EPA Rejects Civil Rights Complaint Over Alabama Coal Ash Dump

Uniontown residents blame asthma and other health issues on toxic coal ash dumped at a nearby landfill. After their first complaint, the company sued them.

The Arrowhead landfill near Uniontown, a predominantly black community in Alabama, became a dump for coal ash waste about 10 years ago. Credit: Chris Jordan Bloch/Earthjustice
The Arrowhead landfill near Uniontown, a predominantly black community in Alabama, became a dump for coal ash waste. Credit: Chris Jordan Bloch/Earthjustice

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Black residents of rural Alabama have lost a civil rights claim involving a toxic coal-ash landfill that they blame for asthma, nerve damage and other health issues.

The Environmental Protection Agency rejected their complaint that state officials unlawfully granted a permit for the sprawling Arrowhead landfill near Uniontown and that officials failed to protect area residents from intimidation after they filed their first complaint.

In a 29-page letter, EPA officials wrote there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude officials in Alabama violated the Civil Rights Act by allowing the landfill to operate near Uniontown, which is 90 percent black and has a median household income of about $14,000. The Arrowhead landfill covers an area twice the size of New York City’s Central Park.

The facility began accepting coal ash, the residual ash left from burning coal, in 2008, after a dam broke at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, spilling millions of gallons of coal ash slurry. Once the toxic waste dried, 4 million tons of it was scooped up and shipped 300 miles south to Uniontown. Coal ash contains toxins, including mercury, selenium and arsenic.

TVA coal ash spill
About 4 million tons of ash from the massive Kingston coal ash spill in 2008, shown here, was taken to the Arrowhead landfill near Uniontown. Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

EPA officials said the coal ash was properly handled.

“The Arrowhead landfill is designed to meet the minimum design and operating standards of municipal solid waste landfills,” Lisa Dorka, director of the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, wrote in the March 1 letter to attorneys representing the residents of Uniontown.

Following the initial residents’ complaint, Green Group Holdings, the company that operates the landfill, filed a $30 million lawsuit against the residents; the suit was later settled in favor of the community. Dorka expressed concern in the letter about how state officials handled retaliatory complaints but stated there was insufficient evidence to conclude there was retaliatory discrimination by the company.

“The decision stinks,” Esther Calhoun, a Uniontown resident who was among those sued by Green Group Holdings and a member of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, said.  “If you are going to do your job, just do the job, not only in a white neighborhood, but in a black neighborhood, not only in a rich neighborhood but in a poor neighborhood. Until you accept all races, all people, have equal rights, then you are part of the problem.”

Claudia Wack, a member of Yale University’s Environmental Justice Clinic, which represented the residents of Uniontown, said she was extremely disappointed with the decision.

“For the folks in Uniontown who have really been spending years trying to vindicate their environmental civil rights, it’s a pretty confounding decision,” Wack said. “In terms of national concern, if EPA is not going to be able to acknowledge them in this case, we’re pretty dubious that they are going to reach that finding for any civil rights complainants anywhere in the nation.”