Ashes: A Community’s Toxic Inheritance

An Alabama community inherited the worst coal ash spill in U.S. history—four million cubic yards of toxic ash. This is the story of how residents of Uniontown are fighting back.

A coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 destroyed or damaged two dozen nearby homes
A coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 destroyed or damaged two dozen nearby homes (United Mountain Defense)


In the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2008, a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Power Plant collapsed, releasing over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash onto the community of Harriman, TN. It was the largest toxic spill in U.S. history.

But Harriman would not be the only community poisoned by this man-made disaster.


Two years after the spill, only a small percentage of the coal ash had been cleaned up, and residents of Harriman were losing patience. Trains brought much of the spilled coal ash five hours south—to the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, Alabama.


Harriman, TN was the site of the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The toxic coal ash was scooped up and dumped more than 300 miles away—in the community of Uniontown, AL.


Soon after the coal ash arrived in Perry County, AL, construction began on a massive coal ash dump. The trash liners in the bottom left photo were used to hold the coal ash in place on the train as it left the predominantly white and middle class area of Harriman, TN. However, as soon as the coal ash arrived in Perry County, the liner was ripped off and the coal ash was dumped into the open landfill.

TVA had considered keeping the coal ash within Tennessee, but with the approval of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), they chose to move the 4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash across state lines and dump it in a county that is 68% African-American and one of the lowest-income in Alabama.


Esther Calhoun stands in the entrance to her church near Uniontown, AL. The coal ash dump sits between Calhoun’s home and her church.

After the uncovered ash pile was created, the ash started blowing through the air, and Esther drove through coal ash dust storms on her way to service every Sunday and Friday. The paint peeled off her car and her friends started getting sick after exposure to the ash, which is laced with heavy metal and chemicals like arsenic, mercury and lead.


Much like Esther Calhoun and other residents, William Gibbs started seeing the paint peeling off his truck a few months after the coal ash arrived.

“If that’s what it’s doing to my truck, imagine what it’s doing to me,” said Gibbs.


The airborne coal ash stained houses, like this one, that were located directly across the street from Arrowhead Landfill.

Coal ash contains some of the earth’s most deadly pollutants, including toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological harm in humans.


The massive hill behind Timothy Moore, Jr. is coal ash in the Arrowhead Landfill. The area used to be a flat field.

When dumped into unlined ponds or mines, the toxins from coal ash readily leach into drinking water supplies. Hundreds of coal ash dump sites are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, creeks, and rivers.


Norma Jean Harris, who lives about a quarter mile from the landfill, examines her tap water. After the ash arrived, her water began to smell and taste strange; now, she uses bottled water for cooking and drinking. Many people in close proximity to the landfill have experienced problems with their water and are also using bottled water.


Over time, the environmental injustices continued in Perry County. People have to live in airborne ash (top left), while the streets are covered in fugitive ash (top right). The pile started leaking into neighborhood yards (bottom left).

Eventually, buzzards in the air became a constant sight (bottom right). What brought them to Perry County remains a mystery, but their presence has increased dramatically since the landfill began accepting coal ash.


The first time Rev. Tom Brown visited the Arrowhead Landfill, he had an asthmatic reaction from the fugitive coal ash in the air.

Fly ash particles (a major component of coal ash) can become lodged in the deepest part of lungs, triggering asthma, inflammation and immunological reactions. Studies have linked these particulates to the four leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.


Booker P. Gibson lives across the street from the landfill and saw discharges coming off the landfill onto his property. Later, some of Booker’s animals became sick and died after being exposed to the liquid.


“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. I wanted to hunt and fish and enjoy the weather in this beautiful place and 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,” said William Gibbs.

“I wish we never would have retired here,” his wife added.


Sisters and long-time Uniontown residents Ellis B. Long and Mary Leila Schaeffer started to see the effects that the coal ash was having on the community they love. They began working hard to correct the injustice they saw in the community.


Esther speaks with her friends Ben Eaton and Barbara Evans. After the ash arrived in Perry County, people like Esther and others gathered and formed a community group that is opposed to the coal ash: Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.


Rev. Mark Johnston is the executive director and pastor at Camp McDowell in Alabama. As soon as he heard about the situation in Perry County, he knew he had to help. He visited the area, met local residents and joined them in their fight.


Residents from throughout the area affected by the coal ash listen during a community meeting hosted by the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. Many of the residents have filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, a law that prohibits recipients of federal funds, including state agencies, from using those funds to implement or promulgate any policy that has an unjustified disproportionate adverse effect on the basis of race.

The source of the ash, the Harriman community, is almost entirely white (91%) and middle class (median income $36,031). Uniontown is almost the exact opposite—nearly 90% African-American and 45.2% living below the poverty line (median income $17,473).


Standing on the train tracks that brought the coal ash, Esther Calhoun shows Marianne Engelman Lado, who was then an Earthjustice attorney, another view of land owned by Arrowhead Landfill. Engelman Lado has partnered with local residents, including Esther, and is now the lead attorney on the Title VI complaint.

“When we visited Uniontown, we met people who were having respiratory problems, whose homes were covered with coal ash from the landfill, and who no longer used their well water for fear of contamination. These problems shouldn’t be invisible to the rest of us,” said Engelman Lado. “These are matters of public health and justice.”


“This case is first and foremost about the people of Uniontown, Alabama, who find themselves living near a landfill permitted to accept waste—commercial waste, toxic coal ash, industrial waste—from 33 states. The state’s permit fails to protect the health of the community. And they deserve better,” said Engelman Lado.

“The case also raises an important question of principle. Do we as a country continue to look the other way when our waste is threatening the health of low-income communities of color? Uniontown is 87% African American, and the per capita income is about $8,000. At what point do we finally enforce our civil rights laws and stop allowing waste to be dumped in low-income communities of color?”


“What we want is simple. We expect justice,” said Esther Calhoun who is holding a button with the logo of the community group Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice.

“For too long, low-income communities of color have seen their futures clouded by the burden of health hazards,” said Marianne Engelman Lado.

“It’s time for the state of Alabama and EPA to do something about it.”