The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, might be considered the holiest ground of the civil rights movement. It was there that state troopers brutalized six hundred marchers on March 7, 1965—the day that became known as “Bloody Sunday”—as they set off toward Montgomery in a demonstration for voting rights. Four days after the forty-seventh anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I walked across the bridge to the National Voting Rights Museum. There I saw a photograph of the marchers in silhouette. I also saw the famous photograph of a young black man with an American flag waving behind him. His forehead and cheeks are covered with white paint so that the word “vote,” written in the paint with a finger, is dark across his forehead. In a continuous exhibit of footprints that winds through the museum, I found the footprint of Albert Turner, one of the leaders of the movement in Alabama, pressed into a white slab of concrete.
Turner tried to walk across the bridge on Bloody Sunday. He later said that when the tear gas started flowing, “I fell down and ran. Then I fell down again and ran some more.” Throughout his life, he was a tireless organizer who fought for the voting rights of African Americans in Perry County during a time when they might have been beaten or shot for going to the polls. When he died, in 2000, his New York Times obituary noted that Martin Luther King Jr. had considered Turner his “point man in Alabama.”
Turner’s son, Albert Turner Jr., was appointed to serve out the remaining two years of his father’s term on the Perry County Commission, and he’s managed to keep his seat since then. It’s unlikely that he would have the political influence he does today if not for his father’s work, yet some African Americans in Perry County are calling him a “snake in the grass” and a “poverty pimp.” They say he sold them out for $4 million, the amount of money the town received for accepting a mountain of coal ash brought by train from Tennessee. From July 2009 to December 2010, four million tons of coal ash were trucked in and dumped just across a two-lane county road from the homes of residents, who wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency saying they were “trapped in a cloud of coal ash.” It covered their houses, cars, gardens, and yards. Today, residents in Perry County aren’t sure where the $4 million has gone, except to help purchase land for a new hotel that was built near Turner’s house, on the other end of the county from the landfill. And the EPA hasn’t been particularly interested in helping, perhaps because the agency helped broker the deal in the first place.
Coal ash contains mercury, selenium, lead, manganese, chromium, cobalt, magnesium, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals. A report released in 2009 by environmental watchdog groups Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project revealed that the EPA’s own investigations have found that people living near coal ash ponds have an increased risk of damage to their lungs, livers, kidneys, and other organs because of exposure to toxic metals. But the EPA still considers coal ash a “nonhazardous” solid waste, and has no specific federal regulatory program for it, despite having promised to put forth a ruling by the end of 2010. Regulation is thus left up to individual states, and most often it’s the poor states, like Alabama, that have the fewest regulations and very few inspectors to enforce the rules that are on the books. Alabama classifies coal ash as a non-hazardous solid waste, which means it can be dumped in municipal landfills designed for household garbage, like the one in Perry County, which accepts garbage from thirty-three states. The United States produces 140 million tons of coal ash a year, and power plants are running out of places to store it. Thus, in the poor states, politicians like Turner see coal ash as a source of revenue. But Turner goes even further, arguing that the ash gives Perry County an opportunity to live out the American Dream.
On December 9, 2009, six months after the coal ash shipments to Perry County began, Turner testified to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment about the Arrowhead landfill:
The day has come when Perry County, Alabama, the birth home of Coretta Scott King, has finally pulled itself up by its own boot straps and has joined in on the American Dream. . . . Perry County, Alabama, now is the first place in the South to construct a “state of the art” landfill that will be an environmental safe disposal site for coal ash. The economic development opportunity, along with safe environmental management practices, has put renewed hope back into a once proud county.Perry County led the way during the 1960s in the field of civil and voting rights; we are now poised to lead the way in environmental disposal of coal ash. . . . Now that Perry County is poised to join the ranks of the haves, those naysayers shout environmental racism. It would be economic racism if EPA or TVA stops the flow of cash for ash. . . . I come to Washington, DC, to tell this committee that without the mishap in Tennessee, the blessings in Alabama would not be possible. . . . I say thank you, and send us some more.
The “mishap” in Tennessee that brought these “blessings” to Alabama began on the evening of December 22, 2008, when a massive retention pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant burst open, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers and burying about 400 acres of land under six feet of ash. The spill was one hundred times greater in volume than the Exxon Valdez spill and by far the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history. An inventory disclosed by TVA revealed that in just one year the plant’s byproducts contained 140,000 pounds of manganese, 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, and 91,000 pounds of chromium. Decades’ worth of coal waste with these toxic deposits in it had been spilled. The EPA stepped in to declare the area a Superfund site. When TVA decided to send the ash by train to a small, poor, rural, mostly black community outside Uniontown, Alabama, the EPA approved the decision. That same day, the first train of eighty cars clicked down the tracks to Alabama. The cars were unloaded on July 4, Independence Day.
Before I visited Uniontown for the first time, in July 2011, I talked on the phone with Barbara Evans, an activist who had defeated two landfills in nearby Lowndes County and spoken out against the Arrowhead landfill in 2006, when it was originally permitted as a regular municipal landfill.
“You come into Alabama’s Black Belt, you’re going fifty years behind the times. It is black on black oppression. There’re black folks acting just like the white folks behind them,” she told me, referring to the black county commissioners like Turner who supported the landfill and later vied for the coal ash. “It’s a racket here. It’s extreme poverty, it’s extreme everything. So that’s why people think they can dump this poison here.”
A week later I traveled from Knoxville, Tennessee—my home and the home of TVA—to Uniontown for the public hearing held by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), a requisite for renewing the landfill’s permit for another five years. During the hearing, I met with Evans, who had her two grandchildren along, outside the red brick municipal building. She lit a cigarette, exhaled, and squinted through the smoke. “It’s a dirty business,” she said. Inside the atmosphere was electric. Residents delivered their comments in booming voices, and low, thundering rumbles of “amen” shook the room. “Our elected officials, they’re not here. They’re ashamed,” a resident named Saundra Richards said emphatically to the blank-faced officers. “They did a dirty deed, just for the love of money.” Amen. Amen. Resident Jimmie Jones shouted, “We’re dying a slow death just because we’re black and poor people!”
The Black Belt is a long crescent of land that arcs across the South and was originally named for the dark soil that supported the intensive agriculture of the nineteenth century, which was itself supported by African-American slaves. “The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil,” Booker T. Washington wrote of the Black Belt in 1901. “The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense—that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.” After the Civil War, freed slaves stayed as rural workers, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, and the Black Belt went into a long economic decline.
Today it is one of the poorest regions of the country, with about one in every five people—almost 12 million—living in poverty. In a 1992 study titled “The Cost of Being Black in the Black Belt,” sociologists William W. Falk and Bruce H. Rankin wrote, “There is no other place in the United States that includes such a large geographic territory, with so many people of one race, with so much common history.” Perry County, in the heart of the belt, is 68 percent black, and about 35 percent of its residents live in poverty.
Perry County—not ADEM or the EPA—was responsible for originally approving the site in 2006 as a municipal landfill. Residents fought the landfill. Turner, in response, dismissively called them “hanky-headed niggers” on his Sunday morning radio show, and the landfill was built. No one could have known at that time that something like coal ash would be dumped there.
The EPA, as lead oversight agency for the TVA disaster cleanup, foresaw that problems might arise in deciding where to ship the ash. On May 19, 2009, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, deputy associate administrator for public affairs, sent an e-mail with the subject line “TVA Shipping Coal Ash to Minority Communities?” to Barry Breen, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “Someone just sent this over,” he wrote in the body of the e-mail, including the link to a news story that questioned the ethics of shipping ash to poor counties. “If true, it doesn’t look good—especially with us now ‘owning’ the clean-up.”
Breen forwarded the e-mail to the deputy administrator of EPA Region 4, Stan Meiburg. “There is a dilemma here,” Meiburg responded, “one related to larger questions of siting for municipal waste and other Subtitle D landfill facilities. . . . Assuming that our basic criteria are met (liners, leachate collection, etc.), cost will be the driver. I don’t have an analysis, but I would not be surprised to see that Subtitle D landfills are more likely to be sited in areas where environmental justice is a concern, and we’ll have to be aware of this.” In the same e-mail he asserted the EPA’s “considerable leverage” over TVA’s decision of where to ship the ash. They chose to move forward with a focus on their messaging to the public. Shane Hitchcock, also of the Superfund Division, responded to Meiburg, asking, “How can we communicate the positive economic impact on local communities?”
In his December 9, 2009 testimony to the House Subcommittee, Meiburg said that the EPA had “conducted a thorough review of TVA’s options analysis to ensure that potential risks to the community, especially any vulnerable populations, were addressed.” (While it is clear that the EPA understood the potential risks to the community, it is not clear that they were addressed.) He moved on to the cheerier news about how well the cleanup efforts were going in Tennessee. He said that the EPA had hired a full-time community involvement coordinator at the local outreach center near the disaster, to help the community understand the Superfund process through educational presentations and briefings and site tours. He also touted a real-time website that would provide fact sheets, advisories, progress photos, messages about time-critical removals, and other information.
While the EPA was handling its public image in Tennessee, residents in Perry County remained uninformed: they didn’t receive fact sheets or educational presentations, and the first organized public meeting, on June 24, 2009, just one week before the ash shipments began, wasn’t announced until the day before it was held. At the meeting, one resident argued, “Nothing that is said here tonight is going to make any difference. You’re going to shove this down our throats.”
Franklin Hill, EPA Region 4 Superfund Division director, didn’t disagree. He told attendees that he was “not asking, quite frankly, for approval,” and dismissed their concerns, saying they were based on “misinformation” spread by the media. When residents asked for the EPA’s own information about coal ash, Hill said they could look for it online—this to a community where, as Barbara Evans told me, “everybody is limited by a lack of literacy, and nobody has computers.” At that meeting, Commissioners Turner and Fairest Cureton sided with the EPA, saying the county could use the money to pay for an Enhanced 911 system. Cureton, also African-American, dismissed concerns about exploitation. “None of you are experts on environmental racism or justice or whatever,” he said.
When I visited Uniontown again, in March 2012, residents who lived near the landfill were still reeling from the shock of the mountain of coal ash that was dumped just feet from their front porches, which are often their only respite from the small, cramped trailers that most of them share with many family members. The ash rose like a monolith in the otherwise flat land. Next to the makeshift front porch of one trailer, with its empty cigarette packs, child’s desk, nails, and mewing kittens with barely open eyes, someone had posted a sign that read, COAL ASH STINKS. While I spoke with residents, I noticed a man sitting on the edge of a tailgate, watching me, looking both eager and reticent, and I could tell that, like most of the people who lived here, he wanted to talk. When I walked over to him, he introduced himself as Bennie Carter. He spoke in low tones, as if he were telling me a secret: “You have to learn that your own people will sell you out for a dollar. It’s pathetic the way people will do people just for a dollar bill. They not giving us diddly squat. Nobody gives us a legitimate answer about why, what, when, where, and how. Who cares? Nobody cares.”
I asked him if he was afraid, and he said yes, but “I feel like it’s just something inside of us now that we can’t get rid of.” Like all the residents living near the landfill, Bennie spoke as if the people were the land itself, as if there were truly no separation between its body and their own bodies. They had internalized the ash emotionally and physically, psychologically and physiologically, and were nostalgic for the land they remembered from childhood, an open country they rambled through, hunting and fishing in the creeks. Now no one would visit Tayloe Creek, let alone fish in it; its headwaters ran through the landfill property, which stretched for almost a thousand acres. The townspeople found themselves alienated from the landscape, fenced off from and kept ignorant of it. Meanwhile, the landfill owners practiced a kind of lordship over them, withholding information and surveilling them with cameras posted at both entrances of the landfill accompanied by signs reading, ALL ACTIVITY MONITORED BY CCTV. As one resident told me, “We on the outside looking in. We look around and we see, but actually we don’t know what’s going on.”
Perry County Associates, the original owners of the landfill, declared bankruptcy in January 2010, less than a month after nearly one hundred residents gave notice of intent to sue them for violation of the Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act. Because a bankrupt company cannot be sued, residents had to drop the litigation. A company called Green Group Holdings purchased the landfill in December 2011 through the bankruptcy court. “We’re a little different because we try to be as transparent as possible,” Abby Patterson, manager of marketing and government affairs for the company, told me over the phone. “Part of our philosophy is to get involved in the community.” To demonstrate this, they are giving backpacks filled with school supplies to fifth graders in Uniontown. Patterson said that Green Group also sponsors a festival “with hot dogs and hamburgers.”
I stopped at another house with the same coal ash stinks sign in the yard and knocked on the door. The man who answered had vibrant gray hair showing in his sideburns and mustache. He immediately asked me to sit down, as though he had been expecting me, and introduced himself as James Gibbs. Throughout the house, plants in pots and vases covered nearly every surface. When Gibbs talked about his frustration and hopelessness over the coal ash, he had a way of pushing his lips forward, as if he wanted to cry but was holding it in. He’d shake his head a little when he did that and stare ahead to avoid looking at me.
When I asked Gibbs how the coal ash had affected him, he said, “It’s just—I love farming and I like growing things. I just love growing things and that’s what I came home for.” Now he was wary of eating what he grew (“okree, corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes, hot peppers—everything”), a fear many of the other residents echoed. Still, he continued to garden, to “try to get a peace of mind.” He said he moved back home from Boston after working in the subways there for thirty-five years. Of Boston, he told me, “All you get was smog. So I said as soon as I retire I’m getting outta here. I’m going home, I’m gonna get some fresh air, just inhale the air—there wasn’t nothing like it.” He looked down a moment and silence filled the house. Then he said, “You come home for fresh air, and you say damned if you do, damned if you don’t, whatchya gonna do about it? I can’t run no further.” But he was still somehow fiercely positive, always turning the topic back to his plants. “So that’s why I grow things,” he said. “Make everything around me be alive, anyway.”
Whereas Albert Turner Sr. fought for a people’s right to vote and be included in the political process, Turner Jr. created what he has called “the perfect system,” one that is now “leading the country in the revolutionary way to dispose of coal ash.” When I asked Turner Jr. if he felt he was carrying on his father’s legacy of civil rights work, he responded defensively, “I don’t think I’ve done anything to tarnish his legacy. You have to remember—he got massive criticism. He got criticized as much as I do.” He told me he is “working day and night to make sure coal ash is properly disposed of in Alabama,” and he said, speaking for all of Perry County, that they want more ash.
But the story residents told was different. They said the ash was uncovered from when the first train arrived to when the last one was unloaded. “All the tornadoes we had, you know a lot of that stuff escaped,” one resident told me. “The wind done blown a lot of it around.” ADEM approved a major permit modification on July 20, 2009, just sixteen days after the coal ash shipments began, that allowed coal ash to be used as a cover material. This meant that the coal ash could be covered with another, six-inch layer of coal ash. This was the kind of “state-of-the-art” practice that Turner said was leading the country. “How in the world do you cover coal ash with coal ash?” a resident asked me.
One man told me he followed a truck coming from the landfill that was pouring a stream of liquid he thought to be leachate (contaminated water that has drained from the landfill) from a tank in the bed through a small hole onto the road. When the drivers were stopped at the railroad tracks, the man got out of his vehicle and confronted the truck driver, who simply closed a valve to stop the flow of liquid and then got back into his truck.
Though ADEM promised to monitor groundwater, and Commissioner Turner insisted that he’d “watched” the landfill, monitoring data has not been made accessible to residents. “We asked them, ‘What if you did find something in the water? When would we be notified?’ I still haven’t gotten an answer to that,” said Chester Fikes. Resident Dora Williams walked me across the road to the boundary of the landfill, a scraggly line of cedars, and pointed to the ditch. She showed me where light gray leachate water sporadically shot out from small pipes embedded in the bank. A white layer of dust covered the grass and the leaves of plants. “They ain’t doing nothing right, like they supposed to,” she said.
When we turned to go back across the road, I saw the long, tender-looking pink scar that began at her jawline and ran down her throat lengthwise, and I remembered her testimony at the hearing I attended last July, when ADEM allowed the public to comment on the renewal of the landfill permit. “I live across the street from the landfill. I went to the doctor. The doctor say I have cancer. I don’t know where it came from, but I have it.” Eight months later, the cancer had been cut out, but it haunted her. Bennie Carter’s words rang in my head: something inside of us now that we can’t get rid of.
The coal ash bulges like a tumor on the land, and it’s not something that can be cut out. Residents of Perry County ask that it be removed, taken “where somebody wants it,” but no one wants it. Likewise, many of the people living near the landfill can’t leave. The value of the land, which is rocky and thus was cheap to begin with, has depreciated. James Gibbs told me, “What can we do? My hands tied now. I invested everything I had in this place. I spent a lot of money on this little property trying to get it where it’s at now. Can’t sell it. Who gonna buy it? Nobody.” It seems they’re fighting the kind of “not in my backyard” battle that populations in poverty always seem to lose.
The county made $1.05 for each ton of coal ash it received—more than $4 million overall, which was supposed to help develop Uniontown and Marion and aid the county’s ailing schools. A man living next to the landfill named Jerry Holmes told me the community takes “whatever little crumbs we can get” from the county. “Where is the money?” he asked, throwing up his hands. “The money we get for the coal ash, Albert Turner get it, it stay up in the north end of Perry.”
In the north end of Perry, in the city of Marion, where Turner lives, a sixty-two-room, ten-suite Sleep Inn and Suites—the first nationally branded hotel in the county—has gone up, which Turner told me they are “tickled pink about.” He repeatedly insisted that the county did not use any of the money from the coal ash to fund the hotel. But his personal website once boasted, “Perry County dumped $150,000.00 of money they received from the coal ash storage into the vacant property located on Alabama Highway 5 to secure the property. The county will then lease the property to the real estate developer who will build and run the hotel.” And in an article about the hotel, the Tuscaloosa News reported that “Turner said the county used money it got from the Tennessee Valley Authority for accepting coal ash at its Arrowhead landfill.”
Five cents for every ton of waste was supposed to go directly to road repairs. But according to the Perry County Herald, Turner argued at a commission meeting that the city of Uniontown should pay $25,000 for road repairs, due to increased landfill traffic. He voted against the county reimbursing for repairs. “Their road,” he said, “their responsibility.”
So what, I asked him, did the county put the money toward?
“You’ll find a school system that’s ranked among the top ten in the state enhance itself by getting more than half-a-million dollars direct,” he answered, and claimed this “staved off a massive teacher layoff, massive cuts to programs, that would have devastated our school system.”
But in 2011, when Perry County schools were reportedly in a financial crisis, Turner called for the closing of R. C. Hatch High School in Uniontown on his Sunday morning radio show, saying this would save the county an estimated $375,000—almost the amount he told me was given to the schools. Scattered in yards throughout Uniontown were signs that read, SAVE R.C. HATCH.
When I asked Turner how much was left of the coal ash revenue, he said he wasn’t sure, that it was “commingled with our general fund money.” Though he assured me that “the millions of dollars we received has been well put to use to stabilize the hemorrhaging that was occurring in Perry County,” no one I talked to said they’d seen improvements since the coal ash came. ADEM has repeatedly slapped Uniontown with citations for its outdated sewer system, which often spills raw sewage into nearby bodies of water, and residents have had to pay increased water and sewer rates. (In August of last year, Uniontown finally received $4.8 million in grants and loans from the USDA to update the system.) Today it seems the only major development has been the hotel in Marion.
After speaking with residents near the landfill, I went downtown to photograph the Uniontown municipal building, with its old, redbrick façade, white columns, and front porch covered in AstroTurf. There I noticed a young teenager in a purple hoodie, his hands thrust into his pockets, face partly covered by his hood. He stepped out of the frame and came toward me. “I’m doomed here,” he told me, guessing I was from somewhere else. “Doomed?” I asked, pulling my own hood up as it began to rain. “Nothing to do,” he said. “We don’t even have art at my school.”
John, sixteen, wanted to be an artist. He had searching, intelligent eyes, but his posture revealed his boredom. He said he wished he had his journal so he could show me his drawings. He was on spring break and walking the streets of Uniontown with its Methodist, Episcopal, and various sects of Baptist churches, its Union Drugs, its Kurl Korner hair salon, Piggly Wiggly, bank, and package store—the only outposts among the empty, boarded up, and falling down buildings.
When I interviewed Turner, he told me that soon after the spill he was contacted by Phillips & Jordan—a consulting firm based in Knoxville—about the possibility of Perry County receiving the coal ash. The firm worked on forensics recovery at the World Trade Center after 9/11 and debris removal after Hurricane Katrina. “They discussed with me the revenue stream and told me they had a potential to land the contract with TVA, and that accepting the ash would be a very viable way we could create some jobs, create some needed revenue, and, uh, uh—help the environment.” He said he had a “previous working relationship” with Phillips & Jordan, who had designed and built the landfill back in 2006, and that “they felt confident securing my support.”
Turner told me that TVA flew him and a few other commissioners to the spill in Tennessee to talk about what had happened and the potential danger of taking the waste into the Uniontown landfill. “We toured the facility, talked with scientists, spoke with TVA, spoke with the federal government, talked to industry leaders,” said Turner. “We felt good,” he continued, despite the fact that he had just toured one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Turner characterized himself and the other Perry County commissioners who supported the ash as benevolent public officials who wanted to help the environment and a community in need. “Coal ash is not designed to be in public waters, so it needed to be where it was designed to be, and that’s in a landfill, not in navigable waters,” he said. “So we were able to assist in getting that from there. I credit Perry County for this revolutionary way of disposing of coal ash, which is acceptable to the industry, acceptable to TVA—it’s acceptable to everyone. Instead of people cursing the landfill and the operators of the landfill, they should be thanking them for coming up with such an environmentally friendly way of disposing of coal ash.”
On July 2, 2009, eighty train cars lined up one behind another in a long march south. Each car held about a hundred tons of ash wrapped in specially made “burrito” liners. After arriving in Uniontown, the cars were unloaded by employees of Phillips & Jordan (which had created a special entity for the Arrowhead landfill, Phill-Con Services, still referred to by employees as Phillips & Jordan). The company hired some fifty local men to unload the ash at the Arrowhead landfill. I tried to persuade one of them to speak with me for almost a year before he finally agreed to meet at Dorothy’s Kountry Kitchen in Uniontown last spring. He asked that his name be withheld, so I will call him Jerome.
When Jerome arrived, with his wife at his side, the café was mostly empty except for a young boy practicing his trumpet at the other end of the room. Jerome scanned the restaurant nervously after introductions, and when we took our seats at one of the tables, he chose to face the door. He and his wife looked at me warily across the table as I began to go through my list of questions.
Jerome told me that he had been one of the truck drivers who carried loads of three or four tons of ash a mile and a half to the receiving cell. Sometimes, he said, the front wheels of the trucks would lift into the air as they moved up the steep incline of the growing ash pile. The men had worked through lightning storms, even though it was official protocol not to, and ash would wash from the trucks and cover the road, causing some of the vehicles to slide and flip over, spilling their loads. Then a backhoe would come and scrape the ash up. If another train was scheduled to arrive in the morning, the men were instructed to work faster, and they sometimes overfilled the trucks so that ash would fall along the route to the open cell.
Jerome said that he and his fellow workers were not permitted rest breaks, and ate lunch on the go, even as coal ash poured through their air-conditioning vents into the trucks, covering the interiors. They did not wash their vehicles or shower before leaving the site—sometimes as late as eleven at night—and he would have a thick layer of dust on his body when he returned home. Jerome’s wife, who until now had been silent, told me she would find the dust in his ears and nose and that chunks of it would fall off the truck into the yard, where their three children played, so she gave them “a little zone they had to stay in.”
One day on the job Jerome’s throat began to swell and he had to leave work early. The swelling continued, and before evening he found himself at the nearest hospital, in Demopolis, twenty miles west of Uniontown. Over the next three days his condition worsened, and the ill-equipped hospital sent him to a larger hospital in Tuscaloosa, where he was held in the ICU for two days, his windpipe jammed in the side of his throat and at risk of collapsing. Jerome was given a breathing tube and shots in his throat full of antibiotics and steroids.
When Jerome’s condition stabilized, the hospital sent him home without a diagnosis, telling him to eat ice cream if his throat started to swell again, which it does now from time to time. He ran up $3,000 of medical debt, since the insurance provided by Phillips & Jordan, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, didn’t cover his stay in the hospital. When I asked Jerome if he was sorry he took the job, he said, “It was good, I needed it, needed the money, but I got sick and stuff. That kind of concerned me, and I got scared.”
He said that the initial training Phillips & Jordan gave workers was confusing. The men were told that coal ash was harmless enough that “you could eat it,” but the wash crews were still required to wear protective gear. What Jerome and the other workers weren’t told was that Phill-Con Services president Eddie Dorsett and the Arrowhead landfill engineer had requested exemption from the state’s radiation protection rules. The director of the Alabama Office of Radiation Control, Kirksey Whatley, sent an e-mail to the EPA’s Leo Francendese on June 18, 2009, explaining that several samples of the ash were above the radiation limit. He told Francendese that applying for an exemption—rather than shipping the waste to a licensed radioactive waste disposal site—was “really the only practical solution” in terms of time and cost.
The new jobs in Uniontown were touted in the Knoxville News Sentinel as a “boon during troubled economic times” that provided an “economic jolt.” Phillips & Jordan chief financial officer Patrick McMullen said their contract work in Uniontown “made a significant, significant impact on the economy,” adding that the jobs were “better-paying jobs than the local market traditionally delivered down there.” (Jerome made fourteen dollars an hour.) McMullen echoed the TVA press release that called the ash shipment to Alabama a “key milestone” in the cleanup efforts in Roane County, Tennessee. But by the time the story ran, the temporary positions at the Arrowhead landfill no longer existed.
When I visited Uniontown during last year’s local elections, the redbud trees were just beginning to bloom, speckling the stands of dull, leafless trees with their bright delicate purple blossoms, and the fields were golden with buttercups. From the plywood porch of Della Dial’s trailer, I could hear the television and Della’s three grandchildren who live with her making a ruckus inside. Esther Calhoun, a community organizer who helped found Blackbelt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, had brought me out to the half-mile stretch of trailers that sat across the skinny, two-lane county road from the Arrowhead landfill.
I had wanted to ask the elderly Della Dial about living across from the landfill, but Esther was doing most of the talking for Della, who’s “like a mother” to her. While Della’s young grandson played in the scrubby grass, Esther told about how the wind had blown the coal ash everywhere when it was being trucked in, about dusting Della’s furniture every day to remove the thin layer of ash that had settled on it, and—most emphatically—how this wouldn’t have happened in a white neighborhood. Della affirmed with “Mmmhmm” and “Yeah.” She had fallen and hit her head when she went to hide in the bathtub last time a tornado came through and was now mostly incoherent. The tornado ended up touching down at the edge of the landfill, a tenth of a mile from the coal ash mountain. She waved her hand across the road at the mountain of ash that was now covered with an unnaturally bright green grass.
When Della realized that Esther was still standing, she reached to pull a red milk crate from the side of the porch and eased herself down onto it while pushing her own chair toward a protesting Esther, who finally sat. Vultures flew in great hordes above the mountain, and Dellaree, as Esther called her, stood up to shoo them away whenever they sailed close to her yard, fearing they might be carrying contaminants from the landfill. “So many buzzards around here, all over the place. Buzzards,” she said, waving her hand at the sky. “Buzzards!” her grandson repeated.
Esther was meanwhile telling me that Della had gone to the hospital twice for emergency breathing treatments during the shipments of coal ash, and it had been hard on her financially. “Most people around here, they on fixed income. We can’t take care of the little sickness we got,” she said. “What makes it so bad is that the blacks are doing it to the blacks.” Della responded, “Mmmhmm.” A dog that had barked and growled at me when I arrived now sauntered sideways across the road and disappeared into the landfill. Ten minutes later it reappeared and plopped down into the yard, licking a wide swath of gray muck off its backside. The landfill had still managed to make its way into Della’s yard.
Decades after getting the vote in Perry County, many here are now thoroughly disenchanted with the political process. “It don’t matter to me who becomes commissioner, because they are not about to move that, I don’t believe, unlessen it’s gonna be a mighty bad wind that come and pick it up and take it back to Tennessee,” one resident told Esther when she encouraged him to vote. He said he takes his frustrations to God. “If you wanna know the truth,” he told me as we stood on another resident’s porch across from the landfill, “I pray about it, and I say only God knows.” But there are still those, like Esther, who want to organize and use the political process that their parents or grandparents fought to have access to.
When I asked another resident if he was going to vote, he responded enthusiastically, “Oh, most definitely, because it matters who you put in office, and we’re really trying to put people in office that’s gonna actually stand up for people in this area.” He quickly took a more solemn tone, adding, “But a lot of them, once they get in office, get throwed a little money under the table, and we get throwed under the bus. We don’t have any good candidates, to be honest. It’s just basically voting for the lesser of two evils. One thing I found out about politicians is they’ll tell you anything to get in.” He mentioned Commissioner Clarence Black, who ran on an anti-landfill platform in the last election but changed his mind in office and voted to accept the coal ash.
Commissioner Turner was unapologetic about not holding a public hearing before voting to accept the coal ash, because, he told me, the law didn’t require one. “You’re not elected into office to, before you vote, see what the public thinks. If that’s the case then you’d need all the public to be in office. At some point you are privy to more information than the general public is privy to,” he said. “Each commissioner had the responsibility to go out and educate their constituency about coal ash. You had some people that, I don’t care what you said, what you showed them, what you told them, they were going to be against it. But those who are sane and who are reasonable were able to listen, ascertain, and agree.”
He continued to lash out at his critics. “You got twenty to thirty people out of a community of 2,000 that’s complaining. They complain about dust, well,they dust, they created from dust—they can’t be complaining about they own self,” he said, referring to Genesis 3:19. “They ain’t worried about no coal ash killing them, making them sick. They tryin’ to get a check.”
“You don’t think they really suffer from the landfill?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “This is nothing more than a scam that they tryin’ to pull on this county and the media to buy into this environmental racism deal.”
Lisa Evans, an attorney at Earthjustice who specializes in hazardous-waste law, told me that the EPA should have done far more to ensure that the coal ash was disposed of safely. “This is waste from a federal Superfund site. I don’t think they can wash their hands of it,” she said. “They sent four million tons of ash to a state that doesn’t regulate it. There’s something very wrong with that. When solid waste is threatening public health, EPA has a lot of authority to go in, and they didn’t use that authority to protect the residents of Perry County.” The tangle of liability between TVA, the EPA, ADEM, and the Perry County Commission seems to ensure no liability at all, though.
Turner wants the Arrowhead landfill to continue to accept coal ash, but the ash won’t come from TVA, which decided to end shipments after the “time-critical” four million tons had been removed from the Emory River. (The remainder of the ash was buried onsite.) “We the fifth largest state that produces coal ash in the United States, so we look to benefit from the production of coal ash from Alabama Power and the other utilities around the country that produce coal,” he said. However, if the EPA designates coal ash a hazardous waste, the by-product will have to be disposed of in hazardous-waste landfills, not municipal landfills like the one in Perry County. So Turner has been in contact with federal agencies, the EPA, and various members of Congress to make sure they hear his message: “I’m asking the EPA not to make coal ash a hazardous waste.”
Meanwhile, the people who live near the landfill might as well be invisible. Robert Bullard, the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, has said that waste in this country “follows the path of least resistance—poor communities and communities of color,” that it “flows to areas that are politically disenfranchised and have very few resources to combat that kind of thing.” But Turner maintains that becoming a dumping ground for the nation’s coal waste is the best way for Perry County to participate in the American Dream.
A red dirt road, shaded by trees, forms the northern boundary of the landfill property. I drive along the road after a heavy rain, spinning my tires through the thick mud and bumping over potholes. White herons stand stoic in the murky catfish ponds next to the landfill. Crickets buzz in the grass, and the late-morning heat bears down on me. An abandoned shack decays among the tall weeds, its white paint peeling, a broken rocking chair out front. The song of a mourning dove carries on the air. I stop at a small bridge and look down at Tayloe Creek, where residents used to fish, and follow its thin, winding course until it disappears behind vine-covered trees. Beyond, out of sight, it continues through the vast landfill, past the mountain of coal ash, until it joins with Mud Creek to the southeast and they tumble together into the wide Alabama River and on down to the Gulf of Mexico.
That afternoon I visit an old woman on her porch that backs up to one side of the landfill. Several neighbors have dropped by, and they sit and talk about how things have changed, and about the vultures circling overhead. I think about something Albert Turner Sr. said in 1990, when he was fifty-four, about the age Turner Jr. is now: “The system is where the problem is, and we have not found enough black elected officials who are about changing that system. They want to sit in the same seat that [white power] sat in. That’s all they want to do—take the seat that he had, but nothing about changing the whole structure so that the poor or oppressed people will be able to be more a part of this society.”
Long silences fall and stretch out as the vultures circle above us and gray, pendulous clouds begin to thicken the sky. A field extends beyond the front of the porch and slopes down to a line of cedars, along which a single cow ambles and ruminates. “People here, they like sittin’ outside. That’s one reason why we in the country,” says Chester Fikes, his young daughter on his lap. “All that changed for us. I don’t let my kids go out and play now. I don’t drink the water now, because we don’t know what’s in it.” His daughter looks at me with an unblinking gaze; she says nothing but seems to be listening intently. “My main concern is my kids,” Chester says. “This is what I gotta give them.” He points to a vulture, and we all look up toward it as it glides into the top of a cedar, where Chester says a lot of them are roosting. I see his daughter follow his finger up and across the field, her wide, clear eyes looking much too serious for her age. Somewhere in the landfill, an engine starts up, and our talking is drowned out as the dump truck begins to rumble and beep and clank.
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