Environmental Injustice in Alabama’s Black Belt


The Pew Charitable Trusts

Residents of Uniontown, Alabama, in rural Perry County who filed a complaint about environmental racism in 2012 continue to struggle with the disparate impacts of multiple polluters in their community.

At the end of 2008, after coal ash spilled in a mostly white neighborhood in Tennessee, the Arrowhead Landfill located next to a historic Black cemetery in Uniontown began taking in roughly a hundred railcars a day of coal ash, laden with arsenic, lead, and radioactive elements, for the next two years. 

The landfill sits only 100 feet from the front porches of some residents, who have experienced frequent foul odors, upset appetite, respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. They also complain that fugitive dust from the facility has contaminated their homes, porches, vehicles, laundry and plantings.

A University of Alabama-Huntsville professor determined that tap water may not be safe because of lead and traces of arsenic, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports.

Eighty-four percent of Uniontown’s 2300 residents are Black; 49 percent live under the poverty level.

In 2012, residents filed a civil rights complaint against Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) with the Environmental Protection Agency, asserting that the landfill adversely and disparately impacts African Americans in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.

This March, after six years, EPA denied the complaint, citing “insufficient evidence.”

And in June, ADEM rescinded its civil rights complaint policy altogether, leaving Alabama residents with no mechanism to raise allegations about environmental problems that disproportionately impact people of color.

Despite its own findings that Black people are more burdened by air pollution than any other group, EPA has a deplorable record of failing to respond to discrimination complaints.

The agency dismisses outright more than 9 in 10 environmental discrimination complaints, the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2015. Suzanne Novak, an attorney with Earthjustice, told Pew that the EPA has found discrimination only two times since it was ordered to address environmental justice issues in 1994.

In a 2016 report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also criticized the agency’s record. “EPA is known for administrative delay in processing complaints, having an inadequate system for resolving complaints … and for timid (if not entirely lacking) enforcement,” the report said.

Marianne Engelman-Lado, who runs the environmental justice clinic at Yale Law School, told Pew that nothing about EPA’s record inspires confidence that the federal agency will advance environmental justice. “When people file a complaint,” she said, “although they are hoping the federal government will be responsive to their concerns, that hope is built on not a shred of the history of the EPA but rather the aspiration of what the federal government should be doing.”

EPA not only failed Uniontown residents who hoped it would make their neighborhoods safe from hazardous pollution. Appealing to the federal agency also made residents into targets.

Board members of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a local organization formed to challenge polluters and local policymakers, were among the Uniontown residents who have sued ADEM and petitioned the EPA. In 2016, the company that runs the landfill filed a $30 million defamation suit against them.

The landfill is not the only polluter impacting Uniontown residents. Byproduct from Southeastern Cheese Corp causes nauseating odors and has turned Cottonwood Creek cloudy and lime green, according to Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke, who told Pew he caught employees on camera releasing green liquid into a tributary of the creek.

And waste water from a catfish processing plant adds to Uniontown’s overwhelmed sewage system, which spills fecal matter into local waterways.

Pew reports that ADEM has taken legal action against the cheese plant and the city for its sewage system. But those cases block local environmental groups from bringing federal cases, and Mr. Brooke says ADEM enforcement actions never “create the resolution necessary to halt violations and remedy the concerns of the community.”