Cancer and sickness have become unwelcome residents in the industrial communities of North Birmingham, said Charlie Powell, longtime resident of Fairmont and president of PANIC: People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination.
“Fairmont, where I lived for 43 years, took the hardest hit of this contamination,” said Powell. “I was sleeping on a CPAP machine for a big part of my life. Since I moved out of that area, I don’t have to use it anymore. That should tell you something right there. But everybody can’t be as fortunate as I was.”
His grassroots organization’s goal is aimed at “relocation and fair conversation” for those living under the toxic clouds of industry in Collegeville, Fairmont and Harriman Park.
“Some people aren’t going to want to move and you have to respect that. But for the ones who want to get out of their contaminated properties, we want to help relocate them,” Powell said.
On Dec. 12, the Environmental Protection Agency held a meeting at Hudson school in the Collegeville area for community members of North Birmingham. The purpose of the meeting was to advise people in the affected neighborhoods about the status of the agency’s investigation into the levels of pollution in the community, and to discuss what could be done about it.
Powell, who attended the meeting, said the soil testing by the EPA was not exhaustive and left too much open for interpretation.
“The EPA told us there are 52 high-risk properties out of the 2,000 they tested. We know what this means, we know what that contamination does to you, the EPA knows it and the companies know it too. Those 52 properties aren’t just high-risk — they said that they are extremely contaminated,” Powell said, his voice cracking under the emotional strain the contamination has caused his friends and family.
“I asked them [EPA], ‘Why don’t you just move the people out of there instead of just digging up the soil?’ They came up with the lie, ‘Some people don’t want to leave the neighborhood, people aren’t going to want to start all over.’ But that doesn’t hold any water as far as I’m concerned,” Powell said.
As someone who owns several properties in North Birmingham, Powell considers the EPA’s testing procedure, and the logic behind it, full of holes.
“How do we know that the properties that weren’t tested aren’t contaminated? Why would they check some of the houses, but not all of them? It doesn’t make sense. For instance, they only tested one of my properties out of the six that I own in the area. How do I know my other properties aren’t contaminated? How can you have a property that is contaminated and the one next to it never gets tested? Even Stevie Wonder could see that something is not right there,” Powell said.
Powell conceded that he believes the EPA is doing a fair job. But, he said, simply replacing the soil is a temporary fix for a perpetual problem. Powell said community residents he has spoken with believe that EPA keeps giving them conflicting information.
“At the meeting on Thursday, they said that other properties were contaminated, but not that bad. But as far as I’m concerned, any contamination is bad. They said we shouldn’t eat out of our gardens, but last night they said it was okay now if we do. Now why would they say one thing and then come back and contradict themselves?” Powell said.
In Powell’s opinion, the industry is not the party who needs to relocate. Rather, he believes that the industries should assist those who wish to leave the neighborhood in search of cleaner pastures.
“Walter Coke has 400 acres over there in Collegeville. They’ve been there for over a century now. They ain’t going nowhere. And we’re not asking them to. We just want the people to be able to leave their contaminated homes. That area is zoned for commercial and industrial use. So why are people still living there?” Powell asked.
In September, the EPA cited five companies as being potentially responsible parties for the contamination and cleanup. Still, Powell wonders, “Why don’t they go after the other industries?”
James Pinkney, a spokesperson for the EPA, told Weld last month that they plan on implicating more industries as being potentially responsible parties. No other companies have since been named, however.
The nonprofit GASP is an organization that works closely with PANIC on the issues stemming from the industrial contamination in residential areas of North Birmingham. They are currently working on funding a documentary, Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret, which is scheduled to be completed early next year if funding permits.
“It’s aimed at raising awareness about the issue and educating the public about the pollution and how it has affected people’s health in that area as well as the local economy,” said Michael Hansen, GASP’s communication specialist.
The crowd funding campaign is hoping to raise $20,000 to fund the full-length documentary. As of early Wednesday, with 25 days left in the campaign, Toxic City had raised less than $1,300.
The documentary is focused on telling the stories of the people who have been exposed to the industrial pollution in North Birmingham, resulting in cancer, asthma, strokes and death.
“We’ve already funded a short documentary which will come out in January or February. But what this campaign is doing is trying to extend the documentary from a short, 15-minute film to about an hour,” Hansen said. PANIC’s vice president, Bobby Hogan, can be seen in online trailer for Toxic City, saying, “We’re fighting for our lives, man.”
Powell argues that in order to get things done, communities, government agencies and even churches need to work together towards a final solution for an issue that, according to him, has been going on for too many lifetimes.
“My thinking is this, and I will stand on it: The churches aren’t getting involved because they don’t want to lose their congregation,” Powell said. “But people need to come together for more than just themselves and their best interests. The sad reality is our community is sick and something must be done. The EPA has done a good job, but I don’t think they have done a good enough job.”
To make a donation towards the documentary or to learn more about Toxic City, click here.