Gov. Jim Justice’s Coke Plant Fined $925,000 for Polluting Black Neighborhoods

This story was initially revealed by ProPublica.

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The proprietor of considered one of Birmingham, Alabama’s oldest industrial vegetation has agreed to pay an almost $1 million fantastic after releasing extreme quantities of poisonous air air pollution into close by historic Black neighborhoods, in accordance with a proposed consent decree filed Friday in a Jefferson County courtroom.

If the consent decree is accepted by a decide, the Jefferson County Board of Well being’s $925,000 penalty in opposition to Bluestone Coke could be the biggest fantastic within the company’s historical past. However it represents a small fraction of the greater than $60 million in fines the corporate may have confronted for its alleged violations. The consent decree wouldn’t require Bluestone to confess to wrongdoing.

The plant was the topic of a ProPublica investigation in September that exposed how Bluestone, owned by the household of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, repeatedly failed to make crucial repairs to the facility. The shortage of well timed upkeep accelerated the discharge of cancer-causing chemical substances into the air that neighboring residents breathed.

In August 2021, after discovering Bluestone in rampant violation of its air air pollution guidelines, the Jefferson County Division of Well being denied the corporate’s request to resume its allow to function. The board that oversees the Well being Division additionally sued Bluestone, alleging that the corporate’s operation of the plant was a “menace to the general public well being.” Due to the scope of repairs wanted, the plant, which for greater than a century has processed coal right into a gasoline known as coke, has been idle since October 2021. Bluestone will have the ability to work towards reopening the plant as soon as a decide indicators off on the deal.

Within the generations earlier than Bluestone acquired the plant in 2019, individuals residing within the space — a few of them compelled to reside there due to racist housing insurance policies within the twentieth century — confronted publicity to ranges of contaminants within the air and soil which have ranked among the many worst within the nation. The air pollution has stained the facades of close by homes a darkish charcoal, helped drive down dwelling values to as little as $1,000 and sickened so many residents that households feared letting youngsters play exterior.

The coke plant was a part of a cluster of business amenities on the town’s north aspect that grew to become a logo of environmental injustice within the South. Authorities companies throughout the area have struggled to scale back the hurt to working-class communities of coloration attributable to disproportionate publicity to industrial air pollution, in accordance with Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former environmental justice official with the U.S. Environmental Safety Company.

Environmental consultants have advised ProPublica that any penalty underneath $1 million could be shockingly low.

Steve Ruby, an lawyer who works with the Justice household, mentioned in a press release that “any criticism that the quantity is just too low is unfounded and fails to take account of the complete context of the decision.” He added that the consent order “will present the understanding that the corporate wants to finish its analysis of the plant’s future.”

“Regardless of investing tens of thousands and thousands of {dollars} in long-deferred upkeep, Bluestone was unable to totally overcome these challenges, and it in the end concluded that solely a rebuild would enable the plant to function profitably and in compliance with environmental necessities,” Ruby mentioned.

Wanda Heard, a spokesperson for the Well being Division, declined to make anybody out there for an interview or to touch upon the Bluestone penalty. She mentioned in a press release that the consent decree will “defend the general public in addition to the surroundings.”

Bluestone faces an extended, sophisticated highway to get a allow permitting it to restart operations.

This previous summer time, Jefferson County well being officers famous throughout an inspection that Bluestone “can not resume manufacturing with out substantial capital funding.” Trade consultants conversant in the plant estimate that Bluestone might want to spend greater than $150 million to reopen it. On high of that, the corporate nonetheless owes thousands and thousands of {dollars} in unpaid charges to authorities companies akin to the town of Birmingham and to firms and contractors who had labored on the plant earlier than it stopped making coke within the fall of 2021.

The consent decree requires that Bluestone draft in depth plans that define the required repairs to the plant and rent an impartial engineer to guarantee that its coke ovens can function in a “secure and compliant” method. Bluestone will then must submit these data when it applies for a brand new allow.

Well being Division officers may deny Bluestone a allow if the corporate had been to fail to resolve sufficient of the issues associated to its previous violations. And the EPA may pressure Bluestone to pay the next fantastic if the federal company determines the county’s consent decree or allow is just too lax. The EPA didn’t instantly reply about whether or not it can strengthen the phrases of the consent decree. Stan Meiburg, a former performing deputy administrator for the EPA, mentioned that officers with the federal company not often take this step.

If Bluestone resumes manufacturing, the consent order will possible pressure the plant to scale back emissions in contrast with earlier years, mentioned Michael Hansen, govt director of environmental advocacy group GASP, which represented the pursuits of group members within the lawsuit and signed onto the consent decree. He mentioned the consent decree would be sure that Bluestone “can not proceed to pollute with out penalties.”

“That is one step amongst many to make sure that residents get justice,” Hansen mentioned. “It’s not the tip of the highway. There are many steps alongside the best way for Bluestone to reopen. There’s extra we will do to carry them accountable.”

The proposed consent decree requires monitoring of a single pollutant, sulfur dioxide, which may hurt individuals’s lungs. Lately, officers with the EPA had modeled that prime ranges of sulfur dioxide had been coming from the Bluestone plant and ABC Coke, a close-by plant that’s nonetheless working after its proprietor reached a $775,000 settlement final 12 months with environmental regulators over alleged air air pollution violations. The Jefferson County Board of Well being is mandating that the corporate function at the least two air displays alongside the fence of its property for 5 years if the plant reopens.

However the consent decree would enable Bluestone to sidestep in depth rounds of monitoring for different poisonous chemical substances within the air. Earlier than the corporate suspended coke manufacturing, the Well being Division was not routinely monitoring for poisonous air pollution on the town’s north aspect. Because of this, GASP employed consultants to check air within the surrounding communities, and so they found chemical substances akin to benzene or naphthalene at ranges excessive sufficient to raise the chance of most cancers. Regardless of these findings, the consent decree won’t require Bluestone to check for benzene, naphthalene or different cancer-causing chemical substances related to coke manufacturing. Heard advised ProPublica that the examine outcomes that GASP supplied to the Well being Division “don’t reveal any new or regarding air air pollution knowledge.”

The consent decree additionally commits half of the $925,000 penalty to group enchancment initiatives. The funding would come at a time when some native officers are contemplating the scope of what’s owed to the communities harmed by the plant.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s administration has crafted a $37 million plan that might pay for property buyouts for residents and revitalize the town’s north aspect communities for many who want to keep. Woodfin, who has but to search out companions to assist fund the plan, believes that firms together with Bluestone ought to cowl a number of the prices. Bluestone executives haven’t responded to questions on their willingness to contribute to the plan.

Charlie Powell, founding father of the group advocacy group Individuals In opposition to Neighborhood Industrial Contamination, doesn’t imagine that the quantity Bluestone has agreed to pay within the consent decree goes far sufficient to offset the hurt to close by residents.

“It’s a get out of jail free card,” Powell mentioned. “It ain’t gonna be sufficient.”