Earth Day is celebrated annually to spread awareness of environmental issues and to show support for
environmental protection. On this Earth day, I want to bring awareness to vulnerable populations who often find themselves battling Goliath to preserve their quality of life. Man made hazards create environmental injustices that impact people who often don’t have the political clout or financial capital to fight back. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Esther Calhoun, who finds herself thrust into battle with little to no financial resources and few supporters. The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice operates on a budget of $500 a year; yet, they are determined not to give up the fight.
Her voice began to tremble as she told her story but she was determined to let us know about the environmental injustices her community faced. In spite of great opposition, Esther Calhoun, President of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, continues to lead the fight in what seems like a never ending battle. No, she isn’t from Flint, Michigan, the town that has thrust Environmental Justice into the national spotlight. In fact, her community is far from it. Uniontown, Alabama is a small town in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt (an area known for its rich black topsoil) where nearly 48% of residents live below the poverty level and the population is 88% African American. The town is about a thirty minute drive from my hometown, historic Selma, Alabama on US Highway 80 West. It is also not far from Emelle, Alabama home of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill. It’s certainly not a battle that anyone wants but the dumping of coal ash on her community and sewage spray fields that now contaminate a local creek compelled her to act. She describes how the coal ash and smell of sewage are causing health issues in the community and ruining their way of life.
In 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority had a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. The TVA agreed to pay the Alabama Department of Environmental Management $1.00 per ton to send coal ash to Uniontown, Alabama by rail. Coal ash typically contains metals such as mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium; however, the Environmental Protection Agency has not deemed it a hazardous waste. Such a designation which would have not allowed the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown to accept the waste. Residents can see the coal ash from their door steps and Ms. Calhoun passionately talks about what it’s doing to their quality of life. Residents claim that it’s causing paint to peel off of their cars and dare not eat food from gardens that have now been contaminated with coal ash. It’s certainly not what people who live in rural Alabama would or should expect. Ms. Calhoun discussed the neuropathy that she now has and new illnesses such as cancer that are plaguing many residents in Uniontown.
Besides coal ash, sewage spray fields were installed, for $4.8 million, as a way to treat sewage. Residents who know the area well were against the idea and just as they suspected the sewage spray fields are not working. The soil in this part of the state is mostly clay therefore impermeable. This has caused the sewage to not percolate in the ground and instead it has created run off into a local creek with possible contamination of the local water supply. The dust from coal ash and now the smell of sewage permeates the air in Uniontown.
These issues are hard for Ms. Calhoun to discuss but I imagine they are even harder for her and her neighbors to live through. To add insult to injury, the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice are now being sued for $30 Million by Arrowhead Landfill (the recipient of the coal ash) for libel and slander.
As we’ve witnessed time and time again environmental issues disproportionately impact minority communities. As we commemorate Earth Day, let’s remember to support communities like Uniontown, Alabama, who may not have the political clout or national media attention, but still deserve access to clean air and water. Earth Day is about people who dwell on earth too.
Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.