In autumn of 2013, a senior executive from a powerful coal company and a lawyer from one of the state’s most influential firms hashed out a strategy for avoiding a serious — and expensive — problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in north Birmingham, where residents, about 95 percent of them African Americans, live in the shadow of massive waste berms, industrial chimneys, and the fortresses of steel, coking and cement manufacturing.
Womack, a retired army major who grew up in the area and is now the leader of a local environmental justice group, has parked on a patch of dirt under a stories-high interstate bridge, wedged between a paper mill, oil storage tanks and an industrial railroad.
Between the tangle of heavy industry, it’s about as close as you can still get to the area where the Clotilda and the 110 kidnapped west Africans aboard are said to have first touched ground – and where the remains of what might in fact be the ship were recently discovered, thanks to unusual weather conditions.
Did you know that nearly one million pounds of toxic chemicals are dumped into the Coosa River each year? Nearly 95% of that waste comes from two Koch Foods chicken processing plants near Gadsden in the form of nitrate compounds. Excessive nitrogen pollution stimulates the growth of aquatic plants, weeds and algae, which fishermen and lake goers alike know grow in excess on Coosa River lakes. Too much nitrogen in drinking water can also be harmful to young children and livestock.
When looking at the most harmful chemicals though, the Gaston Steam Plant in Wilsonville and the Resolute Forest Products Coosa Pines paper mill in Childersburg outpace others. In fact, Alabama Power’s Gaston Steam Plant released three times as much developmental toxins to the river, at 473 pounds, as all the other facilities in the basin combined.
Leaning forward on a plush chair with his hands clasped so tightly his knuckles were white, Mitch Reid wondered aloud what Theodore Roosevelt might think of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which calls for a 31-percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency.
If passed in its current form, Reid said, the budget will be severely detrimental to the preservation of the Alabama’s natural resources — and he is angry about it.