Saturday, February 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Facility agrees to penalty, other concessions in Alabama air pollution case

The EPA determined toxic gas emissions at the Bluestone Coke plant in North Birmingham regularly polluted historically Black and low-income neighborhoods in the area.

(CN) — Parties in a North Birmingham, Alabama, industrial air pollution case reached a consent decree Friday, imposing financial penalties and new operating procedures to prevent future exceedances of toxic gas emissions into predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods by a metallurgical plant. 

Bluestone Coke owns a metallurgical coke plant in Jefferson County that has operated for more than 100 years, turning raw Appalachian coal into a more pure form of carbon, which is then sold as fuel in cast iron foundries. According to its website, the Birmingham facility incorporates 120 ovens maintained in batteries dating to the 1950s. 

Coal is baked in the ovens at high temperatures for extended periods of time, creating a number of hazardous byproducts not limited to coke oven gas, coal tar, light oil and ammonia sulfate. Between 2017 and 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency performed air emissions monitoring and modeling around the facility, determining “ambient [gas] levels exceeded the national standard and Bluestone was the primary contributor.”

The facility occasionally self-reported its own violations to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and in August 2021, after issuing several notices of violation, the Jefferson County Department of Health filed a complaint against Bluestone under the Alabama Air Pollution Control Act. The agency also refused to renew Bluestone’s operating permit and in October 2021, Bluestone mothballed the facility

The company, which is owned by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, has indicated it is investing in upgrades at the facility and has filed an administrative appeal to renew its permit. 

But according to the consent decree, which has yet to be approved by a judge, Bluestone has agreed to pay a $925,000 penalty and if it resumes operations, must comply with a corrective action plan and other concessions estimated to cost the company far more, according to Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes of the Southern Environmental Law Center

“There is this large bucket of things they have to do in order to remediate the plant, upwards of $50 to $100 million,” Stokes said by phone Friday. “And so add that plus what you have to do and this consent decree which is additional monitoring, additional reporting, independent auditors, then we feel it provides more safeguards for the community.”

Stokes represented the nonprofit health advocacy organization Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP), who intervened in the case. She said untreated coke oven gas was documented to easily escape through gaps in the oven doors and elsewhere. 

GASP Executive Director Michael Hansen said the consent decree is “unprecedented” and a “step in the right direction” toward environmental justice for the legacy pollution in North Birmingham.

“There's a long history of environmental pollution here,” Hansen said Friday, noting the neighborhoods of Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont are surrounded by heavy industry. “A lot of it was also redlined,” he added, speaking of the discriminatory Jim Crow era practice of disinvesting in Black neighborhoods or carving them up for industrial use or highways. “We’re still dealing with that legacy now.”

Half of the civil penalty will be used to clean, create or enhance public spaces and buffer zones in the community, while the other half will be subject to public input. Separately, the Jefferson County Board of Health established a $2 million fund for the purchase and improvement of buffer zones around heavy industrial sites and in September, it was reported the city of Birmingham drafted a $37 million plan to relocate residents of some neighborhoods. 

Hansen said for the past 10 years, the EPA has been remediating some of the properties in the area by digging up the soil and replacing it, but that work has slowed over access issues. He doesn’t advocate for or against relocation, but does believe there should be more options for residents. 

“It's really hard for me to wrap my head around living with a coke plant in my backyard,” he said. “I think it's unsafe for people to live there for a long period of time. So I think the city ought to be in the business of alternative land use and how to right a wrong.”

In a November 2021 interview, Justice said the plant was “very, very, very, very, very, old” and suggested its emissions problems were inherited. Justice suggested his goal was to save the facility from bankruptcy and he was interested in environmental compliance. 

“My family wholeheartedly will always do the right stuff,” he said. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...