Wealthy Family Seeks to Reopen Plant That Spewed Pollution in Black Communities

The ultrawealthy household of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is seeking to reopen a shuttered industrial plant that for many years emitted chemical compounds which have harmed traditionally Black neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama. However the household faces a collection of latest regulatory and monetary hurdles — together with a push by native regulators to throw the governor’s son in jail over 1000’s of {dollars} in unpaid penalties linked to the plant’s air pollution.

The century-old facility, which burns coal to make coke, a key ingredient for manufacturing metal, was the topic of a 2022 ProPublica investigation that confirmed how the household’s firm and the plant’s previous house owners repeatedly failed to make necessary repairs. With out well timed upkeep, Bluestone Coke launched extra cancer-causing chemical compounds into the air breathed by residents of three surrounding communities on Birmingham’s north aspect. In 2021, native regulators declined to resume Bluestone’s allow due to its repeated violations of air air pollution laws, however the plant stored working as Bluestone appealed the choice. Months later, the corporate idled its coke ovens due to main gear issues.

The Environmental Safety Company recently proposed changes to the best way poisonous air air pollution is managed at coke vegetation. It will require Bluestone and different corporations to put in displays alongside the fence traces of coke vegetation to detect whether or not excessive ranges of benzene, a cancer-causing air pollutant present in coke oven emissions, are wafting into surrounding communities. If the displays detect excessive ranges of benzene, plant operators must establish the supply of the air pollution leaks and submit plans to carry the power again into compliance.

EPA spokesperson Shayla Powell stated in a press release that the rule would assist to deal with “issues by stakeholders about ground-level emissions affecting close by communities.”

The proposal seeks to scale back the disproportionate quantities of coke plant air pollution launched in Black communities from Alabama to Indiana. For many years earlier than Bluestone acquired the plant in 2019, close by residents have been uncovered to a number of the nation’s highest ranges of contaminants within the air and soil. The air air pollution had discolored the perimeters of homes, decimated property values and sickened residents. In recent times, an area environmental group referred to as the Better-Birmingham Alliance to Cease Air pollution, or GASP, has monitored the air outdoors the Bluestone plant web site and detected benzene ranges excessive sufficient to raise most cancers threat for close by residents.

The proposed regulation complicates the Justice household’s plans to reopen the plant. The corporate’s supposed overhaul — estimated by specialists to price greater than $150 million — would change into much more costly underneath the company’s proposal.

Adrienne Lee, an legal professional for the environmental legislation agency Earthjustice, stated that the EPA had didn’t adjust to key necessities of the Clear Air Act Amendments of 1990 — and that failure, in response to environmental advocates, enabled coke vegetation to delay renovations to their services. In 2019, the Sierra Membership, GASP and two different environmental teams filed a lawsuit in opposition to the EPA for not having carried out critiques of coke oven emission requirements since 2005. A federal decide later ordered the EPA to complete its evaluation of coke oven laws by Could 2024.

Jane Williams, chair of the Nationwide Clear Air Staff for the Sierra Membership, stated that the EPA’s proposal may “pressure services to handle leaks otherwise” and additional shield folks dwelling close to coke vegetation.

“When you insist on working a jalopy, it’s worthwhile to meet trendy emissions requirements,” Williams stated.

The proposed regulation additionally comes as Bluestone is going through penalties over hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in unpaid money owed. A decide not too long ago ordered that Bluestone chorus from “participating within the conduct of enterprise” in Birmingham till the corporate has paid the town greater than $1 million in again taxes.

Individually, final December, Bluestone agreed to pay nearly $1 million to the Jefferson County Board of Well being to settle alleged violations over the extreme air pollution releases. However when Bluestone didn’t make a few of these funds, the board referred to as for an additional decide to jail Jay Justice, Jim Justice’s son and the top of the corporate, till Bluestone paid.

In an August court docket listening to over the missed funds, Jay Justice testified that Bluestone had misplaced greater than $2 million within the first half of the 12 months. Total, he stated, the household’s corporations have “enormous, enormous debt and large money circulation issues.”

“I don’t assume Bluestone Coke has, you already know, $100,” he stated. “I don’t assume they’ve any cash.”

Justice additionally testified that he and his household “nonetheless need” to “restart or rebuild the plant.” A Bluestone lawyer wrote in a court docket submitting final month that the corporate has caught up on a number of the settlement funds it owes to the well being board. Due to these funds, the lawyer wrote, the board of well being’s “continued insistence on contempt and particularly incarceration of Jay Justice is inappropriate.” (The decide wrote in an Aug. 17 order that Bluestone Coke is “in breach and has been in breach of a few of its duties underneath the Consent Order.” However as of Aug. 28, he has shunned ordering Justice to serve time in jail.)

Justice and his father, together with Bluestone lawyer Steve Ruby, didn’t reply to ProPublica’s questions. Ruby stated in a press release to ProPublica final December that Bluestone has already invested “tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars}” right into a plant that was bought “in a state of extreme disrepair.”

Forward of the EPA’s announcement of the proposed regulation, the company confronted pushback from a number one commerce group that represents coke plant house owners. The EPA had requested coke plant operators to put in new air displays alongside their vegetation’ boundaries and to gather knowledge to tell modifications to the coke oven regulation. In keeping with paperwork obtained by ProPublica by way of an open data request, the American Coke and Coal Chemical compounds Institute contested a number of the company’s knowledge assortment efforts. The commerce group urged the EPA to cut back sure testing necessities, partly as a result of it felt these knowledge assortment efforts have been “extreme.” The EPA rejected a lot of the ACCCI’s requests, the data present. (ACCCI President David Ailor didn’t reply to a request for remark.)

The EPA will settle for public feedback on the proposed modifications to its regulation by way of Oct. 2. Powell, the EPA spokesperson, stated that after public remark ends, the EPA plans to finalize the rule earlier than the court-ordered deadline in Could 2024.

In an EPA analysis of the proposed regulation’s economic impact on the nation’s 14 remaining coke vegetation — which cites ProPublica’s previous reporting on Bluestone — company officers wrote that the worth of complying with the rule modifications was estimated to be decrease for the Justice household than all however one of many different plant house owners. Bluestone’s prices have been additionally estimated to be a small fraction of the general revenues the plant would carry if it reopened.

Sarah Stokes, a senior legal professional within the Southern Environmental Legislation Heart who works with GASP, stated that the “sum of money it’s going to take to reopen the plant is astronomical.” She questions whether or not the Justice household will discover a technique to fund the overhaul earlier than it will possibly even set up air displays.

“The chance of them opening may be very low,” Stokes stated.