The pollution issues plaguing certain neighborhoods in North Birmingham will soon have another documentary detailing the story. Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret will continue to profile the residents who are on the front lines of this exposure. The film will premiere Thursday at the Carver Theatre.
Toxic City is the creation of Hunter Nichols, a local filmmaker, in partnership with the nonprofit health advocacy group known as GASP. According to their website, the mission at GASP is to “activate Alabama for clean air” by focusing “to reduce air pollution, educate the public about the health risks of poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy.”
Michael Hansen, GASP’s communication specialist, asked what he hoped the documentary would accomplish, said, “We produced the film to raise awareness about what’s going on in those communities among people who live in other parts of the city, state, and even the nation. The fact that this isn’t an active part of our civic dialogue needs to change,” he said.
Before being shown to the community at large, GASP had a screening at the North Birmingham Public Library for the residents directly affected by the toxins. Marva Ingram, who lives four blocks from the Walter Coke plant in the Fairmont area of North Birmingham, came out to see the documentary.
“I’m suffering from chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, chronic anemia and now I have asthma,” Ingram said. She has been dealing with weight loss issues, and her doctors initially thought she had cancer. “I’m on an inhaler for life,” she said. “My daily living is taken away.” Ingram said that the air on her property smelled like rotten eggs at times.
To help clean up certain locations around Jefferson County afflicted with possible toxins, the EPA has enacted the Superfund program. According to the EPA’s website, Superfund is a “program to identify, investigate and clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites throughout the United States.” In this case, the cleanup aspect generally includes removing the top layer of soil on polluted properties. Yet, when asked if her property was part of the Superfund effort, Ingram said, “Oh no, my street wasn’t even on the list.”
One of Ingram’s neighbors, Calvin Gilliam, talked about how he had been dealing not only with health issues, but also with an area in his backyard that would not dry — no matter the time of year. It would squish whenever he or anyone else would walk on top of it, similar to muddy ground after a rain. He believed that it is runoff from the plant nearby.
Another resident in attendance was Charles R. Barber Jr. from Collegeville. “I remember growing up as a child, sweeping the soot off the porch, and then you come back later, and you have to sweep it off again.” He described building a deck back in 2000 and not being able to keep it clean from the soot. “I’ve tried cleaning it off several times, pressure washing it, even putting Thompson’s WaterSeal on it. Still, the soot comes back.”
His properties also had not been part of the Superfund effort. Barber said EPA officials told him the materials on his land weren’t heavy enough to require a cleanup, primarily because they were below concrete. Barber said he wanted the polluting companies to spread the wealth. “I would like for Walter Coke not to be able to get their permit unless they share with us. In other words, share with us the prosperity to make sure that the community can reap some of the benefits.” He also wanted the companies to be better regulated.
The documentary not only touches on the Fairmont and Collegeville neighborhoods where Ingram, Williams and Barber live, respectively, but also expands out to cities such as Tarrant, which is the location of the ABC Coke facility. There, resident Dorothy Davis, who lives across the highway from the plant, speaks about losing four children to lung ailments, ranging from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to sarcoidosis.
“I sleep out there in the back bedroom, and a lot of nights, the dust off of the plant out there will smother you to death,” Davis says. She shows the black soot-like material coating her house. She is resigned to the fact that no matter how often she wipes it off, more is always on the way.
Other people in the film also mention the dark coverings on their own houses. Bobby Hogan, who lost both his parents to cancer, says, “It’s on our porches; it’s on the side of our houses; it’s on the vinyl siding. I rinse my bricks off once a week, and you can see it running off the bricks — off the mortar.” To further show how ubiquitous the air particulates are, Hogan describes how when he takes a bath, he can see the substances wash off his skin into the water.
Dr. Shaun Crawford, an environmental health scientist, is featured in the film. He was also a part of the Deadly Deception investigation that aired on CBS 42, where he tested soil samples at 43 Jefferson County schools and found elevated levels of arsenic at 14 out of the 43 schools. Arsenic, lead and chromium were higher in the North Birmingham communities compared to surrounding communities. He found the highest concentrations from Bessemer northeast to Tarrant, and from Fultondale south to Shades Mountain. In Toxic City, Crawford states, “We’re dealing with two types of contamination issues out in North Birmingham — the legacy soil contamination and contamination of homes…and then we have the current air toxics that appear to be present, based on the EPA studies.”
Similar to Ingram, many residents profiled in the documentary suffer with asthma and even cancer — sometimes, several generations in the same family. Some discuss the difficulties of not being able to move away from the area, mainly due to declining property values and lack of demand. There are interviews with EPA representatives, an ailing man who had installed multiple high voltage transmission lines at the Walter Coke facility, some of the panelists who will be at the Carver Theatre on Thursday, and others.
After the library screening, there was time available for questions and reactions led by Dr. Stacie Propst, GASP’s executive director. The film elicited a positive reaction with the residents, even though there was a palpable level of frustration and exasperation in the room — generally because things were not improving.
Propst shared in the collective sentiment. “It is very frustrating to deal with regulatory agencies that are not doing what we pay them to do. This is their job, and if these plants don’t follow the law and the regulatory oversight, then we are forced into a position to push the city, state, county and federal officials to making sure compliance happens,” she said.
Propst urged the residents and those fighting to work through this ongoing situation to stay determined and keep their voices raised. She asked, “Have you ever heard of the saying ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’? Well, we’re going to squeak.”
Kirsten Bryant, community outreach director at GASP, described a letter drafted by their organization for the Jefferson County Department of Health. It was on the proposed reissuance of the operating permit for Walter Coke, Inc. It has to be renewed every five years. As is described in GASP’s executive summary on the permit, “The Health Officer should require that Walter Coke use differential absorption light detection and ranging technology [DIAL] to measure Walter Coke’s actual Benzene [and perhaps other hazardous air pollutant] emissions prior to issuance of the permit.”
DIAL is a test utilizing light rays that can be used to accurately figure the amount of toxic materials coming from a facility, without having solely to rely on industry self-reporting. Residents were encouraged to read and sign the letters, as well as add their own remarks. The public comment period ends June 16.
“GASP isn’t saying what the answer is or should be. What we are saying is that this problem affects all of us, and it’s time to start talking about how to fix it,” Hansen said.
The public screening of the 26-minute Toxic City is June 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the historic Carver Theatre. General admission is $15, with discounted student tickets costing $5. After the film, there will be a panel discussion moderated by WBHM 90.3 News Director Rachel Lindley. The panelists will include Sonya DiCarlo, the executive producer of the Deadly Deception investigative pieces; Dr. George Munchus, professor of management at UAB; Beverly Banister, the air division director at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Edward Bowser of AL.com; and Corey Masuca, an air pollution control engineer at the Jefferson County Department of Health.