A Legacy of Activism

On a recent afternoon, a team of scientists and environmental activists met around the corner from the Collegeville Center in North Birmingham to hang air monitors that will gather independent evidence about what exactly residents are still being exposed to.

GASP, the local environmental justice organization spearheading the effort, already conducted one round of testing, in 2020, that found concentrations of naphthalene, a carcinogen produced in coal and petroleum processing, at up to 50 times the EPA’s cancer risk level. They also found concentrations of benzene, another known carcinogen, up to 29 times the EPA’s cancer risk level.

The group plans to use the data from air monitoring to continue pressing the EPA to place the 35th Avenue Superfund site on the National Priorities List, which would bring additional funds for testing and cleanup.

GASP’s attorney Colson Lewis said the group is motivated in large part by the children always playing outside at the public housing complexes oblivious to the risks they’re being exposed to. “It just makes you want to keep advocating for what’s best for everyone’s health,” she said, “especially the children who can’t do it for themselves.”

There’s a rich history of activism in the area. The Collegeville housing complex sits just down the block from the famed Bethel Baptist Church, where Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the longtime pastor.

Five decades ago, city planners noted that “smoke, noise, and fumes from heavy industries and railroad operations and truck traffic permeate the area” around the Collegeville Center. The same conditions exist today in North Birmingham, Ala. Photo: Andi Rice for The Intercept
There’s a plaque hanging on an overpass at the Collegeville Center commemorating the area as the cradle of the civil rights movement. The plaque is next to a drainage ditch, out of sight. Some advocates say it’s emblematic of how this community has been treated over the years and that more activism is needed.

Cammack’s grandfather followed in a long tradition of men before him who, despite the power of the community, faced continued obstacles. After he worked for years in a local quarry, his health began to fail. He was compensated, and the family used the money as a down payment on a house. While home ownership became a point of pride for the family, Cammack said, “he paid with his life.”

So she’s taking extra precautions to protect her daughter. Cammack takes her to play at a park farther from their apartment complex, but the smoke plumes and foul smell tend to migrate, and she often cuts the trips short.

“It’s alarming,” Cammack said. “You can see it and smell it, but it’s hard to know how it affects you.”

Local environmental activists continue to push for federal oversight through the Superfund program, which would bring more money to repair the community. And they’re optimistic that incoming leaders at the EPA and HUD will make oversight a priority.

How much of a priority remains to be seen. “Everything is a balancing act,” Goldfarb, the retired HUD official, said. With resources scarce and the federal deficit growing, he said, “The question is what are we going to spend money on?”

Will Craft contributed reporting and data analysis for this story.

Support for this project was provided by the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism.

[This story was originally published by The Intercept.]

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