Tuesday, February 28, 2012

North Birmingham Residents Still Waiting for Cleanup

By: Duane Craig

Birmingham, Ala., has had its share of industrial activity over the centuries, and now it is wrestling with soil, water and air contamination affecting at least three residential areas, according to Environmental Protection Agency documents

Residents in Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont say the pending Superfund announcement by the EPA has taken far too long, and contamination has claimed more than its fair share of family members there, according to a report at cbs42.com. One resident claims to have lost a daughter, mother, sister and sister-in-law to cancer, and has another daughter who also has cancer.

According to the EPA, the agency may never finally determine all sources of the chemicals and contamination found in the soil samples in this area of northern Birmingham. Over the years, however, one company has figured prominently in the pollution discussion, and it entered into an administrative order of consent with the EPA in 1989. The company was supposed to assess potential contamination both on and off the site of its operations facility.

The company, known throughout EPA documents as Walter Coke, is one of a long line of companies that potentially contributed to Birmingham’s contamination. Starting out as the Sloss Furnace Company in 1881 as the operator of two blast furnaces, it became Sloss Iron and Steel Company in 1887. In 1899, when the then-named Sloss Sheffield Steel and Iron Company went public, it was making coke in beehive ovens. By 1920, the company was operating 120 coke ovens and did so until 1952, when it merged with U.S. Pipe and Foundry Company. That company was then purchased by Jim Walter Corp. in 1969, and in 1987 it became the Sloss Industries Corporation under the newly renamed Walter Industries, Inc. Eventually, Sloss became Walter Coke, and it is one of five companies making up Walter Energy today. Walter Energy is in coal, minerals, natural gas and coke.

The primary contaminants of concern are arsenic and polycyclic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, the most widespread of the two. According to sampling reports, Collegeville had 19 samples that were at or above the cleanup level for PAHs. Harriman Park had five at or above cleanup level, and Fairmont had two, including one school. Affected schools included Hudson (now demolished), Riggins Alternative and the former Carver High.

So far, assessment and cleanup of the contaminants has fallen under the Resource and Recovery Conservation Act. However there is little record of much happening in either area between 1989 and 2009, when sampling finally began in earnest. If the site gets moved under the Superfund program, some have suggested the net will widen to find more potentially responsible parties.

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