A coal ash impoundment at TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in Tennessee failed in 2008, spilling five times the volume of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. It was the worst in US history. The next year, the EPA, overseeing the clean-up operations, shipped 4 million tons of toxic coal ash by rail to an Alabama landfill in a region called the Black Belt. The Black Belt, birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, has “the richest soil and the poorest people.”
Coal ash – the toxic waste byproduct of coal-fired power generation that contains mercury, arsenic, and selenium – is the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States, however it is not regulated as hazardous waste, even though the heavy metals leach into groundwater and travel through the air.
In 2009, the EPA approved a permit to dump the Kingston ash in a landfill in Uniontown, a town of about 1600, where 88 percent of residents are African American. The landfill is directly adjacent to homes, so residents – most on well water– look out their kitchen windows at 60 foot high piles of uncovered coal ash. After the arrival of the ash, residents reported health effects consistent with heavy metal exposures, such as respiratory distress, headaches, dizziness and skin disorders. In 2012, 54 residents filed a complaint with the EPA last year, alleging that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s disposal of the ash in the Arrowhead landfill was a discriminatory act against a predominantly African American population, in violation Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One citizen group, Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, reached out to regional and statewide groups to start gathering health and environmental quality data. They used existing networks to educate themselves about coal ash, holding meetings around kitchen tables, and they spoke out to decision-makers. Community health surveys are now underway, and folks are learning how to use the data to continue making change.
Drawing a line in the ‘Selma chalk’
Today, the coal ash is still in the landfill, but another group of Uniontown residents are agitating around a different issue. Across town from the landfill, a wastewater treatment plant is in the process of a major upgrade, which includes a new spray field for treated sewage to seep into the ground. Residents feel that there have not been adequate communication or input into the placement of the spray field, and are joining with the residents who fought the coal ash. The wastewater system badly needs the upgrades to protect residents and watersheds from leaks and stormwater overflows, and city and county officials worked hard to secure federal grants and municipal bonds to pay for the upgrades, but for residents, the placement of the spray field near homes is a line in the sand that is not just about wastewater, but transparency and dignity.
If you are standing by the Arrowhead landfill, as I was yesterday, you might note that this line in the sand is more like a line in the chalk. ‘Selma chalk’ is the term for the limestone underlying the region, and it gives the ground a white, sandy appearance. Overlaying the chalk is the fertile, black soil that gives the Black Belt its name and is the reason this region became a cotton-producing region. My colleague and I had stayed in Selma the night before, in what had once been the biggest city in Alabama and heart of the cotton region, and is now a sleepy town with ghosts of the civil rights movement. In Uniontown, small farms dot the landscape, and we watch cows grazing adjacent to the coal ash in the landfill as we take water samples. A spring breeze ruffled meadows of wildflowers quietly; we notice how coal-fired power plants are often so noisy but here the toxic coal ash waste lies silent.
That night, we attended a community forum for residents of Uniontown to ask questions of the engineer in charge of the wastewater project. In a windowless auditorium in the municipal building, the engineer stood behind a podium front of more than 50 residents on folding chairs armed with notes and questions. The engineer answered pre-submitted questions, often appearing bored, irritated, or disinterested. My stomach was in knots as the engineer peered over his glasses at the audience, and I noticed his glances at my white colleagues and I, as if he could say certain things only to us. He chastised audience members for asking questions out of turn, and sighed dismissively when residents pressed him for more complete answers. Twice, the engineer mentioned that he was a volunteer and on his own time, though the residents were on their own time as well.
Most residents were concerned that they hadn’t been notified, and many had questions about the various processes of the spray field. One resident, a catfish farmer whose land lies adjacent to the spray field, asked if the engineer would sign a guarantee that the spray field would not negatively impact his catfish investments. Reluctant to give a guarantee, the engineer said that they would take care of issues as they arose. The farmer pressed, asking how residents were supposed to know their safety was being guaranteed, and the engineer said, “I can’t guarantee it. It is what it is.”
There was an audible gasp in the audience. Laid bare here, as exposed as a seam of Selma chalk, was the only guarantee he could make: the spray field would happen, and everything else — health, safety, justice – was a gamble. This was the legacy of the region.
To be clear, Uniontown and all of Perry County need these wastewater upgrades, and city and county officials at the community forum insist that they are responsible for citizen’s safety and health. But for people buying bottled water with a fixed income because they can’t trust their taps, “things will be fine” isn’t enough. After the meeting, some residents told us that they weren’t usually so boisterous during community meetings, but we weren’t judging meeting decorum. Grassroots power is not always polite, and in fact is often a bumpy ride as folks sort through the superficial issues of permits and notices to uncover the heart of the matter.
What my colleague and I felt powerfully in Uniontown was that campaign work on coal waste intersects with peoples’ lives in a way that means it is also about justice . The waste stream of coal ash is not directly linked to a wastewater treatment plant, but for residents whose watersheds flow through both, it’s the same undrinkable water. And the convergence here for citizens fighting wastewater and coal ash may be the momentum of grassroots power that can change the course of community health in Perry County.