Ala. County: Coal Ash Site Environmental Racism

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Residents of a poor, predominantly black Alabama county say the decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to dump toxic coal ash in a Perry County landfill amounts to environmental racism. The toxic substance is from December's massive coal ash spill in Tennessee.

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The Tennessee Valley Authority has begun to ship millions of pounds of toxic coal ash from Kingston, Tennessee, to a landfill in Alabama. It's part of a $1.2 billion cleanup of a massive spill from last December. The coal ash is headed to a landfill in a predominantly African-American community, and some people there are not happy about that.

As Brett Tannehill of Alabama Public Radio reports, they're calling it environmental racism.

BRETT TANNEHILL: The rolling green countryside near Uniontown in Perry County, Alabama, is dotted with grazing cattle and dozens of catfish ponds.

The Reverend James Murdock is chairman of Perry County Concerned Citizens, a group opposed to dumping coal ash in the local landfill. He says the toxic material will destroy the community's best resources.

Reverend JAMES MURDOCK (Chairman, Perry County Concerned Citizens): I don't see anything can be done about it. I'm hoping and praying that the lord will intervene. He's the only man I see who's able now.

Mr. ROBERT BAMBERG (Farmer): We feel like we've been thrown under the bus.

TANNEHILL: Robert Bamberg is a local farmer, and he says the Environmental Protection Agency is helping the Tennessee Valley Authority at the expense of his community.

Mr. BAMBERG: We feel like our clean air and clean water is being compromised, as well as our wishes are being compromised.

TANNEHILL: The EPA says its main priority is to get the coal ash out of the Emory River in Tennessee quickly, but people in Perry County say they're getting dumped on. Two-thirds of residents are African-American, and the unemployment rate is almost 20 percent. They also point to a 2007 EPA report, which found the ash contains trace amounts of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, which can pose health risks.

Critics say it's environmental racism, but Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. says the only racism comes from coal ash opponents.

Commissioner ALBERT TURNER, JR. (Perry County, Alabama): Not environmental racism, it's called economic racism because we are an African American-controlled county government. Now, we are being able to do something that many counties throughout the state of Alabama cannot do, and that's control their own economic destiny.

TANNEHILL: The coal ash will generate about $3 million and 50 new jobs for the region, which both sides agree are needed. Agreeing on the landfill's role in that economic destiny is another matter entirely. Leo Francendece, EPA's onsite coordinator in Kingston, says it's an emotional issue in Alabama and in Tennessee, but people must consider the facts.

Mr. LEO FRANCENDECE (Onsite Coordinator, Environmental Protection Agency): We generate waste as a society. And we can never come up with perfect solutions, but this is one of the best engineered landfills to handle this type of solution.

(Soundbite of machinery)

TANNEHILL: At the Perry County landfill, a pair of bulldozers spreads and compacts the latest trainload of ash.

Mr. EDDIE DORSETT (Manager, Perry County Landfill): Our money here is to be able to put the largest amount of product in the smallest area.

TANNEHILL: Manager Eddie Dorsett says his facility has a thick layer of naturally occurring chalk underneath the landfill. He says that chalk, combined with a plastic liner and underground waste water pumps, create a state-of-the-art environmental protection system.

Mr. DORSETT: This is the new-type-age of landfill that's out there. So we've had to be at the highest standard of, you know, any landfill that exists today.

TANNEHILL: But as residents of Kingston, Tennessee, saw, when systems fail, the results are disastrous.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

TANNEHILL: Others in this rural community worry about transporting the ash by train because of recent derailments along the routes, but the first three million tons may just be the beginning for Perry County. Commissioner Turner wants to add coal ash shipments to generate more money for the struggling local economy.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Tannehill in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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