Victims of the Environmental Racism Agency

March 21, 2018

Carlos Enriquez reports on the callous response of the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency to a lawsuit filed by residents of a largely Black Alabama town.

EARLIER THIS month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed a civil rights lawsuit filed by residents of the predominantly African American town of Uniontown, Alabama, who claimed that a toxic landfill has been responsible for an increased outbreak of illness and disease among members of the community.

As part of a 28-page letter of dismissal, the EPA stated that there was "insufficient evidence" that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was guilty of violating the Civil Rights Act by allowing the construction of the Arrowhead Landfill operated by Green Group Holdings.

As Uniontown resident Ben Eaton said in an interview with the Guardian:

To say there is insufficient evidence is ludicrous; I just can't take it seriously. The protection we've got from the government is little to none. I can't help but feel it's because the population is mainly Black and poor. This was forced on us. If this was a white, wealthy community, this would've never happened.

The EPA not only exonerated ADEM of clear racial discrimination, but the agency had the audacity to deny any causal connection between the presence of coal ash and the "alleged" health problems that have affected members of the Uniontown community.

Residents of Uniontown, Alabama, protest the dumping of toxic waste in their community
Residents of Uniontown, Alabama, protest the dumping of toxic waste in their community (Black Belt Citizens | Facebook)

THIS ABJECT failure of the EPA to stand up to corporate pollution and environmental racism is in line with the agency's overall record since Donald Trump put Scott Pruitt in charge. In 2017, the EPA issued the lowest number of fines and penalties and opened the fewest environmental crime cases in decades.

The appointment of Pruitt is so corrupt, it's almost comical. As state attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of oil and gas companies. As Michael Ware wrote for Socialist Worker last March:

Bought and paid for by the Oklahoma energy industry, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times as that state's attorney general. Today, he's in charge of running the agency...into the ground.

With Pruitt's appointment, the Trump administration hopes to repeal any meaningful regulation and enforcement of the energy and farming industries, as well as wage an ideological attack on the environmental movement, which the right views as an existential threat.

"Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace," said Trump after the election, claiming that the EPA has an "anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs." The irony is that Pruitt's draft budget for the agency calls for 3,000 layoffs and a 25 percent funding cut in order to free up money for the military.

Pruitt's appointment highlighted a commitment by the Trump administration to destroy any sort of infrastructure in place to confront environmental degradation and climate change. Over the past year, the EPA has aimed to do away with countless environmental regulations, moved to eliminate a plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants and dropped a proposed ban on pesticides.

THE ARROWHEAD Landfill covers over 1,300 acres of land and is a hub of waste for 33 other states. Adding insult to injury, Arrowhead overlooks a historic Black cemetery, showing how little regard Alabama and Green Group have for the town's tradition and history.

The site of the landfill was previously only used to dispose of car parts, electronics and other household waste. But in 2008, in large part due to years of deregulations in the coal industry, a flood in Harriman, Tennessee, caused a disastrous spill at the Kingston Fossil Coal Plant. Some 1 billion gallons of sludge were released, destroying dozens of homes, poisoning the drinking water of nearby communities and becoming one of the largest coal ash spills in U.S. history.

As part of a two-year cleanup at Kingston, 4 million tons of coal ash were shipped 330 miles away to the Arrowhead landfill. Uniontown residents, who were already experiencing health issues from the city's poor air and water supply, were afraid from the beginning about the impact of long-term exposure to coal ash--and with good reason.

Coal ash, the waste material left by the burning of coal, contains toxins such as mercury, arsenic, lead and over a dozen other heavy metals. Risks of exposure to coal ash include cancer, heart damage, lung and kidney disease, reproductive problems, birth defects and impaired bone growth in children.

The change to the town's air quality was noticeable as soon as the coal ash arrived. Residents complained about irritation to their skin due to exposure to the air, and about how the density of coal ash in the air burned their eyes. They compared the airborne coal ash that covered trees and houses to "gray snow."

"The shipping of toxic coal ash from a mostly white county in Tennessee to this rural, poor and most Black county and community in the Alabama Black Belt is a textbook case of environmental racism," said Dr. Robert Bullard, considered by many to be the founder of the environmental justice movement, in response to the EPA decision.

UNIONTOWN'S POPULATION is almost 90 percent Black, and just under half of the residents live below the poverty line.

Residents filed a complaint in 2013 with the EPA's Office of Civil Rights, accusing ADEM of violating a law covered under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by entities receiving federal financial aid.

It's hard to miss the symbolism of how much hasn't changed since that landmark civil rights legislation was enacted--but also of how the traditions of those protests have endured. Uniontown is just 30 miles from Selma, the starting point of the famous 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Members of the Uniontown community attended the 50-year anniversary demonstrations in Selma held in 2015 to bring awareness of the pollution caused by the coal ash and make connections between the environmental racism they were and the Jim Crow segregation that people in the civil rights movement fought.

Outrageously, the organization formed by Uniontown residents to oppose the landfill--Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice--was sued for $30 million by the Green Group on frivolous charges of libel and slander.

The suit, a clear attempt at intimidation to silence the voices of those organizing to resist the landfill, was withdrawn last February after the American Civil Liberties Union agreed to defend members of the Black Belt Citizens Group.

THE CASE of the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown is tragically just one of countless examples of environmental racism: the tendency for Black, Latinx and Native communities to face disproportionate amounts of pollution and hazardous conditions.

One of the most infamous cases of environmental racism is the ongoing trillion-dollar human rights catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, where children have been forced to drink water poisoned by lead. This injustice was made possible because of years of deregulation and federal divestment in the infrastructure that caused the contamination of the entire water supply of a largely Black, working-class city.

There's also the struggle of the largely Latinx and Black community in Southeast Chicago that for years has been battling the storage of petroleum coke near the Calumet River.

Petcoke is the toxic by-product of the refining of tar sands crude oil, and although petcoke is a different consequence of the extraction of dirty fuels, the similarities to the case in Uniontown are striking.

Residents of South Chicago have long complained of the effects of the petcoke dust to people's health and have shared stories of how the density of the piles of petcoke have covered the town in black ash, making it dangerous to spend extended periods of time outdoors.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans City Council approved a gas-fired plant earlier this month despite widespread community opposition. The construction of the plant will reportedly have a disproportionate health impact on the population of the eastern sector of New Orleans, predominantly made up of Vietnamese and Black residents.

Everyone has a stake in fighting ecological degradation and climate change, but it's become more and more clear that communities of color and other marginalized groups bear the brunt of pollution and contamination. They are also often most vulnerable to weather-related catastrophes.

This is why any movement that aims to fight for environmental justice has to have a commitment to fighting racism at its heart.

By championing struggles like that in Uniontown, we can build the type of fight needed to hold the mass polluters accountable for the poisoning of our communities; force the removal of toxic substances like coal ash; and begin the shift away from the continual use of dirty methods of fuel that continue to put our well-being in danger.

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