Alabama coal exec, lawyer found guilty of bribing politician to oppose EPA Superfund cleanup

Coal company didn't want to pay for cleanup of site.

A view of the city of Birmingham, Alabama, showing its downtown area and a number of smoking steel mills. CREDIT: Charles Rotkin/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
A view of the city of Birmingham, Alabama, showing its downtown area and a number of smoking steel mills. CREDIT: Charles Rotkin/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

An Alabama lawyer and a coal executive were convicted in a bribery scheme to pay off a local politician to oppose Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to prioritize the cleanup of a contaminated site in North Birmingham, Alabama.

David Roberson, vice president of government relations at privately owned coal company Drummond Co., and Joel Gilbert, an attorney with Balch & Bingham who represented Drummond, were convicted on Friday of six federal charges, including bribery, conspiracy, money laundering, and honest service wire fraud. Each defendant faces up to 100 years in prison.

Drummond and its lawyers allegedly reached out to Oliver Robinson (D), who was an Alabama state lawmaker at the time, in 2014 and offered to pay him to campaign against federal efforts to prioritize the cleanup of a polluted site in his largely African American district.

In 2013, the EPA declared more than 1,000 acres of the neighborhoods in Robinson’s North Birmingham district a Superfund site after finding the soil was laced with arsenic, lead, and benzo(a)pyrene, a coal byproduct that causes cancer. It named five companies, including Drummond, as potentially responsible for the pollution and cleanup costs.


The EPA said it was considering adding the existing Superfund site — 35th Avenue Superfund site — to the EPA’s national priorities list and expanding it into other neighborhoods. Drummond owns the ABC Coke plant in Tarrant, Alabama, about a mile away from the Superfund site.

Drummond, a Birmingham-based coal company, decided to fight the EPA’s efforts to prioritize and expand the Superfund site. Prosecutors said the bribe from Drummond to Robinson came in the form of a lucrative consulting contract that paid the state lawmaker $360,000 through his Oliver Robinson Foundation, a nonprofit organization, between 2015 and 2016, according to a Monday statement by the Justice Department.

The jury returned its verdicts last Friday after deliberating about 12 hours following more than three weeks of testimony in a U.S. district court in Birmingham. On July 17, the judge dismissed similar corruption charges against a third defendant, Balch and Bingham attorney Steve McKinney, leaving only Roberson and Gilbert to face the charges.

Roberson and Gilbert remain free on bond. The judge said Friday that sentencing will take place in about three months.

Robinson, who resigned from office in 2016, pleaded guilty in September 2017 to taking $360,000 in bribes and agreed to cooperate with investigators. Three weeks later, a federal grand jury indicted Roberson, Gilbert, and McKinney of funneling money to Robinson so he would fight efforts to widen the cleanup.


During the trial, Robinson said that he was approached by Roberson in 2014 to help the company oppose the potential expansion of the EPA Superfund site. Robinson is scheduled to be sentenced in September.

That year, GASP, a Birmingham environmental justice group, asked the EPA to expand the Superfund site into another Birmingham neighborhood and the small suburb of Tarrant, where Drummond’s plant is located. The agency also began weighing whether to add the north Birmingham site to the National Priorities List, which would allow regulators to clean up the site first and seek repayment from responsible parties later.

“This was a great outcome for the people of north Birmingham and all of Alabama. It is rare that corruption is rooted out, and it’s even more rare that those who do the corrupting are held accountable,” GASP Executive Director Michael Hansen said Monday in a statement.

Drummond, in a statement issued Saturday, said it was disappointed by Roberson’s conviction. “We consider David to be a man of integrity who would not knowingly engage in wrongdoing,” the company said.

In the statement, Dummond said that when an “environmentalist group” raised allegations about its operations in the Birmingham area, it responded by hiring “one of Alabama’s most well-respected environmental law firms.”

“We were assured the firm’s community outreach efforts on our behalf were legal and proper,” the company said.

Founded in the 1930s, Drummond is a privately owned coal company, with major domestic and international operations. Controversy has surrounded the company for years.


Widows and orphans of three labor union leaders who were murdered by paramilitary forces near Drummond mines in Colombia filed a lawsuit against the company in 2003. The lawsuit accused Drummond of “supporting paramilitary fighters at its facilities, thereby making Drummond liable for the deaths.” A U.S. district court judge ruled in favor of Drummond in the case.