A former Alabama state lawmaker testified Tuesday in a corruption trial that a major coal company and its law firm paid him to campaign against federal efforts to prioritize the clean-up of a polluted site in his largely African American district.
The former state representative, Oliver Robinson (D), claims he worked with two attorneys from the law firm Balch & Bingham and its client, Birmingham-based coal company Drummond Co., to oppose a North Birmingham Superfund site getting added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List (NPL). Adding the site to the NPL — a collection of the highest priority pollution cleanup sites in the country — could have increased cleanup costs for the coal company.
Robinson, who served as an Alabama state representative from 1998 to his resignation in 2016, told the court that Drummond wanted him to use his influence as a legislator “to talk to neighborhood presidents, local politicians, state politicians, church leaders, anybody that would be in favor of opposing the EPA.”
In his work for Drummond, Robinson argued in public forums that listing the site on the NPL would depress property values in the area, according to AL.com.
In 2013, the EPA notified a division of Drummond that it was one of five companies potentially responsible for contamination in North Birmingham. The EPA said it was considering adding the existing Superfund site — 35th Avenue Superfund site — to the NPL and expanding it into other neighborhoods. Drummond owns the ABC Coke plant in Tarrant, Alabama, about a mile away from the Superfund site.
Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson arrives at the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse to resume testimony in the public corruption trial against 2 attorneys at the law firm Balch Bingham & a VP at Drummond Company, which owns ABC Coke. pic.twitter.com/m3yHaD63pK
— Lauren Walsh (@LaurenWalshTV) July 5, 2018
The North Birmingham neighborhoods of Collegeville, Harriman Park, and Fairmont have faced pollution and toxic contamination problems from local industry for decades. Through April 2017, the EPA had removed about 30,000 tons of contaminated soil from hundreds of properties in the neighborhoods.
Soil removed from the neighborhoods was filled with contaminants, including arsenic, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzo(a)pyrene. All are linked to human health problems. Benzo(a)pyrene is classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
At the trial on Tuesday, Robinson said that he was approached by David Roberson, vice president of Drummond’s government relations and a registered lobbyist, in 2014 to help with the company’s issue with the potential expansion of the EPA Superfund site.
U.S. attorneys contend Roberson and Balch & Bingham attorneys Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney bribed Robinson to oppose the expansion of the Superfund site into Inglenook and Tarrant neighborhoods and oppose adding the cleanup to the EPA’s NPL.
Robinson and Drummond’s attorneys agreed on a contract that would pay Robinson’s foundation $7,000 monthly to speak with community leaders about why they opposed adding the region to the EPA’s NPL. Starting in the fall of 2015, Robinson’s monthly payments to speak out against cleanup increased from $7,000 to $20,000.
The Drummond official and the two attorneys have maintained their innocence, with defense lawyers suggesting in opening statements that Robinson is trying to reduce his prison sentence by misrepresenting what happened.
Drummond had not responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment at the time this article was published.
The state of Alabama agreed with Drummond that the 35th Avenue site should not be added to the Superfund NPL. So far, the EPA has not added the site to its priorities list, although it could be added in the future, according to AL.com.
Robinson was a star basketball player at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the early 1980s. After college, he had a brief career as a professional basketball player with the San Antonio Spurs.
In 2017, Robinson agreed to a plea of guilty to receiving bribes from Drummond. Robinson’s foundation also reportedly discouraged constituents from testing their soil for pollutants from the contaminated site.
In pleading guilty to conspiracy, bribery, fraud, and tax evasion in September 2017, Robinson said he accepted the fact he could face a maximum of 100 years in prison and a possible $1.6 million in fines and hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution. Robinson is expected to be handed his prison sentence at the end of the trial of his three alleged co-conspirators. The trial is currently in its second week and is expected to last about a month.
Founded in the 1930s, Drummond Co. 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.