The pollution problems endemic to some neighborhoods in North Birmingham has inspired a based clean air advocacy group and a filmmaker to tell the story of a “Toxic City.”
GASP, a nonprofit health advocacy organization, and film producer Hunter Nichols are making the film Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret, telling the stories of industrial pollution and the apparent health results: high rates of cancer and respiratory diseases, including asthma, afflicting people who live in Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont. The campaign is being hosted on the crowd-funding website Indiegogo, and the backers hope to raise $20,000 to help pay for a full-length documentary.
A trailer (seen above) gives just a hint of the issue. “Collegeville, Fairmont and Harriman Park — three of the poorest areas in Birmingham — are boxed in by heavy industry, raining soot and chemicals down on the residents and their property,” the filmmakers point out. “People have been trying to leave for decades, but many are stuck, unable to afford to get out. Toxic City will tell the stories of those left behind and explore how this happened and how to fix the problem.
“We want to help these communities by sharing their stories with the world,” the website reads. “You can help us by contributing to this campaign. Your donation will help GASP fund a full-length documentary that will not only tell these personal stories, but will explain the history of the problem and possible solutions.”
The problems in North Birmingham, which have been featured on local television news have also prompted court action, and drawn the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently sent letters to several companies, identified by the federal agency as potentially responsible parties after soil texts concluded that many properties in the area were well above safe levels of contamination.
The crowd-funding campaign will last for 45 days and features perks for various levels of giving. GASP is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so donations are tax deductible.
GASP Outreach Coordinator Kirsten Bryant and Nichols shared their experience with North Birmingham with Weld.
Weld: What got you involved in working with people in North Birmingham on this issue?
Kirsten Bryant: When we learned that there were significant air quality issues in those communities, it was a natural fit. Our goals are to reduce air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role models. It was clear that there are significant problems and there weren’t any other health advocacy groups engaged, so GASP decided to get involved and work with individuals, neighborhood groups and agencies.
Weld: What is the worst aspect of the situation in the affected neighborhoods?
KB: Probably the worst part of the problem is that the impacted residents are trapped. Property values have plummeted in these areas, so they can’t sell and relocate, and significant health problems — asthma, heart disease, cancer — are prevalent. The problem is massive in scope, yet very few people know there’s an issue, and even fewer are working to address the problem. It seems to be an invisible problem. Another important factor is the power that industry wields in Alabama. They have significant influence in public policy and regulation, which has prevented both awareness of the problem and workable solutions from gaining traction.
Weld: What needs to happen in Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont to improve lives of the residents there — at least as far as this issue goes?
KB: There are several things that can be done. For starters, the responsible polluters need to clean up contaminated properties quickly and using the strongest standards available from the EPA.
Secondly, the pollution that is presently contaminating our air, land and water needs to be reduced quickly through policy changes (such as stronger emissions standards). This issue should be a priority within our area’s leadership. Another thing that would help is research. Extensive studies need to be completed to better understand the impact the pollution is having on residents’ health, especially children.
Weld: Is there any story about any family or individual in the affected area that you think speaks most particularly to the situation there?
KB: You know, there are so many affected — thousands of people, hundreds of families. It’s difficult to name only one. The stories from the trailer are not uncommon, and they represent a good cross-section of the problems residents face: health, economic, environmental, etc.
Weld: Is there anything else you want people reading this to know?
KB: The main thing is that pollution doesn’t happen in a vacuum. These problems trickle down to all of us. Air travels, and so does air pollution. Martin Luther King Jr. had a great quote about problems affected everyone. He said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” When folks in our communities suffer and we don’t actively work to solve the problem, it affects everyone’s well-being. We’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, for a while now to get funding from local foundations to do research and grassroots work in these neighborhoods. This crowd-funding idea came about as a way to do it ourselves. Everyone in Alabama needs to hear these stories, and that’s exactly what we intend to do with the film.
Weld: What made you decide to make a film about the situation in North Birmingham?
Hunter Nichols: Some friends at the local nonprofit GASP approached me to produce a short film about this issue. I’ve done some work for them in the past and I really trust their judgment, so I knew it was a worthy project and an issue that needed more attention. I’m always honored to help them out.
Weld: What did you know about it before starting the project?
HN: I didn’t know much at all about the contamination issue in the North Birmingham area, including Tarrant. I watched CBS 42’s Deadly Deception series online this past summer and that really helped catch me up to speed. I will say that it’s a very complicated issue and it can take a while to fully understand the situation.
Weld: How has what you’ve learned in working on the project affected you personally?
HN: I didn’t really think the contamination was that bad until I arrived in Collegeville and saw people’s homes covered in black dust or soot. Once I began knocking on doors there, I found most families had members suffering with asthma, cancer or other unusual health conditions. Once you befriend residents there and learn their story, that’s when it becomes personal.
Weld: What do you hope to accomplish in making the film?
HN: The ultimate accomplishment would be to help ensure that the residents in these communities have a safe place to live. I hope this film will help maintain awareness about the issue and keep pressure on elected leaders, polluting companies and government agencies to do the right thing. I also hope it can help push for more research and health studies to be conducted in these affected communities. There seems to be a significant lack of health data collected to really know what’s going on there.
Weld: Is there anything else you want people reading this to know?
HN: I like to encourage others to get involved and help support the work of GASP if they can. If we can reduce air pollution it translates to saved lives, less hospital bills and it can even bring more businesses to this area. Many companies cannot locate here because this area does not reach attainment for various types of air pollution. On bad air quality days, we reach our limit and we need to make some major changes to keep it down. It can be a win-win for everyone.
To watch the trailer or contribute to the film, click here.