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Flashback: Waste Economics

Railroad cars hauling TVA coal ash line up at the Arrowhead Landfill Feb. 10, 2010.

Railroad cars hauling TVA coal ash line up at the Arrowhead Landfill Feb. 10, 2010.

AP Photo/Jay Reeves

“I say it’s not a question of environmental racism but economic racism,” Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. told Business Alabama in May 2009, just after it was announced that Perry County would become the dumping ground for one of the country’s worst environmental mishaps — a massive spill of coal ash from a TVA power plant in Harriman, Tennessee in December 2008.

“If the state of Alabama refuses to build the infrastructure and does not direct economic development to rural Alabama, that’s economic racism, and we have to go out and find industry on our own.”

The industry Turner brought to Perry County — one of the poorest counties in the U.S. — was waste disposal. Turner and a majority of the Perry County Commission supported permits for the landfill in 2004, in the face of opposition from environmentalists across the state and local citizen groups.

Arrowhead buries more than 15,000 tons of waste per day, accepting garbage from 33 states across the U.S. And it was happy to take the TVA waste as well — 3.9 million tons of sludge hauled by railcar to the Alabama Black Belt. The county earned $4.1 million in tipping fees on the coal ash deal.

“This odor wakes me up at night. It smells like some kind of gas. It gets all through my house and smells like rotten eggs. I’m very concerned about my health. I’m breathing this stuff. It’s going into my lungs,” was what 80-year-old Ruby Holmes, a lifelong resident of Perry County, told Business Alabama in a story in our March 2010 issue, “Foul Home, Alabama.”

On behalf of six Perry County residents like Holmes, in 2013 Earthjustice, a San Francisco environmental law group, filed a complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming the licensing of Arrowhead Landfill violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.     

In a rare move, the EPA accepted the case for review and sent investigators to Perry County in August 2014. Since 1994, 16 such cases have been accepted for review by the EPA, 162 have been rejected and 12 have been referred to other departments of the federal government.

An answer to the complaint by the EPA is still pending.

Chris McFadyen is editorial director of Business Alabama.

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