How an Alabama Town Is Fighting Against Cancerous & Toxic Coal Ash Dumping—No Thanks to Trump’s EPA

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Residents of Uniontown, Alabama, have lived with the Arrowhead landfill, which is twice the size of New York’s Central Park, have protested shipments of toxic coal ash—the residual byproduct of burning coal—from a massive spill in Kingston, Tennessee, believed to be the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history. For two years, nearly 4 million tons of coal ash was also shipped by rail from a mostly white Tennessee county to Uniontown. Coal ash contains toxins, including arsenic, mercury and boron, that can affect the nervous and reproductive systems and cause other health problems. According to the EPA, people living within a mile of unlined coal ash storage ponds have a one-in-50 risk of developing cancer. In 2013, some Uniontown residents filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This week, the EPA dismissed the claim, saying there was “insufficient evidence.” We speak with Ben Eaton, vice president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice and a resident of Uniontown, Alabama; and with Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of the EPA’s environmental justice program.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Nearly six months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, the island is still facing a massive recovery effort. While the official death toll is just 64, it’s believed more than a thousand people died since the storm struck, September 20th. Roughly 150,000 homes and businesses are still waiting for electricity.

And we’re going to talk about what’s happening in Puerto Rico around one specific issue, but we’re going to start in Alabama. We’re going to start with environmental news and a battle between a small, mostly poor, majority-black community in Alabama and the operators of a toxic landfill. For more than a decade, the residents of Uniontown, Alabama, which has a population of about 2,400 people, have lived with the Arrowhead landfill, which is twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Arrowhead opened in 2007, began accepting waste from 33 different states, despite outcry from the community. Then, in 2009, the landfill began accepting shipments of toxic coal ash—the residual byproduct of burning coal—from a massive spill in Kingston, Tennessee, believed to be the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history. For two years, nearly 4 million tons of coal ash was shipped by rail from a mostly white Tennessee county to Uniontown.

Coal ash contains toxins, including arsenic, mercury, boron, that can affect the nervous and reproductive systems and cause other health problems. According to the EPA, people living within a mile of unlined coal ash storage ponds have a one-in-50 risk of developing cancer. In 2013, several dozen Uniontown residents filed a complaint under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Well, this week, the EPA dismissed the claim, saying there’s “insufficient evidence” that authorities in Alabama had breached the Civil Rights Act.

This comes as new government data reveals coal ash has contaminated water with arsenic and radium and other toxic chemicals near coal-fired plants around the country. The data was released just one day after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency would further weaken federal regulations on coal ash disposal. Meanwhile, President Trump has nominated Dow Chemical lawyer Peter Wright to head up an Environmental Protection Agency unit tasked with overseeing the disposal of hazardous waste and chemical spills at toxic Superfund sites.

Well, we have a lot to talk about with several people. We’re going to Montgomery, Alabama, to speak with Ben Eaton, vice president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice and a resident of Uniontown, Alabama. In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned from the EPA a year ago to protest the Trump administration’s proposal to scale back severely the size and work of the agency.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ben Eaton, let’s begin with you. Talk about what’s happening in your community in Alabama, in Uniontown.

BEN EATON: Well, the things that are happening in my community, in Uniontown, is—it’s ridiculous, when it comes to coal ash or when it comes to our rights to live in a well-protected or a protected equally place like everyone else. We have a number of problems, from landfill, coal ash, sanitation, bad odors. It never stops. But this is some of the things—these are some of the things that are happening in Uniontown.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain exactly what this plant is, how the community has been affected, how long you’ve been fighting this, and what this rollback, even further, of environmental regulation will mean.

BEN EATON: Well, this rollback, it is deep. We, as a group, will not stop fighting the issues, because we know we are right when it comes to our civil rights. The problems that are happening in Uniontown are ridiculous. And to get no help and support from the agencies that actually are supposed to protect the community—they are not giving us that. If anything, they are only supporting themselves or doing things that makes them look good. It doesn’t help the community at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain your reaction to the EPA dismissing the civil rights claims brought by members of the community in Uniontown?

BEN EATON: Yeah. My feelings? It’s ridiculous. For an agency that is supposed to protect the citizens and the environment, opt out to say we didn’t have a claim, from insufficient of evidence. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, they have an non-discrimination obligation, and the EPA has the ability to force those obligations. And as we see it, and the way things have turned out, that didn’t happen. And it’s hurtful to be on the bottom, constantly trying to work our way up for just a fair, equal treatment. When you talk about environmental injustice, Uniontown—Uniontown is number one.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from a short documentary called From the Ash, from the Southern Environmental Law Center. It explores the danger from and effects of coal ash in Alabama communities. This is Dr. Elizabeth Dobbins, a biologist at Samford University, explaining the health and environmental impacts of coal ash.

ELIZABETH DOBBINS: When you’re burning coal, you release pollution into the air, and you also have the coal dust. What do you do with that, you know, the coal ash from what you’ve burned? And normally, people impound it near a steam plant. So, a steam plant needs a lot of water, so they impound it right next to a water source. And that coal ash still has toxins that leak out of it—arsenic, selenium, boron. So, heavy metals, in low level—in very low levels, can be very, very detrimental to human health. You can affect growth rates, brain development. You can affect your liver and your kidneys, because those have to process them. It can have negative effects on sometimes even your red blood cells.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to a clip from this documentary, From the Ash, from the Southern Environmental Law Center. This is Uniontown resident Booker Gipson.

BOOKER GIPSON: I’ve been back here now for 45 years, back here in Uniontown. This landfill is coming right through my place. I’ve got a pasture. I’ve got a few cows. I did have a few catfish out there in the pond. But they kept blowing so much of filth, though, there, coming from the landfill, when they was cutting the trees and stuff, and my fishes died. So, if you’re sitting up on the porch, you don’t see nothing but a big mountain. Well, when I first bought this place, we didn’t have that. It was just flat ground. I’m concerned about this coal ash and lead getting into the water.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Mustafa Ali into this conversation, who quit the EPA a year ago, deeply concerned about the issue of environmental justice and environmental racism. The government itself just put out a report talking about the levels of arsenic and lead and other poisons in coal ash and outside coal plants around the country. Can you put Uniontown in a national context, Mustafa?

MUSTAFA ALI: Yeah, Uniontown is one of those examples of sacrifice zones, unfortunately, that have been created. You know, when you look at that most recent study, you see that, even when, you know, the folks were doing the analysis, that you have these elevated levels of a number of toxic chemicals that are in the water. And, you know, everyone has a right to clean air and to clean water. So, when you have these types of egregious situations that are going on, and, as Ben shared, when you come to the federal government—and, in many instances, as a last resort—hoping that they will help and stand up and do the right thing, unfortunately, we find that far too many of our communities of color and lower-income communities are continuing to be disproportionately impacted and cannot find relief from this pollution that is happening inside of their communities. In many, many instances, folks are living in a survival type of a situation. And the federal family, especially Environmental Protection Agency, has a distinct responsibility for protecting public health and the environment. And when they do not do that, where do people turn?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the actual utility companies’ report? I mean, this is amazing. This isn’t an environmental group’s report. This is the utility companies releasing information about what’s outside these coal power plants.

MUSTAFA ALI: Yeah. Well, you know, there’s an interesting dynamic that’s going on in this space. One, when the utility companies did their own sets of analysis, of course, they found that the water, you know, is being impacted, a number of different chemicals that are in that space.

The other dynamic that’s going on, that folks should be very aware of, is that the Obama administration tried to put in place, you know, some additional protections. And now we have the current administration who’s trying to roll those back, who is trying to take $100 million away from the analysis that could be in place of checking the water quality, to checking to see if there’s any leaching that’s going on, and then giving the responsibility back to the states and also to the utilities themselves to make some decisions, if they feel that it’s necessary to monitor and to do these analyses. And we know that, you know, we need to have a uniform process across the country, because, unfortunately, what’s happening in Alabama, what’s happening in Uniontown, is also happening across the country.

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