By the spring of 2020, the century-old industrial plant on Birmingham’s 35th Avenue was literally falling apart. Chunks of the metal doors fronting several of the 1,800-degree ovens — which heat coal to produce a fuel called coke — had broken off and tumbled to the ground.

With the doors damaged, the toxic chemicals they were supposed to contain within the ovens leaked out at an accelerated rate. The fumes should still have been captured by a giant ventilation hood that had been put in place to suck up emissions. But that system was broken, too, causing plumes of noxious smoke to drift across the city’s historically Black north side, as they had done so many times before.

Months earlier, a regulator with the Jefferson County Department of Health had sent a letter warning the plant’s owners that they could soon be cited for failing to prevent pollution from escaping from the ovens in different ways.

“It seems inevitable,” the letter said.

But in the months that followed, the company that had recently bought the plant told regulators it was unable to make millions of dollars worth of necessary repairs to the oven doors and ventilation hood, records, and interviews show. The delays carried a tremendous cost: Nearby residents were once again being exposed to dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals.

No Southern city has experienced a longer and more damaging legacy of environmental injustice than Birmingham. As coke production fueled the city’s rise — powering plants that made everything from cast-iron pipes to steel beams — white leaders enacted housing policies that forced Black people to live in the most hazardous communities. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called Birmingham America’s “most thoroughly segregated city,” and the evidence of oppressive pollution was blatant. The air in north Birmingham residents’ lungs and the soil beneath their feet became more contaminated than in nearly any other corner of America.

Read the full article about north Birmingham by Max Blau at Grist.