Alabama Town That Fought Coal Ash Landfill Wins Settlement

Residents of Uniontown, Ala., get relief in a case in which they got sued for complaining about the health impacts of a local landfill.

Ben Eaton was one of the Uniontown, Ala., residents sued by a local landfill
Ben Eaton, one of the Uniontown, Ala., residents sued by a local coal ash landfill, said, "I'm glad it's over," after a settlement with the landfill included requiring notification of toxic waste arrivals. Photo courtesy of ACLU

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The latest chapter of a long fight between the residents of Uniontown, Ala. and the coal ash landfill that they say is ruining their town resulted in a settlement approved by a federal court on Tuesday.

The settlement resolves a $30 million defamation suit the landfill company filed in 2016 against four residents who had spoken out against it. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the residents, calling the suit an example of the “systematic racial and environmental injustice” that black people have faced throughout the nation’s history. Uniontown is 91 percent black, with a median household income of $14,605—less than a third of the national median.

As part of the settlement, Georgia-based Green Group Holdings, which owns the Arrowhead landfill, is dropping the $30 million claim. In addition, the company has agreed that it will post public notices before receiving potentially hazardous waste products and it will continue to use EPA-approved standards to seal off future shipments of coal ash. All that the defendants were ordered to do was post a joint statement about the settlement on their website and Facebook page.

“What this is is an unequivocal victory for our clients,” said Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU who worked on the case.

Officials from Green Group Holdings did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Smith, who represented Green Group Holdings, previously told InsideClimate News: Plaintiffs “have knowingly made false and defamatory statements with the intent to do damage to our business and reputation.”

The Arrowhead landfill has been accepting coal ash since 2008, when a dam broke at the Tennessee Kingston Fossil Plant, unleashing millions of gallons of coal ash that was eventually carried by the trainload 300 miles southwest to Uniontown. Coal ash, the byproduct of coal-fired power plants, contains manganese, selenium and arsenic, which can affect the reproductive and nervous systems as well as cause cancer. According to the EPA, people living within a mile of unlined coal ash storage ponds have a 1-in-50 risk of cancer—more than 2,000 times what the EPA considers an acceptable limit.

The residents of Uniontown have fought the landfill for accepting the ash, taking their complaints to the state and filing lawsuits and Civil Rights Act complaints. A grassroots organization called Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice set up a Facebook page and began voicing their concerns about the landfill there. Green Group Holdings sued four of those residents for defamation based on the Facebook posts.

Residents say they have been plagued by a series of health problems since the landfill began accepting coal ash: asthma, headaches, rashes, neuropathy and even death of pets. The lawsuit, known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit, sought to silence the opposition to the landfill. Twenty-eight states have enacted protections against SLAPP suits because they can infringe on First Amendment rights, though not Alabama.

Benjamin Eaton, 57, was one of the residents sued. “I am very happy and glad that this is over,” Eaton said. “My wife is even more happy.” Though he said he was relieved to no longer have the $30 million lawsuit dangling over his head, Eaton said he had stayed optimistic throughout. In the eight years since coal ash started coming to Uniontown, the settlement is the first time they have had what he considers a legal win.

Of the environmental protections that are included in the settlement, Eaton said, “It’s not all that we would have liked to have gotten out it, but it should make a difference.” He wants coal ash to stop being brought into the community, and said that with this lawsuit behind him, he and his organization will continue to work for that.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Benjamin Eaton sued in this case. He was one of the residents who was sued by the landfill company.