Five years since Kingston: Perry County, Alabama’s Toxic Tragedy

Guest Blog | December 22, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Kingston coal ash spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, we have been posting a series of blogs highlighting communities throughout the Southeast impacted by coal ash and its detrimental effects. Thanks to the residents of Perry County, Alabama who contributed to this post.

Ruby Holmes has lived in Uniontown all her life, she raised 10 children and ran her family’s farm across the road from where the Arrowhead Landfill now sits.

When a dam failed at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in the early morning of December 22, 2008, Harriman, Tennessee received the worst Christmas present ever: a billion gallon wave of coal ash that flooded 300 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Almost five years later, as the clean up effort at Kingston is drawing to a close, the “recovered” site (minus the homes and original aquatic habitats present before the dam breached) is being shown off on monthly guided tours. The clean up effort removed almost 3.5 million cubic yards of ash from the river and surrounding area.

But instead of disposing all the ash nearby in a well-engineered and carefully monitored landfill, TVA shipped off four million tons of the toxic trash to Uniontown’s Arrowhead landfill in the heart of Perry County, Alabama.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) permitted Uniontown’s Arrowhead landfill to receive the tons of coal ash without requiring protective management techniques to protect nearby residents. Coal ash was brought in by trains and trucks and piled in uncovered mounds reaching up to 60 feet high. Coal ash dust now blows from the landfill, frequently coating nearby homes, some as close as 100 feet of the dumpsite. Runoff laden with arsenic and other toxics pollutes nearby waterways and groundwater. Kingston’s toxic trash became Alabama’s toxic tragedy.

Uniontown resident Esther Calhoun describes what it’s like to see community forever changed and her grave concerns about how the coal ash is effecting the town’s health and environment.

The “hill” is the giant mound of coal ash at the Arrowhead landfill, looming over neighboring homes. Source: John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper

“What was once a beautiful rural area has turned into a wasteland. A huge mountain of coal ash dominates the countryside. Because our homes and farms now have little or no value, we cannot sell them and move away, so we have no escape from the landfill and its detrimental effects. We have to breathe the toxic coal ash dust. The odor is sickening. The coal ash migrates from the landfill into nearby ditches and streams and contaminates the drinking water for our livestock and wildlife. We are afraid that it will eventually poison our groundwater. Our health is at risk every day, but we are unable to change the conditions that put it at risk. Our situation is extremely frustrating and depressing.”

Of course all this begs the question: If the Kingston coal ash posed a threat to communities in Tennessee, how does moving it a few hundred miles make it safe to Alabama communities? Of course, it doesn’t, and this is an outright case of environmental injustice.

Uniontown’s population of around 1,775 is predominantly African American, with an annual median income of $17,473. Almost half of the community lives below the poverty line. These demographics are in stark contrast to the community around Kingston that is predominantly white (91%) and lower middle-class with a median income $36,031. Long-time Uniontown resident, Ellis Long, asks:

Coal ash-laden runoff from the Arrowhead landfill carries up to 80 times EPA’s legal limit for arsenic in drinking water;

“Why is Uniontown being treated like this? The people ofUniontown are no less valuable or deserving of protection than the people of Kingston. Uniontown is a classic example of an environmental justice area, characterized by a predominantly minority population and a low median income. Yet EPA, ADEM and the Perry County Commission colluded to bring the Kingston coal ash to Uniontown, ignoring federal law and failing to take into consideration the civil rights of citizens who, in addition to the disadvantages of being black and being poor, would also have to suffer the consequences of living with a landfill full of coal ash. The Civil Rights Act attempted to preclude just such a piling on of more disadvantages to the already disadvantaged. For EPA, it was a cheap solution to a major environmental disaster. For ADEM and the Perry County Commission, it was all about the money they would receive from disposal or tipping fees, $1.00 per ton for ADEM and $1.00 per ton for the Perry County Commission for the nearly 4 million tons of coal ash.”

“Coal ash that was considered a hazardous material in the predominately affluent, white community of Swan Pond was brought to Uniontown and dumped on and in the ground. It was intentionally washed into local creeks with high pressure hoses,” said John Wathen, Hurricane Creek Keeper.

Source: Chris Jordan-Bloch, Earthjustice

Uniontown residents organized as the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice to get coal ash out of their community, and in 2010 filed a civil rights complaint against ADEM. The complaint charges ADEM with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds.

“Uniontown residents have been fighting the Arrowhead Landfill since 2003, and the coal ash deposited there since 2010.” Says Mary Schaeffer, “Our local elected officials went behind our backs to negotiate the coal ash deal with TVA, EPA and ADEM. Their only concern was how much money they stood to gain from selling us down the river.”

The egregious injustice of this situation emphasizes the need for consistent national standards to make sure something like this never happens again, and that all communities are equally protected from toxic coal ash pollution. It’s high time for sensible, science-based regulations that protect communities, precious water resources, and wildlife from coal ash pollution. Tell your representatives in Congress and EPA know that we’ve waited long enough, that its time to stop the delays and finalize a coal ash rule before our nation experiences another Kingston…and another Uniontown.

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