The transfer of the ash 327 miles from Tennessee to the mostly black community of Uniontown is partly a story about how people are faring at the receiving end. Federal environmental-justice policy requires that low-income and minority communities aren't burdened with outsized environmental risks.
UNIONTOWN, Ala. — When the mound of wet coal ash began to rise in the landfill across the road from her pretty yellow house with the peonies and roses in the front yard, Ruby Holmes felt overpowered by a horrible smell.
A few doors down, Mary Williams, a retired Avon sales office manager, shut her windows and kept the air filters running and still couldn’t sleep. She was nauseated. Her eyes, nose and throat burned, and her husband, a retired Greyhound driver, had trouble breathing.
“For a while, it was like we were just cast out and it didn’t matter about people living [with] that crap,” Williams said.
Uniontown’s Arrowhead Landfill so far has taken in 1.8 million tons of coal ash from one of the nation’s biggest environmental disasters, the December 2008 spill from a coal-ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn. Trains bring about 10,000 tons a day.
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The transfer of the ash 327 miles from Tennessee to the mostly black community of Uniontown is partly a story about how people are faring at the receiving end. Federal environmental-justice policy requires that low-income and minority communities aren’t burdened with outsized environmental risks.
The story also is part of a larger national question of what to do with the ash built up from the nation’s long dependence on coal to produce electricity.
Decisions about how to handle coal ash are left up to the states. The Environmental Protection Agency ruled during the presidency of George W. Bush that coal ash isn’t hazardous. The agency now is reconsidering that finding. It was expected to unveil a new coal-ash rule in December, but since then, deliberations have been going on behind closed doors in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
Used in cement
The coal industry opposes regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste. It argues that there are no toxic hazards, that labeling it as dangerous could rule out some uses of recycled coal ash, and that disposal of ash that can’t be reused would become more expensive. Some coal ash today is used to make cement and other products and for building up roads and embankments.
The U.S. produces about 130 million tons of coal ash a year, one of its largest kinds of waste, according to the EPA.
In hundreds of places around the country, coal ash is stored in lagoons near power plants or in unlined landfills and abandoned quarries.
In many respects, the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown is much better. It has a nearly impervious clay layer over the groundwater, a plastic liner, and a system to contain and monitor the water that leaches off the waste.
People who live across the road from the landfill say the odor disappeared a few weeks ago, but they’re still worried.
Ruby Holmes, 80, worries about breathing coal dust. She’s lived here all her life. She was the daughter of the general-store owner who bought the first TV in the area and on the Fourth of July would roast nine hogs for the community. She had 10 children and ran her family’s farm, growing cotton and vegetables on land the landfill owns now.
“It was a real beautiful, enjoyable life, and all at once here comes this stuff across the road.”
Residents mostly black
Uniontown, about 100 miles southwest of Birmingham, Ala., is a mostly black community with a few dozen store fronts, most of them closed, and a catfish-feed mill and a prison just outside the town proper. When the EPA announced last summer that the ash would be shipped to Alabama, it said the landfill was in an isolated location. The Alabama Environmental Council counted 317 people out of the area’s population of 1,600 who live within half a mile of it.
Mary Williams said the council took help from a former state environmental official, attorney David Ludder, who notified landfill operators he planned to sue them about the odor.
She’s also worried about health hazards. “I couldn’t say anything but that it’s hazardous,” she said.
Booker T. Gipson, whose daughter lives beside the landfill with her children, said: “Everybody says it’s not harmful. But if it was harmful to the people in Kingston, I want to know in a small location like Uniontown why it’s not harmful to us.”
“My biggest concern is I’ve got 16 cows over there and four horses,” said Gipson. Animals in nearby pastures drink from creeks that flow near the landfill.
John Wathen, an investigator for Ludder, photographed the site from the air and sampled water nearby. He said he took two water samples with high arsenic levels in the ditch across from the Williamses’ home, and another from a water-treatment plant where wastewater from the landfill was taken. He also took a photograph that showed workers hosing out ash-covered railcars. Wathen said that water runs to a creek alongside the tracks.
“What’s happening right now is simply a transfer of the disaster from Kingston, Tennessee, to Perry County, Alabama,” Wathen said.
Eddie Dorsett, president of Phill-Con Services, the operator of the landfill, said all the water that came into contact with ash or municipal solid waste was taken to a wastewater treatment facility, and not allowed to leave the landfill.
Inspectors have found no violations, he said. Water trucks spray the road, air monitors show the dust hasn’t exceeded national standards, and “our supervisors are continuously monitoring dust and ensuring it is minimized.”
Coal ash under Alabama law isn’t regulated as a solid waste and so wouldn’t have to be placed in a lined landfill like the one at Uniontown. The waste from Kingston, however, is considered “remediation waste” because it’s from a spill, and so it falls under stricter regulation, said Scott Hughes, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
Although the ash and municipal waste was separated, water mixed through both of them, Hughes said. Dorsett said that the area also was hit with 20 inches of rain during the winter. The leaching water probably caused the odor, and the landfill operators recently started using two burners to incinerate the vapors that create the smell.
When the storage area for the ash is filled, the landfill company will be required to cap it with dirt and plants to make sure that the ash can’t escape, Hughes said.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit that presses for enforcement of environmental protection laws, said in a letter to the TVA this month that state and federal environmental protection officials hadn’t collected the data needed to get a full understanding of the impact of the ash disposal on water and the air and on health.
The letter cites a study of the Kingston coal ash by researchers at Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology that concluded that the fine ash, which contains toxic metals such as lead and arsenic and radioactive material, “could have a severe health impact on local communities and workers.”
EIP said that a more accurate test shows that coal ash produces water pollution with harmful concentrations of heavy metals.
The TVA plans to finish sending coal ash dredged from the Emory River — about 3 million tons — to the Uniontown landfill by May. It hasn’t announced how it will handle more ash that still must be cleaned up.
The state environmental agency, which oversees the landfill, and Perry County, whose commissioners approved it, get a fee for the ash dumped there. The county expects to take in more than $3 million for county roads, schools and other needs.
Ruby Holmes said she worked hard in the days when Uniontown businesses were thriving. She picked okra by the ton and worked in a shoe factory and a poultry plant. She thought her retirement would be spent relaxing in her perfectly ordered house and yard.
She said she can’t help worrying about the health risks of the ash pile.
“I feel that we’ve been mistreated down here.”