A Toxic Inheritance

The nation’s worst coal ash spill was scooped up from a prosperous community and dumped across state lines into the lives of a low-income community. But Alabama's Perry County is fighting back.


Tom Brown couldn’t help but notice urgency, frustration and a hint of sadness when his friend Mark Johnston called. Both Episcopal reverends in Alabama, the two men knew each other well enough to sense the other’s feelings.

“Tom, you’ve got to go to Uniontown with me. There is something there you just have to see.”

For the past 60 years, Brown has fought social injustice in Alabama and beyond and is no stranger to civil and environmental inequalities. But when Johnston took him to see the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown—a small town 100 miles south of Birmingham—it wasn’t only what he saw that left an unforgettable impression, it was what he inhaled.

Minutes after Brown stepped out of the car, he began to cough and wheeze as the pollution and dust from a coal ash dump site at Arrowhead triggered an asthma attack. The dump was just across the street from homes and neighbors who breathed this toxic pollution. Arrowhead is the continuation of a coal ash nightmare that began five years earlier and 350 miles away.

Inheriting America’s Worst Coal Ash Spill

On Dec. 22, 2008, just after midnight, a massive coal ash dump in Kingston, Tenn., burst through a dike, sending more than a billion gallons of toxic waste across 300 acres of riverfront property, damaging and destroying two dozen nearby homes. The owner of the dump, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has since spent $1.2 billion in cleanup costs, but by 2010, only a small percentage of the ash had been cleaned up and Tennessee residents were losing patience.

With the approval of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the TVA chose to move the 4 million cubic yards of poisonous ash 350 miles south and dump it at the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, Alabama, a county that according to the 2010 census is 68 percent African-American and one of the poorest in that state. The community of Uniontown near the Arrowhead Landfill is 88 percent African-American.

Brown quickly decided that he needed to join Johnston in the fight to protect Uniontown residents from the coal ash that was being shipped into their community.

Though their county commission campaigned to receive the poisonous ash on the grounds that profits from the landfill would improve the local economy, schools and infrastructure, residents saw through their bluster.

If the ash was too dangerous to stay in a predominantly white, middle-class community, how would it be any safer in their predominantly African-American, poverty-stricken one? This was not just an environmental problem, but a civil rights injustice. They were determined to fight it, and Earthjustice stepped in to help.

A Civil Rights Injustice

In December of 2013, Earthjustice attorneys Marianne Engelman Lado, Matt Baca and Lisa Evans informed the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights that Earthjustice would be representing six Alabama residents, including Brown and Johnston, in a civil rights complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funds, including state agencies, from taking actions or implementing policies that have unjustified disproportionate adverse effect on the basis of race.

The complaint is against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) for reissuing and modifying the landfill’s permit without proper and readily enforceable protections of public health.

The citizens of Uniontown have been fighting Arrowhead since it was constructed in 2003. Arrowhead was built and permitted on the recommendation of ADEM to accept the municipal, industrial and “special” waste of 16 states, including most along the eastern seaboard from Florida to Rhode Island, as well as waste from Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Many of the Earthjustice clients, including three Uniontown residents, Esther Calhoun, Mary Leila Schaeffer and Ellis Long, led a campaign to stop the dumping of waste in their town. They formed a group called the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice to prevent the construction of the landfill as a municipal waste disposal site, but to no avail. As Mary Leila Schaeffer said, “We had the waste of about a third of the population of the country.”

Little did they know then that several years later coal ash would become part of their lives.

“The county commission did not let us know,” Schaeffer said. “The mayor did not let us know. We had no voice in it, no concept of it. We found out when it was already a done deal.”

“At first it was about it being just a regular waste facility,” said Esther Calhoun. “Then they start talking about coal ash. We were already upset about all the garbage from other states coming in because we can hardly handle our own and now they’re talking about giving us stuff that nobody wants. Where we live in Perry County, those who make all the decisions just think about themselves, but it’s supposed to be about the people and what the people want.”

“You look at Uniontown and you think, Where is the money? Where are the jobs? Where is anything that benefits Uniontown? I think we’re in the same old boat before coal ash came, now we just got a big mountain of coal ash.”

A Strong Spirit of Resistance

Earthjustice staff traveled to Uniontown and saw a small, modest town with few jobs to be had. Main Street, anchored by an aging Piggly Wiggly grocery store, runs straight through vestiges of what was once, no doubt, a bustling and thriving hamlet. Neighborhood streets lined with dilapidated Victorian homes and aging plantation estates are reminders of historic grandeur that has now been replaced by environmental injustice.

Its people have been forced to endure the noxious, nauseating smell of coal ash waste, the incessant buzz of birds and flies, the unbearable noise of heavy machinery, and the grime of fugitive ash encasing their homes and cars; but they endure with a strong spirit of resistance.

Some stay indoors all day to avoid heavy coughing, itchy eyes or skin irritation, a conflict with the cultural southern custom of sitting on porches with neighbors and friends. Some buy bottled water to drink, fearing they will get sick from possible water contamination from the runoff oozing down from the mountain of toxic waste when it rains.

But while this may be gloomy, there are no signs of defeat.

Uniontown is not just their town but their homeland; their pasts and their futures all combine to reveal a commitment to protect their neighborhoods and the things they are not willing to surrender.

As Esther explains, “We got our property from our parents, or we worked hard to buy that property. And that means a whole lot. I came here from upstate, worked all them years and come home so I could just relax living in the country, and just enjoy where I grew up. And what do I get? Coal ash. But the thing is, we’re never gonna stop fighting, because it doesn’t make any sense that every time they want to put a dumping ground it’s in a black residence. We have to stick together. Then we have power.”

What do Calhoun and her fellow citizens want from the civil rights complaint? Most importantly, they want accountability: routine testing of the air and water, responsible monitoring by ADEM of the landfill, and proper regulation of coal ash waste.

As Calhoun said, “What we want is simple. We expect justice.”

Written by Jared Saylor and Debra Mayfield.

(A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.)