In Alabama, a Cleanup Unearths Toxins—and Scandal
By Matt Smith
Lot by lot, backhoes and dump trucks are scraping and hauling away yards on the north side of Birmingham to remove soil laced with heavy metals and other industrial wastes—the legacy of this city's years as a steelmaking power.
Federal prosecutors say that effort also uncovered something else: a scheme to save polluters millions by putting the neighborhood's representative in Montgomery on their payroll.
Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson, a five-term Democrat, pleaded guilty in September to taking $360,000 in bribes and agreed to cooperate with investigators. Three weeks later, a federal grand jury indicted a coal company executive and two lawyers accused of funneling money to Robinson so he'd fight efforts to widen the cleanup.
"What they did was pretty simple: It was cheaper to buy off a politician, or politicians, and coerce them into preventing any sort of liability than it would have been to clean up their mess," said Michael Hansen, executive director of the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP).
David Roberson, a lobbyist and vice president for regulatory affairs at the Drummond Company, and attorneys Steven McKinney and Joel Gilbert, of the Southeastern powerhouse firm Balch and Bingham, have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to go on trial in June. "All three men deny the charges, and must be presumed innocent," Drummond said in a company statement issued after the indictments.
The mills that once gave Birmingham the nickname "Pittsburgh of the South" are fewer and smaller today, but several companies are still in the steel business. One of them is Drummond, which runs one of two plants that superheat coal in ovens to produce the high-carbon coke that fuels the furnaces.
North Birmingham and sister neighborhoods Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont sit between those coke plants to the east and one of the biggest remaining mills to the west. During the era of segregation, African-Americans were forced to live in these same neighborhoods. Even today, the surrounding industries release more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic byproducts a year, including tens of thousands of pounds from each of the coke plants.
"You can see it," said Chester Wallace, president of the North Birmingham Community Coalition, who grew up in Collegeville. "When it rains you can see where the pollutants are coming in from the various plants in the water, from the various colors in the runoff. You can see it in the discoloration of the plants. You can see the soot on houses. If you hang clothes out, you'll see it outside."
Residents talk about friends and neighbors who've died of cancer or children who struggle with asthma, fearing the soot that sticks to their siding and cars is more than a nuisance. Charlie Powell, head of a neighborhood group called PANIC—People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination—said more studies need to be done into whether there's a link between the visible pollution and the ailments that have claimed their friends. But he added, "There's got to be a connection there in some kind of way."
In 2013, the EPA declared more than 1,000 acres of the neighborhoods a Superfund site after finding the soil was laced with arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene, a coal byproduct which causes cancer. It named five companies, including Drummond, as potentially responsible for the pollution and cleanup costs and started to work digging up 400 yards.
The EPA was asked to expand that site into another Birmingham neighborhood and the small suburb of Tarrant, where Drummond's plant is located. The agency also began weighing whether to add the north Birmingham site to the National Priorities List, which would allow regulators to clean up the site first and seek repayment from responsible parties later.
That could have left those companies on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. So Drummond got to work fighting the proposal, both directly—arguing to the EPA that there was no evidence of pollution that could be linked to the plant in the proposed expansion —and, according to prosecutors, by enlisting Robinson to secretly lobby on its behalf.
Roberson, Gilbert and McKinney are accused of using a consulting contract to funnel thousands of dollars a month through a nonprofit they set up to one created by Robinson, a onetime local basketball standout who played a year with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. In exchange, prosecutors say Robinson lobbied the EPA and the state Environmental Management Commission to oppose expanding the north Birmingham site, arguing it would destroy his constituents' property values. He also voted for a state House resolution condemning "EPA's overreach." Roberson drafted the resolution, which then-Gov. Robert Bentley later signed, according to the indictment.
Drummond said its lawyers "engaged the Oliver Robinson Foundation to perform community outreach in connection with the matter, and Drummond understood this process was lawful and proper."
Robinson, who had resigned from the House before his indictment, won't be sentenced until after the upcoming trial. His lawyer, Richard Jaffe, told Sierra he's "proud of the truthfulness and remorse he continues to express."
Wallace said he was "totally disappointed" in Robinson, while Powell said the former legislator "defrauded the whole neighborhood."
"He got $300,000 or $400,000. What good does it do when he's in jail?" Powell said. "There needs to be a lesson to anybody who's playing with people's lives. I don't see how he could sleep at night about that."
The case is another ethical embarrassment for a state government that's seen the heads of all three branches removed from office for misconduct in the past two years. In additions, an earlier federal probe that examined EPA-required sewer improvements in Birmingham led to a raft of convictions and guilty pleas by bankers and politicians, including the city's ex-mayor, and the eventual bankruptcy of surrounding Jefferson County.
The EPA has cleaned up 320 North Birmingham lots so far, at a cost of about $25 million, according to agency spokesman James Pinkney. The work is expected to last about two more years.
"One of the largest challenges to completing work at this site is connecting with the owners of both occupied and vacant properties," Pinkney told Sierra via e-mail.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>