• Donald V. Watkins

Why Randall Woodfin Will Not Fight Sherman Industries

By Donald V. Watkins


©Copyrighted and Published on May 19, 2019


Residents of the predominantly black Five Points West community of Birmingham, Alabama are desperately trying to stop a dangerous concrete manufacturing plant from relocating to this revitalized community. They have fought long and hard in recent decades to improve the quality of life for the 39,340 people who live in their proud community. Against all odds, they have changed the face and character of their community for the better.


Now, the health, safety and welfare of Five Points West residents community are threatened by Sherman Industries, a known commercial air polluter. The company secured its property in this community at a time when black residents were powerless to stop zoning ordinances that allowed commercial polluters like Sherman Industries to dump hazardous waste in the grounds their children played on and the water they drank. They were also powerless to stop particle pollution from commercial power plants and concrete batch plants that contaminated the air they breathed.


Sherman Industries is a beneficiary of environmental racism from the 1930s. The company’s authority to locate its pollution-spewing concrete manufacturing plant in the Five Points West community was conferred upon Sherman Industries in the 1930s by an all-white city government that viewed this community as a place to isolate, segregate, and subjugate blacks. In 1933, the residents in this community (and other African-Americans across the South) had "no rights that white men were bound to respect." If they demanded respect, they were lynched.


An Accomplice to Modern-Day Environmental Racism


Today, Sherman Industries is poised to relocate and operate its air pollution machine in the Five Points West community. It has applied for and will likely receive an air permit from the Jefferson County Health Department after a public hearing on June 6, 2019.

Federal regulators, who support President Donald J. Trump’s mission to gut environmental protection regulations, are expected to sign-off on the company’s operations in Five Points West, as well.


The State of Alabama, which goes to extreme lengths to protect life inside a mother’s womb, has never cared much about the lives and well-being of its birthed black citizens. As such, Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management is expected to quickly approve Sherman Industries’ operational permits for this neighborhood.


The government with a moral obligation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and legal authority under the Mayor-Council Act to stop Sherman Industries from contaminating the residents of the Five Points West community is the City of Birmingham. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, the city’s mayor and a majority of its city council are black.

What is more, Mayor Randall Woodfin, alone, has the statutory power and authority under Section 4.06 of the Mayor-Council Act to kill Sherman Industries' plan to relocate from downtown to Five Points West. For the reasons explained in this article, Woodfin has failed and refused to exercise his power to save this community.


To date, Woodfin has offered empty rhetoric and carefully measured lip-service as a substitute for forceful mayoral action. None of Woodfin’s words has stopped Sherman Industries from going forward with its relocation plan.


In the Political World, Money Talks


Unfortunately for the residents in the Five Points West community, Mayor Randall Woodfin does not enjoy the political freedom to use the executive powers of his office to kill the concrete plant relocation to their neighborhood. He was “bought and paid for” by the Number 1 air polluter in the state – Alabama Power Company.


Alabama Power financed Woodfin’s campaign for mayor in 2017. Together with some of its key vendors and networking partners, Alabama Power raised more than $300,000 of the $586,717 in cash Woodfin reported on his campaign disclosure form for Calendar Year 2017. Some of Alabama Power’s better known corporate friends and political allies who contributed to the Woodfin campaign include: (a) Alabama Power Company Employees State Political Action Committee, $5,000; (b) Gene Hallman’s Bruno Event Team, LLC, $5,000; (c) Protective Life Corporation Political Action Committee, $5,000; (d) Regions Financial Corporation Political Action Committee, $5,000; (e) Shipt, Inc., $1,000; (f) DVA Holdings Company, $5,000; and (g) Alabama Realtors Political Action Committee, $5,000. These contributions did not appear on Woodfin’s campaign disclosure report until after the October 3, 2017 run-off election.


In addition to these donations, Alabama Power Company’s financial commitment to Woodfin was fulfilled by campaign contributions from dazzling array of participating PACs, vendors, and individuals that comprise the utility giant’s constellation of political relationships. Included among them is a litany of lawyers (and/or their wives) from the Birmingham-based Balch & Bingham law firm that represents Alabama Power and its affiliate entities.


The public is familiar with Balch & Bingham because two of the law firm’s partners, Joel Iverson Gilbert and Steven George McKinney, were indicted by a federal grand jury in September 2017 on charges of bribing former Alabama State Representative Oliver Robinson to block a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiative to add a predominantly black community in North Birmingham to a federal superfund cleanup site. Gilbert was convicted, along with Drummond Company executive David Roberson. McKinney was acquitted. Oliver Robinson pled guilty.


Lamell McMorris, a Morehouse College graduate and dependable Alabama Power Company ally from Washington, D.C., signaled his early support for Woodfin on February 20, 2017 with a $1,000 personal campaign contribution. McMorris would later raise tens of thousands of dollars for Woodfin’s campaign from out-of-state contributors that would be credited towards Alabama Power’s $300,000 commitment to Woodfin. As discussed below, McMorris would also play a vital role in Sherman Industries’ ability to slide into Five Points West with no resistance from Mayor Randall Woodfin.


Concrete Batch Plants in Residential Neighborhoods Can Be Nixed, but this Result Requires Political Hardball


It is universally recognized that air pollution is associated with heart and lung problems and premature death. Large pollutant particles in the air can cause irritation and discomfort, while small, fine pollutant particles from sources such as auto exhaust, power plants, and concrete batch plants can penetrate deeply into lung tissue and the bloodstream. Exposure to fine particle air pollution has been linked to problems with respiratory and cardiovascular functions, including: (a) decreased lung function; (b) asthma; (c) chronic bronchitis; (d) irregular heartbeat; (e) heart attack; and (f) early death in those suffering from heart disease or lung disease.


With this in mind, enlightened cities and communities have fought hard to purge concrete manufacturing plants from their city limits, or at least keep them from locating in and around residential neighborhoods.

In 2015, Nashville’s municipal government killed a plan by Nashville Ready Mix to relocate its plant to a residential neighborhood.


A February 11, 2017 exposé in the Houston Chronicle spotlighted the experiences of residents in the community surrounding Integrity Ready Mix in Houston, Texas. The article disclosed the devastating toll that long operating hours, non-stop noise, and endless air pollution from concrete batch plants are taking on the quality of life in these neighborhoods.

In early 2017, Birmingham enjoyed success in ridding itself of one of these concrete batch plant polluters. That year, Mayor William Bell forced Ready Mix USA to move from its downtown location behind the new Social Security building and near a predominantly black residential community to a remote industrial location on Ruffner Road just outside the city limits. Bell accomplished the removal of Ready Mix USA from its downtown site by adamantly refusing to sign-off on the Alabama Department of Transportation’s bridge replacement work on I-20 in downtown Birmingham until Ready Mix USA agreed to relocate its concrete batch plant. In short, Bell did not give the State of Alabama what it needed until he got what he demanded for area residents.


Bell used the might of his office, his executive powers under Section 4.06 of the Mayor-Council Act, and hardball tactics to abate a known air pollution operation within the city limits of Birmingham. His executive action was resolute and was taken without fanfare.


To date, Mayor Woodfin has shown no signs that he is ready to play hardball with Sherman Industries in order to block the company from cranking up its pollution machine in the Five Points West community. Furthermore, Woodfin has not explained his unwillingness to use the powers of his office to fight the company’s relocation plan.


The Art of Seducing and Sedating Birmingham’s Black Community with “Happy News”


From 1956 to 1971, The Birmingham News was a willing participant in the FBI’s official COINTELPRO program that was designed to discredit and destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Abraham Woods, Rosa Parks, and a host of other civil rights activists. During much of this period, The Birmingham News published a separate section in its daily newspaper for “colored news” that featured non-controversial blacks. After the formal COINTELPRO program ended in 1971, The Birmingham News continued its COINTELPRO role in an unofficial capacity for the next four decades.


In 1953, Dr. Jessie Lewis, a local black entrepreneur, founded The Birmingham Times to provide comprehensive news coverage on topics of interest to the city’s neglected black community. The BirminghamTimes was an important counter-balance to The Birmingham News’ openly hostile COINTELPRO news coverage of black and white advocates for political inclusion, economic empowerment, educational parity, social equality, and the fair administration of civil and criminal justice.

In 1979, The Birmingham Times was instrumental in electing Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr., as Birmingham’s first black mayor. In subsequent municipal elections, The Birmingham Times was a substantial force in securing the election of six blacks out of nine total city councilors.


On January 28, 2016, The Birmingham Times announced that Dr. Lewis sold his newspaper to the Foundation for Progress in Journalism (FPJ). This non-profit organization was established in 2013 and funded by the Alabama Power Foundation, according to the announcement. IRS records show that the Alabama Power Foundation has poured $185,000 into FPJ since 2016.


Regions Bank is also a major sponsor for FPJ fundraisers. Other sponsors include: (a) the Balch & Bingham law firm, (a) the Alabama Media Group (which owns The Birmingham News and AL.com); (c) Joe Perkins’ Matrix LLC; (d) Vulcan Materials Co.; (d) the Alabama Broadcasters Association; (e) the Alabama Press Association; (f) the Birmingham Business Alliance; and (g) BBVA Compass Bank.


Lamell McMorris, an early Randall Woodfin’s campaign contributor and fundraising partner of Alabama Power Company, is an FPJ board member. He later played a critical role in facilitating Alabama Power Company’s commitment to deliver $300,000 in campaign donations to Woodfin.


Robert Blalock, a public relations spin doctor at Alabama Power Company, is another FPJ board member. Prior to joining Alabama Power, Blalock was a reporter and editorial page editor at The Birmingham News. He is a specialist in molding public opinion on controversial issues.


John O. Hudson, III, is FPJ’s board chairman. Hudson is a licensed attorney and highly respected corporate leader who now serves as executive vice president and chief external and public affairs officer at Southern Company Gas in Atlanta. He was president of the Alabama Power Foundation and vice president of Public Relations and Charitable Giving for Alabama Power when FPJ purchased The Birmingham Times.


Brian Hamilton is another FPJ board member. He runs A.G. Gaston Construction Company, which is an Alabama Power Company networking partner.


The other FPJ board members are Dr. George French, President of Miles College, and Samuel Martin. Alabama Power Company and its political ally, Regions Bank, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Miles College and its affiliate entities in recent years.


After the change in ownership at The Birmingham Times, the newspaper hired a seasoned team of executives and reporters, improved its design, enhanced its online presence, and published a steady stream of “Happy News” for its targeted readership. “Happy News” features positive stories about community events and uplifting profiles of non-controversial people.

“Happy News” does not include hard hitting, investigative reporting that: (a) exposes known polluters in Alabama, (b) spotlights public corruption within local, state or federal government, or (c) shows the need for transparency and accountability in government operations and campaign financing laws. Because The Birmingham Times has historically received about $75,000 a year in advertising money from the City of Birmingham, “Happy News” does not include criticism of the Woodfin administration (or his predecessors in office).


Finally, “Happy News” does not include any kind of negative media coverage of Alabama Power Company, its networking business partners and political allies, and/or politicians supported by the Business Council of Alabama.


The Birmingham Times’ coverage of Sherman Industries’ controversial concrete manufacturing plant relocation plan has been limited to a powder-puff article about Woodfin’s May 7, 2019 announcement that he opposes the plan. The newspaper has not written about the well-known air pollution hazards from a concrete batch plant operating in a residential neighborhood. Likewise, The Birmingham Times has not condemned Woodfin’s painfully obvious and unconscionable inaction in this matter.


Like the band that played music to calm the passengers while the Titanic was sinking, The Birmingham Times is piping “Happy News” into the endangered Five Points West community as Sherman Industries prepares to sink the quality of life in their proud neighborhood.


The Birmingham Times is joined in the art of seducing and sedating residents in the Five Points West community by The Birmingham News and AL.com, both of which have downplayed the premature death and disease that will likely occur among these residents in the event the concrete batch plant becomes operational in their neighborhood.


Epilogue


We are witnessing the death of a revitalized predominantly black Birmingham, Alabama community whose residents exercised their right under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to elect candidates of their choice during the 2017 municipal elections. Because campaign money has passed hands, the popular, 37-year-old, articulate, millennial mayor they elected will not use the full power of his office to advance their political interests and protect them from deadly air pollution.

The black-owned newspaper that once supplied Birmingham’s black community with the critical information it needed to improve the quality of their lives is no longer black-owned. It is now owned by a non-profit entity that was funded by the biggest air polluter in Alabama – Alabama Power Company. As a result of this change in ownership, The Birmingham Times is NOT in a position to condemn Sherman Industries’ air pollution or its concrete plant relocation plan. Likewise, it cannot hold Mayor Woodfin accountable for his failure to kill the relocation plan.


If they are to be saved from the tragic fate that awaits them, the residents of the Five Points West community must save themselves. Except for District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt's early protest against the relocation plan, their elected city officials have abandoned them. Mayor Randall Woodfin took the proverbial “thirty pieces of silver” from Alabama Power Company and its political allies. He cannot give this money back.

Unless the 39,340 residents in the Five Points West community can find a modern-day “David” who is willing to slay the “Goliath” known as Sherman Industries, they will suffer air pollution and related diseases and death for decades to come.


PHOTO: Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin will not fight to keep Sherman Industries from locating a dangerous concrete manufacturing plant in the revitalized Five Points West community. He has surrendered this proud community to a known air polluter without firing a shot from his mighty arsenal of mayoral weapons. This proverbial "David" will not slay the "Goliath" known as Sherman Industries.


© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.