Coal Ash Puts Southern Communities Between a Dump and a Hard Place

By Michelle Chen Aug 04, 2009

In the Black Belt, one county’s trash is another county’s goldmine. Since a wave of hazardous coal ash washed across a vast stretch of Eastern Tennesee last year, destroying neighborhoods and driving pollution into the Emory River, the Tennessee Valley Authority is anticipating an over $1 billion clean-up bill and eager to shovel the mess into someone else’s backyard. Three hundred miles away, officials in Perry County, Alabama, a high-poverty, mostly Black community, want to let the sludge run straight into a local landfill, absorbing the waste in exchange for a significant financial reward. Taylor County in Georgia is also slated to receive some of the coal ash, according to the Institute for Southern Studies, potentially exposing the rural community, which has a greater portion of Black and poor residents than the state average, to contamination from arsenic, lead and other chemicals. And in case you were wondering, the original disaster site, Roane County, is nearly all-white, with a lower poverty rate than Tennesee’s average. And so environmental racism bobs to the surface again in Dixie. At the heart of the issue is the temptation for local political actors to strike waste-dumping deals that more privileged communities would reject. But who’s to say that Perry County doesn’t have the right to self-determine its development, even if it comes in the form of an ecological hazard? In an AP report, the county commissioner explained that economic distress is forcing some tough choices:

"We’re not desperate to the point that we would endanger the health and safety of our people," said Commissioner Albert Turner Jr., who supported the landfill project. "But we are desperate enough to know we should take a golden opportunity when we see one." Critics have accused TVA of environmental racism for sending the coal ash to a poor, mostly black county. But Turner, who is black, disagreed. "It would be economic racism if they didn’t send it here," he said. "This is economic survival for one of the poorest counties in the nation. Poor people sought this."

Right. Just as the people of the poverty-stricken Navajo Nation and neighboring communities have welcomed a massive coal ash stream from power plants in New Mexico, as documented by the advocacy group EarthJustice. Or just as residents of Cambria County, Pennsylvania invited the “beneficial placement” of ash in a local minefill, exposing local residents to unprecedented levels of water contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice policies are intended to protect communities against unfair dumping, but, coal ash waste largely eludes federal regulations, despite its toxic properties. EarthJustice says that under lax federal, state and local oversight, most states "fail to protect coalfield communities by neglecting to follow the most basic tenets of safe waste management, including requiring strict separation of waste from water, long term groundwater monitoring, and bonds to ensure sufficient funds to clean up contamination if it occurs." So Perry County is now wading into this caustic admixture of environmental and political toxins, in hopes that the payout for accepting the waste will outweigh the risks. While TVA officials insist that race was not a factor in the decision to send waste to Perry County, University of Tennessee professor Gregory Button argues in Counterpunch that whatever reason is presented to the public, a policy need not be deliberately racist to perpetuate a legacy of environmental inequity:

a basic precept of environmental justice rightly contends that regardless of intent, the impact is the same: a poor minority suffers a disproportionate risk regardless of the rationale for such a decision.

The Obama administration has hinted at strengthening environmental justice protections in hazardous waste disposal, recently moving toward closing loopholes for industrial recycling plants. But taking on the country’s coal addiction—from the mine to the power plant to the dumping ground—is a challenge of global proportions. Environmental justice advocates are trying to bring Washington’s attention to places like Perry and Taylor counties. But fighting environmental racism is increasingly a war of attrition, with economic desperation weakening communities’ defenses from within. image: Perry County Commission Chairman Fairest Cureton (Jay Reeves / AP)