You have on the side of your head.”
I said, “That’s a blue print, left by the coal
Just a little more and I’d be dead.”
– “Coal Tattoo,” Billy Edd Wheeler
Think you’re sweltering? Hop in your jalopy and head into west Alabama, where the abundance of rivers and the absence of breezes will make you think you’re in Hell, but with better landscaping.
The weather does a disservice to Perry County in particular, wherein you’ll find the otherwise pleasant communities of Marion, known for its colleges, and Uniontown, settled before Alabama became a state and still renowned for its antebellum homes. The Perry County Chamber of Commerce boasts that this is “Small Town Life At Its Best.” “If one word could describe Perry County, Alabama,” its website proclaims, “that word would be Diversity!”
Those sensitive to environmental issues might use another word: Perversity. Into a place where the Cahaba, one of America’s last free-running wild rivers, flows, Perry County is welcoming, and the Environmental Protection Agency is permitting, almost four million tons of toxic coal sludge, shipped in from a TVA plant 300 miles away.
Following the path from the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant to the Arrowhead Landfill takes you deep into the paradoxes of the so-called New South, where the aspirations of the 21st century collide with the failures of the 20th.
When a 50-foot high pile of coal ash, characterized as an “ash pond,” gave way in Tennessee’s Coal River Valley December 22, 2008, an estimated 500 million gallons of toxic sludge tumbled like a poisonous avalanche into the ecosystem around Kingston. Besides damaging homes in the adjacent town of Harriman, the muckslide despoiled about 300 acres and emptied residue into the Tennessee River, affecting water supplies in Alabama and Kentucky as well. Cleaning up the mess, which the EPA called “one of the largest and most serious environmental releases in our history” will cost over a billion dollars.
Coal ash, the stuff left over after coal has been burned, is a nasty brew of goo. Besides containing potentially harmful metals such as chromium, mercury and selenium, as well as an unhealthy dose of arsenic, power plant coal ash, according to Scientific American, has so much concentrated uranium and thorium that it “delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.”
However, the EPA does not consider coal ash hazardous material.
For that, we can thank former Alabama Congressman Tom Bevill, a tireless toady for the state’s mining interests who had the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act amended in 1980 to prevent the EPA from characterizing coal ash as hazardous. Despite its own research indicating that people exposed to coal ash face a greater-than average cancer risk, the EPA has still taken no action to reclassify. The Center for Public Integrity suggests that the agency has kowtowed to utility industry interests through pressure from the Office of Management and Budget.
Last week, the agency did agree to let TVA start filling railroad tanker cars in Tennessee to dump Kingston’s toxic sludge into the 976-acre Arrowhead Landfill, only 80 miles from Birmingham.
Why in Perry County? Because Perry County politicians asked for it.
The privately owned landfill already accepts garbage from 17 states, and the site is reportedly constructed with a heavy-duty plastic liner to keep seeping fluids out of Uniontown’s drinking water, which the EPA likely took into account in the process of choosing Arrowhead. (Another factor was the facility’s proximity to Norfolk Southern rail lines.)
For Perry County, it was a green decision. With unemployment there hovering near 17 percent, fees generated by the daily shipments of TVA sludge over the next 12 months will reportedly total more than $4 million.
Some activist groups cite TVA’s choice of dumpsite as a classic example of institutional racism, since Perry County has a majority-black population. However, the Perry County Commission is majority-black as well, and it has few options when it comes to increasing the county’s revenue stream. As Commission Chairman Johnny Flowers said of protesters when a private prison was permitted to build there, “My motive is jobs. Their motive is selfish. Most of them already have a job.”
Environmental lawyer Barbara Evans, admittedly outgunned by corporate interests when she tried to get legislation passed controlling landfills, explained in an op-ed piece last month in the Montgomery Advertiser, “It is primarily a case of environmental injustice. The people most adversely affected are low-income people. Those who would dump this coal ash are the powerful.“
Perry County is represented in Congress by Artur Davis, who aspires to become Alabama’s governor next year. Addressing the landfill conundrum, he said, “We cannot build a future for rural Alabama based on how little we demand of our corporate citizens and how little we protect our people,” which is practically populist rhetoric for a candidate who numbered the Southern Company (whose Alabama Power subsidiary has at least five coal ash ponds) among his top five contributors last campaign cycle.
Nevertheless, when it was time to vote for clean energy in the House June 26, there was Davis, along with every other Alabama congressman beholden to King Coal, voting on the wrong side of the issue, voting for the past instead of the future.
There’s much talk today of “clean coal” as a solution to future energy needs, mostly ginned up by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a front group for industries that burn coal. In fact, there is no “clean” coal, not as long as mining companies ravage Appalachia for its mountaintops, not as long as Congress cuts funds to improve mine safety, not as long as the poisonous residue of coal burning remains unsequesterable and poor rural counties in Alabama are obliged to make it part of their landscape forever.
Unless principled leaders take a stand against carbon-based fuel proliferation, we all will wear the coal tattoo until we die.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com