This story is part of a 12-part investigation by the Chicago Investigative Project in the graduate program at the Medill School at Northwestern University.
On a rainy April Saturday morning in Alabama, people trickle into Uniontown City Hall for Unity Prayer. Soft gospel music plays from a small stereo as people take their seats. The pastor places his hands on the wooden pew and thanks God for the congregation’s health.
Carlene James, her husband and daughter are among the first to arrive and the last to leave. She started this monthly service years ago when she moved back to Uniontown, her hometown, from Syracuse, New York.
Uniontown is the second largest city in Perry County, Alabama. Like many counties in the Black Belt, Uniontown’s economy is tied to agriculture. Its rich, dark soil made it ideal for cotton plantations in the 1800s — meaning many enslaved people were brought here. The term “Black Belt” eventually evolved from describing soil to now the counties in Alabama with the highest percentage of Black people. Uniontown’s population is more than 90% Black.
When James was growing up, factories peppered the town. It had Hatch Motors, Cahaba Steel, a shoe factory and more.
Driving through downtown today, only the remnants of this time remain.
Today, Uniontown City Hall is surrounded by crumbling brick buildings with shattered glass windows. Layers of dirt cake the windows of the abandoned Piggly Wiggly, the town’s only grocery store, which closed in 2018.
James and other residents feel that Uniontown’s decline was both symbolized and accelerated by the county’s decision in 2005 to allow a large landfill that ultimately grew to accept waste from 33 states — including toxic coal ash from one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.
More than 700 sites nationwide hold coal ash. Under federal rules, unlined coal ash ponds must be closed, and the safest option is usually to remove the ash and transport it to landfills. Companies can often build new landfills on the site of power plants. But some decide to send the ash to landfills off-site, and often out of state.
South Carolina passed legislation to stop other states from dumping coal ash in its landfills. But Alabama currently has seven landfills accepting coal ash, and some accept waste from across state lines, according to state records.
The CEO and chief executive officer of the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown said it’s poised to become one of the largest waste-by-rail landfills in the eastern United States, according to his LinkedIn page.
Nationwide, landfills are disproportionately located in low-income, minority communities. An EPA study shows that people of color are more likely to live near polluters like landfills and breathe in polluted air.
In January, the EPA announced its intention to enforce federal coal ash rules adopted in 2015. Thus far, the federal government had largely left it to companies and states to comply with the rules. Stepped-up federal oversight likely means more companies will need to remove coal ash from ponds, and they may look to send it to landfills like Arrowhead.
The federal rules were sparked by the coal ash disaster still known as the nation’s largest industrial spill.
Just before Christmas in 2008, a dam holding back coal ash at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, failed and sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash cascading over the town and into the Emory River. A massive cleanup began — workers are still suing the TVA over health effects they allegedly suffered from exposure — and coal ash was dredged from the river. About 4 million cubic yards of the toxic material was transported from Kingston — a 90% White community — 330 miles to Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown.
Based on a $1-per-ton fee that the county and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management get for coal ash disposal, each entity would have made approximately $5.6 million. But the Uniontown government got nothing; the town doesn’t receive a tipping fee or property taxes from the landfill, which is located outside the city limits, according to Uniontown city clerk Alfreda Washington.
The EPA held two public meetings in Perry County regarding its decision to bring coal ash to Uniontown, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM. But residents learned about the toxic waste coming to town by word of mouth from the Arrowhead employees. ADEM didn’t tell residents when the coal ash stopped coming to town, residents said.
Coal ash 101: Everything you need to know about this toxic waste
As coal plants close nationwide, they leave behind nearly a billion tons of toxic coal ash. The Medill School of Journalism spent months investigating the coal ash threat and how regulators, companies, and environmental groups are handling it.
Here are the basics that will help you understand this looming threat.
What is coal ash?
Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. It contains heavy metals that can contaminate groundwater, lakes, and rivers.
Where is coal ash located?
Coal ash is stored in more than 700 ponds and landfills nationwide, most of them unlined. Ash can also be recycled — known as “beneficial reuse” — in which it is used to make concrete or build roads.
What is the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule?
In 2015, the EPA established rules for coal ash units, requiring companies to test groundwater, remediate contamination, and make plans to close the units. Companies have to post groundwater monitoring data and closure plans online.
The rule excludes hundreds of “legacy ash ponds” that closed before the federal rule took effect in 2015, yet these ponds are still causing serious groundwater contamination. The rule also does not cover coal ash that was over decades dumped and scattered around coal plant sites and even surrounding areas, often used to build up berms or fill in land.
Is coal ash contaminating our water?
Data posted by companies shows that contaminants around coal ash ponds frequently exceed limits set by the EPA, sometimes exponentially. Private wells used for drinking water can be and have been contaminated by coal ash. Rivers and lakes used for recreation and municipal water supplies can also be contaminated by coal ash.
What’s in coal ash?
Boron is linked to reproductive problems like low birth weight and is also toxic to aquatic life.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin linked to swelling of the brain and nervous system damage.
Lithium is linked to liver and kidney damage as well as neurological diseases and birth defects.
Arsenic is linked to nervous system damage and higher rates of cancer.
Molybdenum is linked to gout, high blood pressure, and liver diseases.
Cobalt is linked to thyroid damage and blood diseases.
How is a coal ash pond closed?
Coal ash sites need to close after getting their final shipment of coal ash, if they are polluting groundwater above certain standards, or if they fail to meet other safety criteria. The rules say all unlined ponds needed to stop accepting waste by April 2021, though some requested exceptions and have continued filling with coal ash.
A protective cover is placed over the coal ash so rainwater doesn’t get in and cause flooding or increased leaching into groundwater. If the coal ash is left in contact with groundwater or permeable rock, it can continue leaching contaminants even when capped.
Coal ash is excavated from a pond, dried, and moved to a lined landfill above the water table. Companies may be able to build a landfill on the power plant site. Shipping coal ash to landfills off-site means heavy truck traffic or shipping by barge or rail.
Who pays for coal ash cleanup?
The owners of coal ash sites — utilities or power companies and their shareholders — can pay the cost of coal ash cleanup, often hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars across multiple sites.
Utilities can seek approval from state public service commissions to bill the cost of coal ash cleanup to ratepayers. They can even seek a profit as a portion of the costs.
If coal ash is designated a Superfund site, the EPA can make the responsible parties — utility or power companies — pay for the cleanup. The government can also pay for the cleanup from a pool of Superfund money, especially if the companies no longer exist or can’t pay.
Compiled by Sruthi Gopalakrishnan.
Today, many residents are still unsure what waste is coming to Arrowhead, and many believe train cars of coal ash still arrive in town at night. No coal-fired electric utilities have requested ADEM approval to send their coal ash to the Arrowhead Landfill since July 27, 2011, according to an emailed response from ADEM. But the state agency has never made this clear to residents.
And the threat of coal ash persists as long as Arrowhead has its permit. Under a municipal solid waste permit, Arrowhead can still bring in coal ash upon approval from ADEM.
Arrowhead has declined to answer multiple queries about whether it is still accepting coal ash or will do so in the future. In an email response, Arrowhead’s CEO deferred questions to ADEM.
“It’s environmental racism,” said Esther Calhoun, a Uniontown activist. “I mean, look at the town. We’re not getting anything. It’s just a bunch of corruption.”
‘A cancer in Perry County’
For Uniontown residents, owning land is a triumph — a legacy of wealth to be passed down for generations.
This message can be seen clearly in the dozens of handwritten letters and emails residents sent ADEM in 2002 pleading for the agency to deny Perry County Associates LLC’s application to build a landfill in Uniontown.
“I believe that this short-sighted event will decrease not only the value of my property but also damage the soil and water to the degree that it will be unusable for my children, grandchildren and future generations,” Carlene James wrote to ADEM in 2002.
Uniontown has always been home for James and her family. When her mother passed, James brought her from Syracuse to Uniontown to be buried at their family cemetery.
“I am totally opposed to this landfill — a cancer in Perry County,” wrote John B. Givhan, another Uniontown resident and owner of 560 acres near the proposed landfill.
Uniontown is rooted in Black history. Since it was settled in 1818, Black people were the enslaved workforce behind the plantations that drove the city’s economy.
For this reason, the Alabama Historical Commission and the Perry County Historical and Preservation Society took a stance against the landfill, which is located on a former plantation site. The commission urged the landfill to contact them immediately if evidence of burial shafts and human remains were found. Hundreds of enslaved people lived on that plantation dating back to 1833.
The town’s history also features a journey to liberty, Daniel R. Appling wrote to ADEM in 2002. Uniontown’s close proximity to Selma means it could reinvent itself as a tourist destination and extension of Selma’s Voting Rights Trail, Appling wrote to ADEM:
“This is a blatant racist act. We do not want to trade a potential educational and tourism goldmine for a legacy of filth and waste.”
Despite the wishes of Uniontown residents and the area’s historical value, ADEM approved the landfill’s permit in April 2005.
Uniontown isn’t the only Black community to lose this battle. Studies show landfills, hazardous waste facilities and other locally unwanted land uses are disproportionately located in nonwhite, poor communities.
A public records request submitted to the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights revealed that the office investigated ADEM for civil rights violations regarding the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown a total of three times. Each investigation was for Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race.
None of these EPA investigations proved ADEM violated Uniontown residents’ civil rights. However, the Center of Public Integrity found that the EPA’s civil rights office has never formally found a violation of Title VI.
In 2016, the EPA recommended ADEM make a concerted effort to facilitate communication between local governments, the landfill and Uniontown residents.
When asked if it will inform residents the next time Arrowhead is approved to receive coal ash, an ADEM spokesperson responded via email: “EPA has determined that Coal Combustion Residual waste can be disposed of at municipal solid waste landfills like Arrowhead Landfill.”
Residents continue to feel ADEM leaves them in the dark and that their complaints and questions — including about coal ash — fall on deaf ears.
Uniontown bears the nation’s toxic burden
The same year the landfill opened in 2007, its financial issues began. Its loan for $165,000,000 fell through. The landfill filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011.
Yet the company sought to accept more types of dangerous waste. It requested to change its permit to subtitle D solid waste disposal just one month after its initial permit was approved. This change enabled it to accept industrial waste like construction and demolition debris and “coal combustion residuals” — coal ash.
In January 2008, the company got approval from District 4 of the EPA to receive waste from the country’s most polluted sites, those registered under the federal Superfund program, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. The new permit designated that the landfill would accept only non-hazardous waste from such sites, but problematic waste — including coal ash — falls under that definition.
No public notices were sent out informing the community that the landfill could now accept waste from such sites, according to ADEM records.
Although Uniontown residents were unaware of the change, TVA, the nation’s largest public utility, certainly was. After the devastating Kingston spill, the 4 million cubic yards of coal ash needed to be sent somewhere, and officials decided on Arrowhead Landfill.
An analysis of the coal ash sent to Arrowhead showed radionuclides at an average combined level of 7 pCi/g and a maximum combined level of 10 pCi/g, which is double Alabama’s radioactivity threshold.
But the Alabama Department of Public Health gave Arrowhead an exemption from the state’s radiation protection rule.
On July 4, coal ash began being removed from Kingston, a predominantly White city, to dump in Uniontown, a predominantly Black community, according to ADEM records. Uniontown residents had no power to stop the move, and got no revenue from the transfer.
Uniontown residents were terrified to have the coal ash pass through their town, worried it would blow off trucks and blanket their backyards and homes.
“My husband has Alzheimer’s,” James said. “I’ve gotten some health problems since I got back here. I don’t know whether to even have a garden because I don’t know what’s in the air. I don’t know what’s in the soil.”
Protesters took to the streets. Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a group formed in 2005 to oppose the landfill, organized protests in front of city hall.
Uniontown residents like Portia Shepherd believe the coal ash could be the cause of her family members’ deaths — noting that more than 50 workers who were involved in cleaning the coal ash spill in Kingston died. Many more are still dealing with life-threatening illnesses.
“It did not click to me what was happening until I began my research, and I began to see that the same sicknesses that they endured, was the same thing that is happening in Kingston, Tennessee,” Shepherd said. “Those same people endured what the people that I love endured, so there’s something going on. And it is the responsibility of a state agency to look out for the people that I love.”
Following the Kingston ash deposit, the landfill continued to expand. In 2009, it doubled its daily intake of waste from 7,500 tons to 15,000 tons. The number of states it accepted waste from jumped from 16 to 33. In 2012, the landfill expanded its disposal area by 169 acres, or 66%.
The landfill’s pay also increased. For the 17 months Arrowhead was bringing coal ash in by rail, it paid employees $1,500 a week, according to a former employee.
“The only thing that kept me there was money,” said a former Arrowhead employee who worked at the landfill when coal ash was being brought in. “I needed the money.”
This former employee requested to be anonymous. He worked for Arrowhead on and off for eight years until 2017. About four years ago, his legs ballooned in size, he said, and blood clots lined his legs up to his waist. Doctors at a Birmingham hospital told him the blood clots had been developing for a while. The employee blames his time at the landfill.
While other factors could be to blame for the worker’s condition, a 2014 report from Earthjustice and Physicians for Social Responsibility notes that arsenic and lead present in coal ash can cause cardiovascular symptoms.
“I don’t even know how I’m getting enough blood to my heart and stuff to keep me alive,” he said.
His job was towing a 1,000-gallon water truck three miles from the water well to the wash station where trains were unloading the coal ash.
“It was coal ash everywhere down there,” the employee said. “All over the ground. All they did when it spilled over was cover that coal ash with rocks. That’s all they did to it.”
The employee, along with others, used a hose to spray coal ash off the more than 100 train cars that arrived with it each day, he said. The water sprayed the coal ash all over the employees, who were given only a hard hat and protective glasses, according to the employee.
“I remember I got coal ash in my mouth and everywhere,” the employee said. “I ate some of it — had to.”
At the time, he wasn’t overly concerned because the pay was good and management assured him at the monthly safety meetings that coal ash is harmless.
“They said you could bring it home and throw it in your yard, and it’ll make your grass greener — or throw it in your garden and it’ll help your vegetables,” he said. “But they didn’t never give us none to do that with. If it was that good, then the people in Kingston would have kept it up there.”
Arrowhead Environmental Partners did not respond to requests for comment on former employees’ allegations.
Distrust continues to grow
Once Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice’s outrage about the coal ash started getting national attention, the landfill owners took them to court.
Green Group Holdings, a company that took over the landfill after Perry County Associates, sued the citizen group for $30 million, alleging it made malicious, false claims on its website and to the media. The lawsuit named the group’s president, Esther Calhoun; vice president Benjamin Eaton, and another 20 residents. The sum sought from private citizens was a staggering and terrifying amount, especially in a town where the median household income is $17,000.
“I was in disbelief,” Eaton said — recalling the moment he heard Green Group was suing him. “During the moment, my wife had just had surgery on the brain. And it was enough to be going through that.”
The lawsuit was meant to intimidate residents into silence, Eaton said. Although the media attention and protests have died down, Uniontown’s distrust in Arrowhead, ADEM and Perry County continues to fester.
On April 14, Uniontown residents gathered at City Hall for a hearing regarding the landfill owners’ request for a permit renewal.
ADEM officials from various departments stood in the main meeting area. Each had a table with stacks of pamphlets. Upstairs in a private meeting room, department heads sat behind a large, solid wood table. Residents who signed up to ask questions and share concerns about the permit had to enter the room individually and leave the room through an opposite door before the next person came to speak.
One after another, residents voiced their fears for their health and skepticism of Arrowhead. Shepherd told ADEM she was afraid of the coal ash being brought into the community. However, ADEM never clarified or informed her that, according to ADEM’s records, Arrowhead hasn’t accepted coal ash in 13 years.
ADEM officials thanked each resident for their comments, without offering any information or answers. ADEM said it plans to respond to each resident in writing by an undetermined date.
“If you give the opportunity to the people to do a question and answer, you can explain it,” said Shepherd during ADEM’s public hearing. “Toughen up. You’re the state agency. You are an employee of the people, and it is your responsibility to ensure that we get the information.”
Literacy is a challenge in Uniontown, said Shepherd. Just 13% of Perry County high school students read at or above state proficiency levels. When residents have questions about the landfill, ADEM frequently directs them to its website, which has more than 1,300 documents filed under the landfill permit.
“So you got pamphlets and information on there to a group of people that can’t even understand what you’re handing out,” Shepherd said. “You’re not answering any questions? How are you a public agency and you don’t want to answer any questions? You work for us. But you don’t want to talk to us.”
William W. Gay, CEO and chief executive officer of the landfill, did not answer directly when asked by email whether Arrowhead plans to accept coal ash again or if the landfill has accepted coal ash in the past decade.
“Arrowhead has contributed to the City of Uniontown, Perry County and the State of Alabama in many significant, measurable ways,” Gay said via email. “And we look forward to remaining an asset to the local community for many years to come.”
As many see it, if ADEM renews Arrowhead’s permit, the risk of another load of coal ash barreling through Uniontown persists.
“We have no voice in saying if there’s gonna be more coal ash,” Calhoun said. “What if your family had inherited the land that is so close to the landfill? What do you have to leave your kids when there’s this big, huge mountain of coal ash?”