Uniontown Prepares to Demand Justice

Residents of Uniontown, Alabama prepare for EPA visit to investigate the complaint filed by many of its citizens under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

William Gibbs and his wife live near the massive coal ash dump in Uniontown, AL.
William Gibbs and his wife live near the massive coal ash dump in Uniontown, AL. "I wanted to move away from the noise and the hardness of the city. So I came here for some peace and quiet in the country ... now they've pushed this thing right on top of us. Now, I'm too old to move and no one would want to buy this place anyways," says Gibbs. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

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Earlier this month, Marianne Engelman Lado from the Northeast office and I travelled back to Uniontown, Alabama, a small, quiet, predominantly African American town that received over 4 million cubic yards of poisonous coal ash from the December 2008 TVA disaster in Kingston, TN.  

We visited members of the community and heard about their experience living under the shadow of the mountain of coal ash and other waste at Arrowhead Landfill, the largest municipal landfill in Alabama. The complaint, filed on behalf of community residents and others who are concerned about the health effects of the landfill, is intended to compel the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to require the landfill to have proper and readily enforceable protections of public health. The reissuance and modification of the permit, we argue, has an unjustified disproportionate adverse effect on the basis of race in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations.

The purpose of our visit? Over two years after the original complaint was filed with the EPA, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating our complaint. We went to talk with the community about what that investigation, which began the week of August 12, will entail.

We arrived in Uniontown on Thursday, greeted by two of our complainants, Esther Calhoun and Ellis Long, who have been fighting the landfill, which continues to receive industrial and municipal waste from 33 states up and down the eastern seaboard as well as from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. 

Esther, a long-time resident born and raised in Uniontown and president of Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice, introduced us to community members suffering from the deleterious impacts of the landfill who hope to share their experience with the EPA. People were more than eager to share their maddening and often sad experiences of living near a facility that houses toxic waste shipped 350 miles from the predominately white, middle class town where it originated. 

Though some safety measures have been implemented by the landfill, such as more effective covering of the mountain of coal ash still towering over the streets and homes along its perimeter (the massive mound of coal ash was originally covered by more coal ash), the noxious smell, the thick layers of black dust covering cars and homes, and fears of water contamination still persist.

People complain of how once vibrant and fertile vegetable gardens that fed their families for generations are now barren, and fruit trees are dotted with deformed and withered fruit. Nosebleeds, sore throats, skin rashes, increases in asthma especially in children, and inflamed sinuses are commonplace afflictions. But, unfortunately, impacts on their health are just the beginning.

Fears of plummeting property values plague the community, as well. We met several families that worry that the land that their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents purchased as far back as the turn of the century is worthless. Many who looked forward to retiring on their ancestral property are thinking of leaving—if they can. As one member of the community said, “Who would want to buy this house behind a dump of human waste and coal ash?” There’s an overwhelming feeling of being stuck on land that should have been a haven in the twilight years of many of the community members.

Brothers Stanley and Larry White echo this frustration—and heartbreak. The land they live on was acquired by their great-grandparents almost 80 years ago, a time when ownership of land by African Americans was difficult and, too often, dangerous to realize. Now, this emblem of their family’s hard work and persistence is a frequently foul-smelling perch for buzzards. Many people told us similar facts: buzzards, vermin, smells and loud operational noises spoiling the enjoyment of people’s property, and fear of water contamination destroying their peace of mind.

The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights arrived in Uniontown on August 12 to interview community members and tour the perimeters of the landfill. They heard from many relaying the same tales of fear, anger, suffering and disillusionment. Let’s hope that they didn’t just take notes necessary for the investigation, but took the time to truly see what everyday life is like for folks living near a mountain of poisonous ash and understand the heartache of enduring a threat not just to your health or your way of life, but your hard-earned part of the American dream.

Debra Mayfield worked with Earthjustice clients and partners to ensure their right to live in a healthy environment. She worked in the Washington, D.C. office from 2012–2015.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.