The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a plan last week to dump 3 million tons of coal ash that spilled from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in eastern Tennessee in an impoverished, largely African-American community in Alabama -- and the decision is sparking resistance among local officials and residents who don't want the toxic waste.
The district attorney for Perry County, Ala. -- where the privately owned Arrowhead landfill that's getting the ash is located -- said yesterday the federal government's decision to bring the waste to his community was "tragic and shortsighted" and would endanger generations of residents, the Associated Press reports:
Perry County District Attorney Michael Jackson said he would monitor the lengthy disposal process to make sure the landfill operator and the federal utility comply with environmental regulations.
Jackson said he doesn't know if anything can be done to block the shipments, however.
"We're looking at every option, talking to different groups," Jackson said.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management defends the decision, and some Perry County officials say it will bring millions of dollars in payments and about 50 jobs to the area.
Coal ash contains significant levels of toxic pollutants including arsenic, lead and mercury as well as radioactive elements, but it is still not regulated by the federal government as hazardous waste. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said her agency plans to release a proposed federal rule for the waste by year's end.
In May, Facing South broke the story that TVA's decision to primarily consider two landfills for dumping the ash -- in Perry County, Ala. and Taylor County, Ga. -- raised environmental justice concerns because of the social vulnerability of the communities targeted.
Georgia's Taylor County is an agricultural area where almost 41% of the population is African-American and more than 24% of residents live in poverty, according to census data. Alabama's Perry County -- part of the historic "Black Belt" -- is 69% African-American with more than 32% of its residents living in poverty, making it one of the state's poorest counties.
TVA reportedly considered moving the coal ash to two communities in eastern Tennessee that are predominantly white and with lower poverty levels, but the company sought regulators' approval only for the Georgia and Alabama sites. TVA's announcement regarding the Alabama landfill's selection said the choice was made after an evaluation process involving more than 30 companies.
In a letter to Facing South following publication of our May report, Peyton T. Hairston Jr., TVA's senior vice president for corporate responsibility and diversity, took issue with the story:
To write that TVA has made decisions on where to transport ash from the Kingston coal spill based on the racial composition of a community is simply wrong.
For the record, the story did not say TVA made its disposal decision because of the community's racial composition. But the effect is the same: TVA -- with EPA's approval -- has chosen to move toxic waste from a predominantly white and relatively well-off community in Tennessee to a poor and majority-black community in Alabama.
Meanwhile, Perry County District Attorney Jackson is not the only Alabamian raising concerns about the dumping decision. The Tuscaloosa News editorialized against the move in a piece titled "Coal ash dump site in Alabama not welcome":
Why is it that the cheapest, politically easiest option for dumping this toxic waste is to put it in a poor, rural county in Alabama's Black Belt?
Local residents are also voicing opposition -- some in creative ways. When TVA held a public meeting last month in Harriman, Tenn. to discuss the ash disposal plans, Perry County resident Betsy Ramaccia showed up wearing a protective suit and breathing mask to denounce the decision as "an environmental injustice and a social injustice," WVLT-TV reports. To view the segment, which was produced before EPA approved the disposal decision, see Jonathan Hiskes' report at Grist.
And residents of Uniontown, the community closest to the Alabama landfill, got an opportunity to speak their piece about the dumping plans via www.ashholes.org, a website created by Project M, a socially responsible design firm that's also behind the innovative PieLab community space in nearby Greensboro, Ala. It features a short video of Uniontown residents, including the man in the still shot above, delivering a simple message to the EPA administrator.
"Lisa Jackson, will you protect us?"