing an undue burden on poor communities and people of color.
8. In general, the people most at risk to the harmful effects of air pollution are children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with preexisting health troubles like asthma, COPD, and diabetes. In addition to those vulnerable groups, research has consistently shown that people of color and low-income families are disproportionately burdened by air pollution.
9. Air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for premature death and disease in the world. There is no safe level of exposure to particle pollution.
It was painfully obvious to everybody who gathered at 3240 Fayette Avenue yesterday that Sherman Industries and Lehigh Hanson have hoodwinked Mayor Woodfin and his department heads. They are now going to publicly humiliate Woodfin by ramming the company’s two concrete manufacturing plants at Fayette Avenue down his throat regardless of what he and the residents of Five Points West think about this business. They are motivated by corporate greed, arrogance, a total lack of respect for Mayor Woodfin, and a reckless disregard for human life in the Five Points West community.
As a public relations gesture, Sherman Industries has talked to city officials about offering jobs to area residents in an effort to diffuse the growing neighborhood protests. They also want to make this pitch to neighborhood leaders, but not one of them wants to listen to this kind of appeasing rhetoric.
The truth is this: Sherman Industries and Lehigh Hanson are coming to Five Points West unless Randall Woodfin uses his mayoral power right now to stop this blatant act of environmental racism. State and federal officials will not stop them. Alabama's judicial system will not stop them. Birmingham’s corporate leaders will not step forward and stop them. The only person in city government with the legal authority and duty to stop this act of environmental racism is Randall Woodfin.
Unless Randall Woodfin draws a line in the sand on this issue today and flexes his mayoral muscle in a clear, convincing and forceful manner between now and June 6th, it will be too late to stop Sherman Industries from building and operating these two plants in the Five Points West community. Merely voicing his opposition to the concrete plants will not stop Sherman Industries. Woodfin must demonstrate to Sherman Industries that he means real business on this matter. In this case, action speaks louder than words.
This is a “do or die” fight for Mayor Randall Woodfin. It is not for the faint of heart. It will define his duration in office and legacy as mayor. Losing this fight with Sherman Industries is not an acceptable option for Woodfin. His manhood is on the line.
The city council cannot help Mayor Woodfin in this matter. Only Mayor Woodfin has the power to “enforce all laws and ordinances.” Even if the council had the power to help Woodfin, the overwhelming majority of its members are little more than political mannequins with name tags.
Mayor Woodfin has less than two weeks to prove he can earn the respect of Sherman Industries. He must force this company to withdraw its application for an air permit for the Five Points West site by June 6th. This is Woodfin's moment of truth.
PHOTO: Sherman Industries' concrete manufacturing location in downtown Birmingham.