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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Alabama's Blackbelt Region: A land forgotten, contaminated by coal ash

By Barbara Evans

This essay is in response to: How toxic is coal ash, the waste material left after coal is burned? How does it come to poison the waters and dust the land in communities across the nation? And what can be done to prevent further toxic contamination?

Alabama’s Blackbelt Region runs in a swath across Central and West Alabama. It’s a place of rolling hills, pastures and even swamps.  It’s blessed with beauty, clean air, and decent water resources. In other respects, though, it’s not so idyllic. Its majority Black population is majority lower income. The Blackbelt never recovered fully from the Industrial Age and often holds on tight to old traditions. Agriculture and free or cheap labor made some rich and kept others poor. Unemployment is high and there aren’t many job opportunities. 

The rising mound of coal ash and coal ash-contaminated earth, hauled from Tennessee and dumped in Uniontown, Alabama.

Perry County, centrally located in the Blackbelt, is the home of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights martyr, and Coretta Scott King. Now it’s home to millions of tons of toxic coal ash-contaminated soil, brought in by rail from the cleanup of the 2008 coal ash disaster in Harrison, Tennessee. That transaction was arranged by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Perry County Commission, with $1.00 per ton to be paid to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Perry County received around $4 million. The money was spent in Perry County, but Uniontown, home of the dump, got very little. Indeed, in 2011 the voters had to agree to a tax increase just to keep a Uniontown school open.

The coal ash came into Uniontown by rail, and soon there was a mountain of coal ash visible from miles away. Today, blowing ash can cover automobiles -- taking paint off the roofs of vehicles -- and the small gardens and fruit trees residents need for survival. At certain times of day, it has an acrid smell that is horrendous. When it rains (and the rains in Alabama are often torrential), the ditches are full of run-off from the dump. It stinks.

The landfill is 977 acres, with over 250 acres being used for disposal. Prior to the dumping, the area in these photos was flat prairie land.

While environmentalists urged EPA to classify coal ash as toxic waste (with no action to date), coal ash advocates got busy. In 2011, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill to regulate coal ash as household garbage, allowing it in every household waste landfill in Alabama. Congress followed suit with federal legislation to do the same. In late 2011, the dump petitioned ADEM to increase the number of active cells in the landfill. In two public hearings -- one to renew the dump permit itself and one to increase the active cells -- folks jammed the Uniontown City Hall in protest. Regardless, ADEM acquiesced to the dumpers. Now the Perry County Commission is actively seeking more coal ash for the landfill.

For Uniontown residents, the coming of the coal ash dump has meant a distinct cultural change. No longer do residents sit out on their porches enjoying the country air. People have stopped planting gardens because they are afraid to eat what they grow. Fruit trees don’t produce like they used to, and people are afraid to eat the fruit. Small farmers are afraid for themselves and their farm animals. In a place where black folks had to struggle so hard for the right to vote and own property, residents can’t move because their land is now worthless and unsalable. Buzzards in huge quantities blacken the sky, droppings falling over yards and roofs. It is a community destroyed. 

Meanwhile, reports are surfacing of respiratory illness and even cancer. Of course, nobody had bothered to do a baseline study on residents’ morbidity and mortality prior to hauling in millions of tons of toxically contaminated soil. 

Residents have tried everything they know to do. Two lawsuits have been filed. We have formed an organization, Blackbelt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, and we have been to Atlanta to talk with EPA Region 4, and even to Washington, DC, to lobby. EPA representatives have made several visits to Uniontown. None of this has resulted in action. We can’t understand why the toxic coal ash that was considered hazardous waste in Kingston, Tennessee, wasn’t treated as such when it came to us. 

We sit and we wait, trying to figure what to do next. We sit in our little homes, most without computers, and wait for help. Everybody wants to help, but nobody knows what to do next. It is a crisis in Perry County, stemming from dirty politics and money-motivated politicians. Every Alabama Blackbelt county faces the same crisis: We’re in a land forgotten. We believe that’s why we were chosen for coal ash dumping. They knew we did not have the power to fight back. Time will tell whether America will stand for this prime example of environmental racism.

PSR invites concerned readers to sign our petition urging President Obama to direct the EPA to issue strong coal ash protections.

Comments

JOHN JOHNSON said ..

I have had breathing problems worse since the coal ash is just across the tree line. I sit out side alot and since it started. Please help us here as our property isn't worth anything due to this I had signed in on the lawsuit but it was iwth a different attorny. I don't know if my name is included in the 63 residents in this law suit, I would like to find out if it was or not. Please call me at 334 327 9516 with futher information on this lawsuit and who is handling it. thank you for your time in this matter,

August 17, 2012

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