Jay Reeves / AP

Alabama community alleges race bias over toxic landfill site

Coal ash from earlier environmental disaster is causing health concerns for poor African-American residents

Five-and-a-half years have passed since an earthen dam holding toxic coal ash from a coal plant failed in Harriman, Tenn., spilling more than a billion gallons of the ash into rivers and forests, and destroying several homes. The TVA Kingston Fossil Plant disaster was widely considered one of the worst in U.S. history, or at least one of the biggest by volume. And it’s still causing headaches, hundreds of miles away.

Last week, Environmental Protection Agency investigators traveled to Uniontown, Ala., to interview residents and activists who say a local landfill that accepted much of the Tennessee coal ash is polluting air and water sources nearby, causing people who live in the area to become sick. The residents of the poor, predominantly black area say they are being unfairly burdened with the literal remnants of a disaster they had nothing to do with.

"The landfill is a hill, a mountain, and it’s scary," said Esther Calhoun, a 51-year-old resident that has lived in Uniontown for most of her life. "Who wants to live in a place that might be bad for your health? But most of us are on a fixed income. We’re stuck here."

The Arrowhead Landfill has been controversial from the start, even before the coal ash from Tennessee began arriving by the trainload in 2009. But after the facility expanded in 2012, community activism heated up, and residents asked the EPA to intervene. They charged that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits agencies that receive federal funding from discrimination.

It’s unclear when the EPA will decide on the case, but residents and activists say the fact that EPA officials came to Uniontown last week is a sign they are taking the claims seriously. They say they hope the EPA will act to force Arrowhead to relocate, or at least implement more stringent air and water quality monitors to make sure the coal ash isn’t disturbing nearby residents.

"We know the state has failed here, so it’s time for the EPA to step in," said John Wathen, an activist with local nonprofit Hurricane Creekkeeper. "We’re kind of grasping at straws here and this is the last straw."

Arrowhead has piqued activism in the community since it opened in 2007. But it wasn’t until 2009 that residents began complaining of possible health effects stemming from the facility. Several houses are located across the street, and residents say the smell of toxic waste permeates the rural community.

Residents have reported headaches, dizziness, rashes, nausea and vomiting, symptoms they believe are related to the coal ash at the site, according to lawyers for Earthjustice, the nonprofit organization representing six Uniontown-area residents in their request for action from the EPA.

"There’s a real question of why the landfill was put there in the first place, in this community that’s predominantly poor and African-American," said Matthew Baca, a lawyer for EarthJustice. "But if it’s going to be there, at a bare minimum there have to be meaningful mitigation measures in place. … There’s not even like a fence."

Coal ash, the waste product of coal power plants, can contain toxic substances like mercury and arsenic. Environmental groups have called coal ash a crisis across the U.S, as billions of tons of the substance accumulate in landfills and unlined pits, often spilling or leaching into nearby water.

According to ADEM, the Arrowhead landfill is meant to handle such a substance without contaminating the surrounding environment.

"If the facility is complying with its permits then there shouldn’t be any issues with groundwater or air quality," said Scott Hughes, a public relations representative from ADEM. "And from a compliance standpoint there haven’t been any significant issues."

Hughes says the department operates 13 groundwater-monitoring wells around the landfill to ensure its environmental integrity.

But despite those protections, residents and activists say the landfill continues to pollute its surroundings.

John Wathen says arsenic-tainted waste water has been found at levels 10 times above what’s allowed by federal standards in the roadside ditches surrounding Arrowhead.

ADEM’s Hughes say he has yet to see any test results proving Wathen’s claims.

The arsenic testing may be in dispute, but the smell and sight of the plant is undeniable to anyone who passes it. And for those who live near it, it has become a constant reminder of their perceived powerlessness.

Through years of petitioning local, state, and federal officials, residents say they have been ignored at every turn. And they are worried that if the EPA doesn’t act, they’ll be left with no recourse at all for the future.

"We’re a small group, we’re poor, and we’re black, so no one is going to help us," said Ben Eaton, a 55-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives a few miles away from the facility. "People here just learn to accept whatever happens."

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