Keisha Brown was 12 the first time she stopped breathing.
It was a chilly November night in Birmingham, Alabama.
Brown fell asleep as usual—to the sounds of engines thrumming on the rail line where carloads of coal traveled from the industrial site across the street through the quiet backyards of her neighborhood.
A few hours later, Brown awoke in a gasp, tried to fill her lungs but couldn’t. At the commotion, her mother rushed in and saw her daughter, a usually calm child, panic stricken. They sped to Carraway Hospital where Brown was admitted and diagnosed with severe asthma, a lifelong condition that would periodically cause attacks like the first, a thick mucus coating her inflamed airways.
Nearly 30 years later, Brown says it’s an awful routine: Wake, gasp, rush to the hospital.
At 40, Brown still lives in the same house where her mother brought her home as a baby. It’s modest, white with turquoise trim, a wheelchair ramp leading to a screened-in porch with a clear view of the few remaining houses on her street, and beyond to the 400+ acre industrial site sitting in a valley that was once a dairy farm.
“No one will tell us what’s really going on in there,” Brown said on a December morning when I first visited her at home. In a leather jacket and jeans, Brown had cotton balls tucked in her ears to help with drainage. She speaks in a rapid-fire whisper, as if her body’s trying to keep up with her mind.
A hundred yards away, two-story high piles that look like moss-covered hills—but are really mounds of industrial waste—sit behind a fence blocking the view of factories beyond. Along the chain link, no trespassing signs offer a warning: “Potentially dangerous conditions may exist in this area.”
This is Harriman Park, a tight-knit, predominately African-American and working-class community that’s one of three neighborhoods, alongside Collegeville and Fairmont, in the 35th Avenue Superfund Site designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Just north of downtown Birmingham, these neighborhoods sit between a number of steel mills, cement plants, and two major producers of coke that have been operating for nearly a century. (Coke is coal that’s fired without oxygen, creating a product high in carbon used in manufacturing blast furnaces throughout the city.)
For locals, co-existing with heavy pollution has always been part of life in Birmingham, where industry was and is both a boon and burden to progress. That’s the legacy of the “Magic City,” nicknamed when its population boomed overnight to fill industry jobs. For the prosperity, a little sacrifice was to be expected.
When Brown’s grandfather bought this house nearly 70 years ago, Harriman Park was a respected working-class neighborhood in one of the redlined districts for African Americans in segregated Birmingham. People here were proud of these blocks, pollution or not. Besides, residents say, ask anyone who lived here before the 1970s and the EPA’s federally-mandated air quality laws, and you’ll hear stories of an entire city soaked in soot.
So, it wasn’t strange that residents in North Birmingham grew up in the shadows of smokestacks, drinking milk from cows who pastured under gray plumes, playing outside despite the heavy sulfur stink in the air. They swam and fished in nearby creeks, ate summer squash from their grandmother’s gardens. They didn’t expect to learn their environment was full of dangerous toxins known to cause a variety of illnesses.
But that’s exactly what’s happened over the last decade.
Don’t eat or drink in your yard. Don’t chew gum outside. Don’t grow a garden. Don’t let children play in the soil.
In 2009, the EPA conducted air quality screenings around public schools nationwide. What they found in North Birmingham prompted the agency to test the soil and eventually designate the area as a Superfund site. But it was hardly an open-and-shut case of environmental remediation. Instead, the process that ensued exposed how public health in these neighborhoods has been forsaken by bureaucracy and corruption, and led to new questions about the extent of the damage and who should be held accountable. The questions have gone unanswered.
By 2013, Brown said she was given notices to avoid outdoor activity: Don’t eat or drink in your yard. Don’t chew gum outside. Don’t grow a garden. Don’t let children play in the soil. Wash children and their toys when they come in contact with the soil.
Like other residents, Brown was indignant. Who could possibly keep children from coming in contact with the dirt?
Brown’s own son was 12. She worried about his health, but couldn’t afford to leave the house or her mother, who was permanently disabled after breaking her back transitioning a resident from a bed to a gurney at the nursing home where she worked. When the accident happened, Brown had to leave behind ambitions for law school, reluctantly quitting a job with the government to be her mother’s full-time caretaker. It made the most financial sense. Bills were already piling up from earlier treatments for her mother’s cervical cancer. They weren’t in a great spot.
Hearing their family lived on toxic land felt like another kick from bad luck.
This is the story I’ll hear Brown tell over the six months I’m reporting.
I met Brown in the fall of 2018 and first visited her at home in December while she and Rev. Michael Malcom, Director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, discussed plans for community organizing.
That morning, Brown took us on a tour of the Superfund loop: up the steep hill of Erwin Dairy Road with a sweeping view of smoking towers below. We passed the now shuttered Riggins Elementary School, where neighborhood kids had recess on contaminated soil. We passed houses where lawn chairs and grills sat against the industrial site’s fence line. We passed dilapidated houses and empty lots, but no grocery stores or health clinics. The hospital where Brown was treated for childhood asthma attacks is now shuttered; its broken-windowed remains loom over a main drag into downtown.
“This is how they treat us, like we’re their dump.”
Off and on for months, I shadowed Brown as she advocated for the neighborhood—speaking at Alabama Department of Environmental Management meetings with folders full of photos, maps, and documentation of flood waters; taking notes at grassroots environmental justice meetings; coordinating with activists here and abroad; serving as a neighborhood tour guide for at least one well-intentioned church congregation that arrived on her block in a minibus like tourists on a safari.
She took them, as she had me on my first visit, up the street to an unsanctioned landfill in a clearing and told them, “This is how they treat us, like we’re their dump.”
There’s no telling how many people Brown has introduced to North Birmingham. She’s one of the go-to resident activists, quoted in countless news stories, a kind of environmental injustice spokesperson.
For a decade, she’s worked as an activist with groups like Enact, a team of researchers and community members examining environmental health issues, and she serves as the vice president of the neighborhood association.
Brown long suspected her own illness was a result of environmental exposures. She’s one of a number of Birmingham’s Superfund residents who say they’ve advocated for more transparency and a more mutually beneficial relationship with industry—all with little progress.
“People are surprised when I know the science behind what we’re talking about,” Brown said, pointing out the ways residents of North Birmingham are falsely portrayed as ignorant and helpless in their advocacy.
The reality is, they’re up against some of the wealthiest and most powerful players in the state.
As the EPA made plans to remove contaminated topsoil from the three neighborhoods within the Superfund site, local media began questioning whether the problems were more pervasive than the federal government was acknowledging. Residents spoke out, claiming their health suffered while industry thrived. In response, industry leaders and state agencies contradicted, confused, or down-right obstructed their efforts to forge a real path toward environmental justice.
(For a more complete history, check out local news, including AL.com’s extensive coverage of the politics that got us here.)
By 2011, investigations by local CBS 42 found residents throughout North Birmingham diagnosed with chronic illnesses. Reporter Sonya DiCarlo and her team interviewed residents for months while investigating the potential culprit. They published their findings in two hour-long nightly news specials with harrowing results: Stories of families where multiple generations were suffering from cancers simultaneously, children reliant on inhalers and breathing machines, parents searching for answers for unexplained dermatological and behavioral issues.
These accounts, though, haven’t been backed by government findings.
In 2014, the Jefferson County Department of Health examined cancer data from a 10-year period, comparing African American outcomes in ZIP code 35207 to the rest of the state, specifically looking at cancers known to be caused by environmental exposures. The report found no statistical difference between residents in and outside of the Superfund site. JCDH also examined birth and death records for African Americans living at the Superfund site and found no statistical difference in cancers, COPD, or infant mortality. But some public health specialists said the study was inherently flawed.
Studies as far back as the early 1990s show African Americans in the U.S. are exposed to higher rates of pollution because of racist laws, which makes a study like the one JCDH did challenging, according to Dr. Mary McIntyre, the chief medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).
McIntyre pointed to the history of hazardous sites going next to “poor communities, and often communities of color. That’s not just Alabama, this is across the nation,” she said.
Residents asked why the department didn’t examine living residents or a broader list of illnesses, so JCDH offered physicals during a health fair in the community. Residents with abnormal results were given their information, but the collective data was not made publicly available. Activists began pushing for comprehensive health screenings to make sure all residents were examined for bodily toxins.
A once-beloved elected official and the most powerful politicians in the state sold out some of the poorest people in the city.
In a recent interview, Dr. David Hicks, deputy director of health at the JCDH, said that door-to-door health screenings would “not be an efficient use of resources.” In part, because there’s no medical standard for acceptable levels of toxins in adults.
The chemicals discovered in North Birmingham’s soil include arsenic, lead, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzo(a)pyrene, which are associated with cancer, skin lesions, and developmental delays. Some studies suggest links between exposure to diabetes, neurological disorders, and cardiac disease. Elderly people and children are particularly vulnerable.
Unimaginably, the local school, Hudson K-8, was built on contaminated soil in 2009. Hicks said the JCDH, at the request of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and State Representative Terri Sewell—both Democrats—will be doing mandatory lead testing for the children at the school. Thus far, the department hasn’t set a start date.
“There's absolutely long-term consequences,” Hicks said, referring to the negative cycles perpetuated by environmentally-caused behavioral and neurological disorders that often go undiagnosed. Kids with exposure to toxins like lead often get in a lot of trouble, fall behind in school, and struggle to transition into adulthood.
Meanwhile, the EPA is still in a multi-year clean-up process, which includes replacing more than 1,000 acres of contaminated topsoil in North Birmingham and has, as of May 20, cost $25 million, according to a spokesperson.
Since 2014, the EPA, the state of Alabama, and the five “potentially responsible parties” have been in litigation to determine who will pay the final tally. EPA named Walter Coke; Alagasco; U.S. Pipe and Foundry; KMAC Services; and Drummond Company, the parent company for ABC Coke.
Currently, the clean-up has been paid for by federal tax dollars. The potentially responsible parties have yet to be held accountable.
While the EPA was notifying residents to avoid the very ground they lived on, the agency notified the five companies that might receive the clean-up bill. Walter Coke had already filed bankruptcy (and was bought by ERP Coke in 2016).
Officials at Drummond Co. took matters into their own hands. A Drummond VP, David Roberson, and a lawyer with the firm Balch & Bingham, Joel Gilbert, bribed the district’s elected official, Rep. Oliver Robinson, a Democrat, to oppose the EPA’s presence and encourage residents to not allow EPA to test their soil. The result was a highly coordinated misinformation campaign that led to a lot of confusion among residents.
The group of conspirators also wrote letters on behalf of elected officials to oppose North Birmingham’s placement on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), which was suggested by the EPA. NPL designation would allow for an expedited clean-up process, and the surrounding areas where testing was not done—including the neighboring city of Tarrant, where ABC Coke operates less than a mile from Brown’s home—would finally be tested for contamination. It also would release funds for relocating residents living in toxic environments.
Senator Jeff Sessions, Senator Richard Shelby, state Attorney General Luther Strange, and Governor Robert Bentley—plus a number of other Republican state leaders—signed their names to letters penned by Balch & Bingham opposing the NPL designation.
This is the story most folks have heard about North Birmingham—that a once-beloved elected official and the most powerful politicians in the state sold out some of the poorest people in the city. In 2018, the key conspirators, Roberson, Gilbert, and Robinson, were convicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges. Former Rep. Robinson has apologized and is serving time, while Roberson and Gilbert appeal.
Despite the publicity of the scandal, their efforts to reject the NPL designation—and cause general mistrust and mayhem—remain successful.
Residents are skeptical of who to trust, whether or not their soil should be tested, and whether or not their community is safe. EPA spokesperson James Pinkney said the EPA is continuing to reach out to residents to test more properties, but the agency is not currently planning expansion to Tarrant.
Residents wonder: Why not expand testing across the broader region until clean soil is found? What good is removing a foot of topsoil when the industries that created the pollution in the first place are still operating? And what does all this mean for community health?
Even though the JCDH study didn’t find a link between contaminants and cancer rates, Hicks said North Birmingham won’t be safe until all the contaminated soil has been cleaned.
“Unfortunately, and this is really sad, there were residents that were told to not get their soil tested,” Hicks said. “That's been hurting the community even more.” His stance is characteristic of Alabama’s public health officials; they acknowledge the problem but insist their hands are tied for various reasons, including lack of data and resources necessary to take action.
Adding to the data that contradicts residents’ lived experiences, a 2015 public health assessment report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found the majority of chemical levels in the soil would not lead to substantially higher instances of illness in the population. There are a number of caveats in the report, language like “the science of environmental health is still developing.” Ultimately, the report operates in hypotheticals instead of genuinely assessing community health.
This report is important because the Environmental Management Commission (EMC), a governor-appointed body responsible for the state’s environmental policy, used its findings to encourage the director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to oppose North Birmingham’s placement on the EPA’s NPL.
“ADEM and EMC are friendly with industry,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of GASP, an environmental nonprofit that played a key role in the convictions of the anti-EPA conspirators. “They're looking for excuses not to do anything. And I think it's pretty clear that it's because they're buddies with Drummond.”
If the community was awarded money for lost health, lost home value, and lost money to healthcare expenses, what might that total be?
In Feb. 2019, Drummond Co. was ordered to pay $775,000 for benzene pollution in a settlement to be split equally between the EPA and the JCDH. A representative for JCDH said the money will go directly to the impacted communities.
Before his death in 2016, CEO of Drummond Co., Garry Drummond, was the wealthiest person in the state of Alabama, worth $980 million. His family has sat on the board of trustees for the University of Alabama and has donated for years to Republican politicians and pro-coal lobbying groups.
The $775,000 settlement is a drop in a multi-million dollar bucket.
If the community was awarded money for lost health, lost home value, and lost money to healthcare expenses, what might that total be?
Thanks in part to Brown’s relentless advocacy, various activists and public health researchers are hoping non-government community health surveys might right the ship in North Birmingham.
These groups are asking if there’s a relation between illnesses or lowered life expectancy and the environmental exposures of living in North Birmingham. They aren’t the first non-government agencies to try to assess resident health, though.
Past efforts, including a major study by a University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher, have failed or mysterious halted—further damaging trust of residents who’ve repeatedly offered blood, urine, and breath tests without ever getting their results.
Dr. Shauntice Allen, an assistant professor of environmental health science at UAB, hopes to change that. Allen conducts qualitative community health surveys and runs a grant-giving program for community-based actions, including organizations in North Birmingham. A Black woman, she’s also got friends and family who live in affected areas.
With department collaboration, Allen is planning to conduct a survey that specifically asks residents how pollution impacts their daily lives. It’s important to have that “community perspective as well as the data,” she said in a recent interview.
But data alone won’t end any debate over resident health, Allen said. “Obviously having that information and then how it's received are two different things. So, you can equip people all day long with the right tools, the right information, the right graphs, charts, buzzwords, talking points, etcetera... but how do you make change?”
Restoring Eden is an evangelical environmental group that has conducted community health surveys in a number of places where people live in close proximity to pollution. Their founding director, Peter Illyn, began working with Brown in 2017.
Restoring Eden will begin canvassing this summer and will send their data to Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Indiana University, who’s examined the team’s findings for years. Based on Restoring Eden’s work, Hendryx has published findings linking poor health to proximity to mountaintop removal in West Virginia. (He’s given a TED talk about their work.)
Sarah Yonts, the North Birmingham program manager for the group, sees their work as complementary to other efforts. “If these results showed that there are health implications associated with industrial pollution, then it would only strengthen someone’s argument” for more funding and for more research.
JCDH stands by its statistical findings, but multiple representatives I spoke to were sympathetic to residents worried about their health.
Though no one at JCDH spoke of budget restraints, Dr. McIntyre at ADPH said outside partnerships are welcome since there’s simply not enough money for the state to do this kind of testing when there are so many other problems the health departments are working to remedy, and the problems of legacy pollution go back more than a century.
“Who has the resources to adequately deal with it?” McIntyre asked.
It’s a rhetorical question, but we both know the answer.
Over the months since our first meeting, I saw the ways Keisha Brown would have been—or still could be—a great lawyer.
She’d call me when a reporter got something wrong or a politician who promised something never followed through.
She wondered why the rest of the city didn’t seem to care about what was happening in North Birmingham. Didn’t they realize their own homes weren’t so far away? The middle-class, mostly white neighborhoods benefitting from Birmingham’s recent growth are only a few miles from the Superfund Site. Some of the so-called up-and-coming neighborhoods are just a few blocks away.
Each time she calls, a few days then weeks pass, and things remain the same: Excavators make their way through sites on the contamination list, bringing in new dirt stored at the old Carver High School, and taking the dangerous dirt out of town in dump trucks. A few residents said they’ve followed the trucks to a landfill in a rural part of the state. The North Birmingham residents rally against Title V pollution permits that JCDH issues to companies. Residents bring out their trauma, again, and permits are renewed, again.
Brown wondered why the rest of the world, especially powerful national organizations, ignored the children living in her toxic neighborhood while rallying for clean water in Flint. No one from Sierra Club or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organizations with histories of suing for environmental justice on behalf of communities of color, returned my calls or emails for this story. The NAACP metro-Birmingham president was asked to resign for his involvement in the anti-EPA scandal.
If the groups working to conduct legitimate public health surveys do find a connection between residents living on toxic land and illness, Brown said the next step would be to get people to care.
This journalism project was made possible by a fellowship from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which supports low-income families in strengthening their voice and mobilizing their communities to achieve a more just and equitable society for all.