Uniontown, AL: Community with civil rights legacy demanding justice

Guest Blog | May 29, 2015 | Coal, Energy Policy

Uniontown, Alabama is located in Perry County, a part of the South with a vibrant civil rights history. Not only was Perry County the home of both civil rights martyr Jimmie Lee Jackson and Coretta Scott King, but local residents also report the town had some of the most peaceful race relations in Alabama during that tumultuous period.

Yet, 50 years after the historic march from nearby Selma to Montgomery, residents are still fighting for equity. This Memorial Day weekend, SACE was in Uniontown for “Building Bridges for Justice,” a community workshop near the site of the infamous Arrowhead Landfill. The landfill holds 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash removed from the disastrous coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Local residents and organizations from across the Southeast gathered to hear Uniontown’s history told by long-time residents, learn more about environmental issues affecting the town (including coal ash), share resources, and strategize on how to move forward together. Esther Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice and a resident of Uniontown, summed up the spirit and desires of those gathered perfectly: “No more coal ash! We want opportunities for our young people, and we want a healthy community!”

In a city with fewer than 1,800 residents, more than 20 joined in the full day event. Before diving into the issues, facilitators from Project South led a community listening session in which long-term residents recalled the area’s history. The legacies of Jackson and King set the backdrop as participants discussed the work of the civil rights era left unfinished. Organizers invited SACE to share the dangers of coal ash and ways to promote a clean energy future for this majority African-American community located in one of Alabama’s poorest counties. Throughout the day, community members passionately discussed pragmatic steps to build political power in their community and realize their vision of a healthy and proud Uniontown.

Community members discuss Uniontown's history.

Uniontown’s Arrowhead Landfill received much of the coal ash from the Kingston disaster. The landfill was not designed for coal ash waste and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) recently determined that certain parts of the landfill were leaking cloudy water. Residents have been concerned for years that the landfill may not be safe, and that dangerous toxics from the arsenic-rich ash could be leaching into local groundwater. Calhoun and many other residents believe that coal ash was dumped in Uniontown in large part because it is a community of color and low income.

Earthjustice is currently representing 14 residents in a complaint under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of the Act prohibits agencies like ADEM, which regulates the landfill, from spending federal, public funds in a way that “…encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination.” The complaint process is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Green Group Holdings LLC, which owns the Arrowhead landfill, recently issued a press release proclaiming that its landfill is ready to take even more coal ash from across the country since it is “not subject to the new EPA regulations” and “has never received a Notice of Violation from ADEM.” Green Group seems to be advertising a political climate where utilities can cheaply dispose of their coal ash liabilities and walk away. The Uniontown residents we met are determined that it won’t be so easy to dump there.

Uniontown residents discuss their shared vision for their community's future.

The day closed with a mini-film festival featuring Working Film’s “Coal Ash Stories,” which presents four short films that explore the effects of coal ash on communities across the country, including Uniontown (view it here). Residents engaged the filmmaker, Rhiannon Fionn in a lively Q&A. SACE presented on coal ash in the Southeast and specifically in Alabama. We also demonstrated the www.southeastcoalash.org website resource to help community activists situate their struggle within the broader movement to hold utilities accountable for producing coal ash and ultimately eliminate this dangerous and toxic waste stream.

The grit and optimism in Uniontown inspires us in our regional fight to challenge high-risk energy choices and advocate for clean energy across the Southeast. SACE was honored to be part of this important event. We’ll continue to share Uniontown’s story with other communities in our region and support Perry County organizers as they realize a better future together.

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