TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—The Environmental Protection Agency has made its way south to test soil and water in North Birmingham area—that is, if the residents will let them.
Joseph Bryant, Birmingham News, said this problem dates back several years. Bryant said the affected neighborhoods (Harriman, Collegeville, and Fairmont) are a mix of residential and industrial. The industries are said to be causing contamination in the soil and water of the area. The EPA has set up an office in Birmingham to determine the extent of the contamination.
“For years people complained about the air and the soil. So after all this time, the EPA has come in,” Bryant said.
The area has been declared a Superfund area, which allows the EPA to force those responsible for the contamination to clean it up or pay the agency to do so. Bryant said Superfund areas are rare. At the end of 2010, there were just over 1200 in the nation.
Vivian Starks, president of the neighborhood, was born in Collegeville and returned to the area around 20 years ago. Starks said residents just want a healthy place to live.
“I can’t say that it’s worse than what it’s been, because you get used to it,” Starks said.
Starks said black soot lands on her property daily, and she is constantly cleaning because it gets in the house. She said it’s a hazard living in the area.
“It seems like a small thing to other people, but if you’re living in it every day, it becomes a big thing,” Starks said.
Starks said her breathing suffers, and when she goes outside the air causes her eyes to burn. She said almost everyone in the area has some type of allergies. Starks said the area has a high cancer rate, and that most of the children have asthma.
“That’s saying a lot by itself,” Starks said.
Residents must fill out forms to authorize EPA officials to test soil on their private property. Starks said residents don’t have issues filling out the forms, but lawyers have visited the area and told residents to file lawsuits, and not to send their testing authorization forms to the EPA.
“But they should be sending them to the EPA so they can come to the property and test,” Starks said.
Starks said residents are being given the wrong information, and that some law offices are sending misleading letters that are the same color as the EPA forms and mention the EPA. She said the letters are especially misleading for older residents, which make up a lot of the community in the neighborhoods.
Starks said when she realized how serious the contamination was, she transformed her garden to a raised bed. She said few people in the area can afford raised gardens, and residents with gardens in the ground are finding deformed vegetables in their gardens.
“People don’t realize that in our area we used to have fruit trees. We can’t have fruit trees,” Starks said.
Bryant said for years residents have lobbied for help and called for attention to their plight.
Federal officials are set to test more than 1200 properties for pollution in the water and soil caused by nearby industries. Walter Coke, a baked coal company, has agreed to clean up five of its industrial properties.
Bryant said if the residents don’t allow the EPA to run tests “it would be a long effort that ended in a single failure.”
Bryant said not allowing the EPA to run tests is like calling the cops, but not opening the door when they show up. He said the EPA can handle industries like Walter Coke, but private properties require cooperation from the owners.
Congresswoman Terri Sewell visited the area in the beginning of November with EPA officials.