The owner of one of Birmingham, Alabama’s oldest industrial plants has agreed to pay a nearly $1 million fine after he released excessive amounts of toxic air pollution into nearby historic black neighborhoods, according to a draft consent decree filed Friday in a Jefferson County court.
If the consent decree is approved by a judge, the Jefferson County Board of Health’s $925,000 fine against Bluestone Coke would be the largest fine in agency history. But that’s only a small fraction of the more than $60 million in fines the company could have faced for its alleged violations. The consent decree would not require Bluestone to admit wrongdoing.
The plant was the subject of a ProPublica investigation in September that revealed how Bluestone, owned by the family of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, repeatedly failed to make crucial repairs to the facility. The lack of timely maintenance accelerated the release of carcinogenic chemicals into the air that nearby residents breathed.
In August 2021, after finding Bluestone in gross violation of its air pollution rules, the Jefferson County Health Department denied the company’s application to renew its operating license. The board that oversees the health department also sued Bluestone, alleging the company’s operation of the plant was a “threat to public health.” Due to the scale of the repairs needed, the plant, which for more than a century has been turning coal into a fuel called coke, has been idle since October 2021. Bluestone will be able to work on reopening the plant once a judge will have signed the agreement.
In the generations leading up to Bluestone’s acquisition of the factory in 2019, people living in the area – some of whom were forced to reside there due to racist housing policies in the 20th century – were exposed to levels of air and ground contaminants that ranked among the worst in the country. The pollution stained the facades of nearby homes with a black smut, helped drive home values down to just $1,000, and made residents so sick that families feared letting children play outside.
The coking plant was part of a cluster of industrial facilities on the north side of town that became a symbol of environmental injustice in the south. Government agencies in the region have struggled to reduce harm to working-class communities of color due to disproportionate exposure to industrial pollution, according to Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former environmental justice official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Protection.
Environmental experts told ProPublica that any penalty less than $1 million would be shockingly low.
Steve Ruby, an attorney who works with the Justice family, said in a statement that “any criticism that the amount is too low is unfounded and fails to take into account the full context of the resolution.” He added that the consent order “will provide the certainty the company needs to complete its assessment of the future of the plant.”
“Despite investing tens of millions of dollars in long-deferred maintenance, Bluestone was unable to fully overcome these challenges, and ultimately concluded that only reconstruction would allow the plant to operate in a cost-effective and in line with environmental requirements,” said Ruby.
Wanda Heard, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, declined to make anyone available for an interview or to comment on Bluestone’s sanction. She said in a statement that the consent decree “will protect the public as well as the environment.”
Bluestone faces a long and complicated road to obtain a permit to restart operations.
Last summer, Jefferson County health officials noted during an inspection that Bluestone “cannot resume production without substantial capital investment.” Industry experts familiar with the plant estimate that Bluestone will have to spend more than $150 million to reopen it. On top of that, the company still owes millions of dollars in unpaid fees to government agencies such as the City of Birmingham and to companies and contractors who had worked at the plant before it stopped making coke in the fall of 2021.
The consent decree requires Bluestone to draw up detailed plans outlining the necessary repairs at the plant and to hire an independent engineer to ensure that its Coke Ovens can operate in a “safe and compliant” manner. Bluestone will then need to submit these records when applying for a new permit.
Health Department officials could deny Bluestone a license if the company fails to address enough issues related to its past violations. And the EPA could force Bluestone to pay a higher fine if the federal agency determines the county’s consent decree or permit is too lax. The EPA did not immediately respond as to whether it would strengthen the terms of the consent decree. Stan Meiburg, a former acting deputy administrator of the EPA, said federal agency officials rarely take this action.
If Bluestone resumes production, the consent order will likely force the plant to reduce emissions from previous years, said Michael Hansen, executive director of environmental advocacy group GASP, which represented members’ interests. of the community in the lawsuit and signed the decree of consent. He said the consent decree would ensure that Bluestone “cannot continue to pollute without consequences”.
“This is one step of many to ensure residents get justice,” Hansen said. “It’s not the end of the road. There are many steps on the road to reopening Bluestone. We can do more to hold them accountable.
The proposed consent decree calls for monitoring of a single pollutant, sulfur dioxide, which can damage people’s lungs. In recent years, EPA officials had modeled that high levels of sulfur dioxide came from the Bluestone plant and ABC Coke, a nearby plant that is still operating after its owner reached a $775,000 settlement. last year with environmental regulators for alleged air pollution violations. . The Jefferson County Board of Health requires the company to operate at least two air monitors along the fence of its property for five years if the plant reopens.
But the consent decree would allow Bluestone to avoid large rounds of monitoring of other toxic chemicals in the air. Before the company suspended coke production, the Department of Health did not regularly monitor toxic air pollutants on the north side of the city. As a result, GASP hired experts to test the air in surrounding communities, and they found chemicals such as benzene or naphthalene at levels high enough to increase cancer risk. Despite these findings, the consent decree will not require Bluestone to test for benzene, naphthalene or other carcinogenic chemicals associated with coke production. Heard told ProPublica that the study results provided by GASP to the Department of Health “reveal no new or concerning air pollution data.”
The consent decree also commits half of the $925,000 penalty to community improvement projects. The funding would come at a time when some local officials are considering the extent of what is due to communities harmed by the plant.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s administration has drawn up a $37 million plan that would pay for property buyouts for residents and revitalize communities on the city’s north side for those who wish to stay. Woodfin, which has yet to find partners to help fund the plan, believes companies such as Bluestone should cover some of the costs. Bluestone executives did not respond to questions about their willingness to contribute to the plan.
Charlie Powell, founder of community advocacy group People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination, doesn’t think the amount Bluestone agreed to pay in the consent decree is enough to offset the harm caused to nearby residents.
“It’s a free get out of jail card,” Powell said. “That won’t be enough.”