|Date(s):||November 1970 to December 1971|
|Tag(s):||Environmental History, Iron and Steel Industry, Birmingham, Alabama|
|Course:||“Historian's Craft,” University of Alabama at Birmingham|
“I’ve lived with pollution 50-something years. I guess I can put up with it” quipped Eugene Campbell on the day the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the shutdown of Birmingham, Alabama’s steel plants. The plants were shut following a court order under the aegis of the 1970 Clean Air Act which set safe levels for particulates in the atmosphere, levels that Birmingham had routinely exceeded. The day after the shutdown, November 18, 1971, an article in the Birmingham News’ Metro Edition reported “an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 workers... lost a day’s pay as a result of [the] federal injunction.” Campbell was a North Birmingham resident where the particulate levels in the air were commonly above a safe standard, according to EPA guidelines. Campbell, however, like many of his neighbors: was more concerned with the community’s livelihood than their lungs; “What are the people in Birmingham going to do if they [District Judge Sam C. Pointer and the EPA] run industry out?”
The plants were reopened the day after the shutdown and unions encouraged the installation of particulate devices that they claimed U.S. Steel had been reluctant to spend money on previously. Though they lost that day’s pay, these workers argued that the shutdown was their employer's fault for not having installed these devices previously. The particulate level would never again rise to the point where another shutdown was necessary, thanks to the new measures brought in to factories, and the eventual dwindling of heavy industry in Birmigham.
A full report on the story, staunchly supporting the EPA’s efforts, by journalist Patrick J. Sloyan assailed U.S. Steel for weakening a 1969 bill on pollution control, for ignoring the early EPA request to curtail production when the pollution level was first considered hazardous, for concealing this inaction to the media and for having their attorneys first on the scene in protesting the injunction. The front-page report on the story in the Birmingham news confirmed the company’s inaction, listing it amongst other companies that failed to respond promptly. However the Birmingham News held back any criticism of the company, with most of its opinion pieces on the matter condemning the EPA for the halting of industry.
The EPA had been formed eleven months before the incident in Alabama, after President Nixon had called for several smaller environmental agencies to be consolidated. The new agency defined the danger levels of air pollution just one month prior to the events in Birmingham. It was these guidelines the EPA’s enforcement team in Birmingham put forward to Judge Pointer when attempting to achieve the injunction. Shortly after the EPA’s formation, in December 1970, Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law, stating “I think that 1970 will be known as the year of the beginning, in which we really began to move on the problems of clean air and clean water and open spaces for the future generations of America”.
The incident in Birmingham would be the first time the EPA utilised the Clean Air Act, and demonstrated the federal organisations muscle over big industry in emergency situations. The events and responses of this tale in America’s environmental history show how government agents and politicians might envisage the best for the American people without considering real world aspects. The people seem to respond with much more day-by-day realism on the matter, according to the quotes used in the Birmingham News, the steel town needed the factories running. With mouths to feed the citizens didn’t feel like they could afford the luxury of clean air and healthy lungs if that meant industrial operations would cease.