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Coal Ash Dump in Alabama's Black Belt: Another Symbol of Racism's Staying Power

In Uniontown, Alabama, a mountain of coal ash containing carcinogens and neurotoxins is threatening the town's residents.

Annette Gibbs and her husband William
Annette Gibbs and her husband William stand in their front yard, near the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, Ala. Four million cubic yards of toxic coal ash were scooped up from Harriman, Tenn., the site of the nation's worst toxic spill, and dumped at the landfill. (Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice)

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Esther Calhoun crumpled tissue and wiped away tears last week as she told a federal commission what it was like to live next to a mountain of hazardous waste.

“If you come to Uniontown, [Alabama] you’ll see this mountain of coal ash,” Esther said. “You would see that no one should live this close to coal ash. No one in their right mind would want to live this close to coal ash.” Coal ash, the remnants of coal that’s burned in power plants to generate electricity, is a ghastly mix of carcinogens and neurotoxins.

The U.S. Environmental Protect Agency documented 160 coal ash disposal sites had poisoned drinking water or air. Some 140 million tons of coal ash are generated every year.

Esther lives near the Arrowhead municipal landfill in Uniontown, Ala. It began taking coal ash in 2010 from the largest coal ash spill in history in Kingston, Tenn., where four million cubic yards of coal ash breached an impoundment. Kingston is a majority white community and Uniontown, with a population of 1,700, is nearly 90 percent black.

Recently, Esther, the president of Black Belt Citizens for Health & Justice, told her story before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is looking into coal ash disposal and its impact on low-income people and communities of color. The EPA has determined that low-income communities and in some cases communities of color are more likely to live near coal ash disposal sites. The commission is probing the problem, planning to issue a report with possible recommendations to better protect communities.

In her written testimony, Esther said residents who live near the landfill worry about gathering on porches or eating vegetables from gardens because they fear getting sick. Esther has neuropathy, just like some of her neighbors. T hey wonder if the coal ash exposure has caused it.

The putrid smell emanating from the mountain of coal ash nauseates her. “It suffocates me to look at it,” she told the commission.

Coal ash contains heavy metals like mercury, lead and arsenic. The disposal of coal ash was largely unregulated until 2014 when the EPA finalized weak regulations that did not classify the toxins as hazardous. The regulations do nothing to help the people of Uniontown.

For Esther, the health and quality of life problems faced by her community are made so much worse because of her powerlessness to keep coal ash out of her community and the marginalization of African Americans in Alabama that is so tied to this issue.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management gave a permit to the Arrowhead landfill to receive this coal ash over the objections of residents. She’s gone to meetings, talked to the EPA and it seems that no one cares, she said, because no one takes any action. No one sends doctors. She’s been unable to find out how close coal ash can be placed to people’s homes. And she wonders why the original owners of this massive landfill decided to put the coal ash just a stone’s throw away from her community.

Uniontown has more than its fair share of undesirable businesses. There’s a catfish processing plant, a cheese plant and sprayfields that smell. People don’t earn much money, the median income is $15,000 a year and there are a slew of problems that residents there don’t have the money to fix. The sewage system is broken. A school has been closed and there’s no money to operate an ambulance service.

For Esther, the coal ash problem is just another example of what it means to be black in Alabama.”In Alabama we still have black and white schools,” she said. “It’s about what color you are.”

The white children in Perry County, where Uniontown is based, don’t go to the black schools, she told me after testifying, and the black kids don’t get laptops to take home.

“Discrimination is still here, “she told the commission. ” If you’re black, your voice will hardly ever be heard.”

Esther described a life where everything from education and job opportunities to economic and political power is defined by race. Her father and grandfather were sharecroppers and grew cotton, corn and okra on the Tate plantation, two to three miles from Arrowhead. She grew up on the Coleman Long plantation.

Sharecropping, which left workers indebted to landowners, was the system of organizing labor throughout much of the South that replaced slavery. Accumulating wealth was difficult to impossible under this system. Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, political power was nonexistent, but to Esther, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

“I’d like to see the EPA do justice,” said Esther. “I’d like our voices to be heard,” she said, adding I guess it’s because of the color you are that they think you can take anything. To ADEM [the Alabama Department of Environmental Management] I don’t matter any more than a hill of beans.”

Esther explained that people in her community struggle to pay their lights bills and phone bills. They sometimes choose between buying medicine for themselves and their children.

This problem of coal ash and disposal near black and low-income communities is not unique to Uniontown. It’s just one of many examples of how the nation’s environmental pollution is overlaid with issues of race and class.

Earthjustice represents residents of Uniontown, who filed a complaint with the EPA in 2013, against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for failing to consider the impact on a majority black community, which, it’s required to do under the Civil Rights Act because the agency receives federal funds. The complaint also charges that the state’s decision to permit this site without adequate protections will have an unjustified disparate impact on the basis of race. When the coal ash left Kingston, the site of the disaster, it was regarded as hazardous and treated as hazardous, but when it was unloaded from the train cars, the coal ash was no longer treated as hazardous.

Esther wants to see landfill owners do whatever is possible to protect the community from the hazardous coal ash. It’s unclear, at this point, what the EPA will do.

But the only hope at this time comes from people like Esther, who despite her daily struggles—she helps care for aging parents—takes time to fight to improve her community.

She told the officials that environmental regulators should only do the work they do if they’re genuinely interested in protecting life. “A lot of people don’t need these jobs because they don’t care about people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to them.”

In addition to helping her aging parents, Esther is raising a 12-year-old boy, although she already has grown children. “I carry a lot of people’s burdens because I love people,” she said. “Don’t just sit behind the computer and go tick, tick, tick.”

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post on February 12, 2016.

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.