Tr-Ash Talk: Dumping A Civil Rights Issue

Guest Blog | March 1, 2012 | Coal, Energy Policy

This guest post was written by Emily Enderle of Earthjustice.

The original blog can be found here.


One town’s Tr-“ash” is no one’s treasure

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been sitting on a proposed coal ash standard for nearly 15 months. Without environmental standards for protection from this toxic waste, 54 residents of Perry County, AL had little recourse but to file a civil rights complaint alleging discrimination against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), citing them in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The complaint filed by accomplished environmental attorney David Ludder grows from collateral damage from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant coal ash spill. The spill, which was five times the volume of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, remains the largest environmental spill of any type in U.S. history and continues to devastate two communities in its aftermath.

Coal ash, the metal-laden waste after coal is burned, is often mixed with water and stored as sludge in enormous pits next to power plants. Large earthen dams, sometimes taller than 100 feet, hold back the sludge. As Christmas neared in 2008, an enormous pond burst, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards into the Harriman, TN community. It continues to be a huge mess for the residents of Harriman who don’t expect clean-up to be completed until 2014.

Unfortunately, as the situation improves in Harriman, another community, hundreds of miles south in Uniontown, AL has to deal with having the same coal ash dumped on them.
 The Arrowhead Landfill, located in Uniontown, AL (population 1,775) was permitted by ADEM to dispose of nearly all the coal ash removed from Harriman as a result of the TVA spill (4 million tons). Instead of using protective management techniques, the ash was dumped in mounds as high as 60 feet with nothing covering them. From the front porch of several Uniontown homes, residents have only mounds of coal ash from TN to gaze upon and air contaminated by the dust to breath. The dumped ash rises above the tree line and is within 100 feet of their front steps. Photographer Carlan Tapp depicts the community’s struggle.

Though the shipments of coal ash to Alabama ended in December 2010, the people of Uniontown continue to experience health problems – respiratory illness, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting – that they believe is due to the improper disposal of the ash. The dust blankets their homes, cars and town. Levels of arsenic at more than 80 times the safe drinking water standard have been found in runoff near the landfill.

This is a blatant example of environmental injustice. The Harriman community is almost entirely white (91 percent) and middle class (median income $36,031). Uniontown is almost the exact opposite – 90 percent African American and 45.2 percent living below the poverty line (median income $17,473). The community has continually asked for the situation to be fixed, EPA’s Region 4 Administrator held a “listening session” last year and the Washington Post covered this horror story in 2010 – yet nothing has been done to help.

The transfer of TVA coal ash to a community where the negative effects would be disproportionately bourn by African-Americans sparked the January discrimination suit. Under Title VI, government agencies that receive federal funds must assess whether their permitting decisions result, even unintentionally, in racial inequality. ADEM argues that it has no legal mechanism for assessing whether a permitted facility will have a disproportionate impact on people of color — basically conceding they violated Title VI.

What happened in Perry County, AL is a travesty, both environmentally and as a matter of basic decency and justice. It demonstrates that in even in 2012 African American lives are still considered less valued than Whites’ in some areas of our country, and the respective local governments’ lack of response to these citizens denies them justice. TVA, EPA and ADEM, failed to comply with the Civil Rights Act and need to take responsibility for the discriminatory outcome of their decision in Perry County.

For now, the citizens of Perry County rely on the Civil Rights Act to clean up the resulting mess at the Arrowhead landfill in Uniontown, AL.  Hopefully in 2012 EPA will address its failure to establish enforceable minimum federal standards at coal ash sites, which has left communities unprotected and needs to be remedied, and promulgate final rules and regulations to prevent this from happening to another community.

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