From Birmingham to Buffalo

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CSCR community advisory members Jeanine Justin & Rich Mpelezos, CSCR Director Jackie James-Creedon, and Dr. Shaun Crawford.

 

 

This month, CSCR welcomed Dr. Shaun Crawford, CIH from Birmingham, Al to share stories and similarities between our community and his. Dr. Crawford shares his experience traveling North and the new perspective he gained after his visit. 

Even having traveled to the base of the Himalayan Mountains, this Alabama boy was a bit anxious upon arriving in Buffalo after six inches of lake effect snow had fallen that morning. Grateful for my sturdy boots and winter jacket to shield me from the chill of wind and ice, I was soon warmed by the gracious hospitality of the community I was about to join. From Birmingham, Alabama to Buffalo, New York, I had traveled north to share my story of coke oven emissions back home with the citizens of Tonawanda in search of ideas, partnerships, and perhaps most importantly, encouragement.

It was easy to get discouraged with what was happening to my neighbors living in the industrial North Birmingham communities. Efforts to clean their air and study their health due to decades of coke oven emissions had stalled after criminal indictments and bribery charges were levied against Birmingham’s conspirators. Charges had also been levied against Tonawanda Coke, but in that case they were against corporate officials who were held accountable for lying to inspectors about their releases of high benzene levels into the resident’s breathing air.

In Birmingham, the criminal charges were levied against a corporate official, but in this case for giving money to a lawyer to give to a government representative, who then launched an effort to stop further investigations by Region IV of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So, where Tonawanda was awarded soil and health studies, Birmingham was left with continuing poor air quality and a lack of health investigations. Perhaps to add insult to injury, our coke companies were soon thereafter re-permitted to continue releasing air toxins into the communities.

Even worse, the agencies that were sent to help us, who named North Birmingham their Number One priority, perhaps ended up doing more harm than good. Residents were confused when there was no clear explanation from the EPA of why their neighbors’ yards had been covered in new topsoil, and theirs had not. There were first hand accounts of residents’ yards flooding now that changes in elevation had occurred during the soil replacement. Many of the residents who had formerly fed their family, friends and neighbors fruits from their trees and vegetables from their gardens, suddenly quit gardening when the EPA confused them on whether or not it was safe to eat the food that they had grown.

 A garden in N. Birmingham, AL

A garden in N. Birmingham, AL

Losing this source of healthy food in North Birmingham added to the drought that raged in this existing food desert. Their food budget had been cut. Equally devastating was seeing residents dejected, forlorn and resigned, as they had been marginalized even before the 1920s when they were essentially forced to live in the shadow of smokestacks and black soot. Back then, the African-American community of metropolitan Birmingham had been “red-lined” to an area where “colored people” could live. Nearly 100 years later, the EPA had drawn a white line between areas inside the cleanup zone, and areas outside that zone. My Birmingham neighbors seemed to accept their current conditions as among those they had endured as a minority in the Deep South for all too long.

And this formed the essence of why I was in the Tonawanda community of Suburban Buffalo. When I began to get heavily involved in the North Birmingham contamination troubles back in 2009, I first met Jackie James-Creedon of Tonawanda. She was a stay at home mom and soon-to-be activist who questioned if her health problems might be associated with industrial pollution. Through her tireless efforts and persistence, Jackie was able to secure the funds to conduct  an air study, an environmental and a health study for her neighbors. She was a natural community organizer from whom I could surely learn some lessons.

The first full day I was there, we hiked half an hour in the snow to get a first hand view of ground zero. I was able to meet the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) specialist in charge of collecting air samples from their mobile monitoring stations. And I attended a community appreciation party for her newly formed Citizen Science Community Resources non-profit, where three local officials showed up to voice their support for Jackie’s efforts. This would be practically unheard of for a similar circumstance in Birmingham.

During my remaining days in Buffalo, I was able to sit and talk with NYDEC employees about the community’s efforts. I was able to sit and talk with residents of Tonawanda to hear their experiences. And I was accepted with appreciation when I was able to speak about my personal experiences with industrial pollution back home to a crowd at a community forum. I even got to see Niagara Falls at night. Needless to say, it was a busy but beneficial whirlwind trip to windswept New York.

As I boarded the plane for Birmingham, I looked back at all that I was able to accomplish from this newly formed friendship with Jackie and CSCR of Tonawanda. I was able to make connections, gain insight, explore new ideas, and establish partnerships with people struggling with similar pollution problems yet with different outcomes, all with a new perspective. But perhaps most importantly, I was leaving with that for which I came and needed so badly. Encouragement. To go from Buffalo to Birmingham, and to re-ignite the fight that was slowly smoldering in the shadow of smokestacks and black soot.