Alabama's Blackbelt Region: A land forgotten, contaminated by coal ash
March 2, 2012
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?
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.
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.
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
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.