Six months ago, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant broke spilling more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal fly ash over a dozen homes and up to 400 acres of the surrounding landscape, endangering aquatic life and the water supply for more than 25,000 residents.
Numerous media stories have been written about the TVA toxic spill. Yet, the full "cradle to grave" toxic waste story has gotten little coverage from the national media. Unfortunately, a major environmental injustice was perpetrated by the EPA approval of TVA's decision to ship 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash by railcar from the mostly white east Tennessee Roane County to a landfill located in the heart of the Alabama "Black Belt," Perry County (69% African-American with more than 32% of its residents living in poverty) and to rural Taylor County, Georgia (41% of the population is African-American and more than 24% of residents live in poverty).
Four landfills in mostly white East Tennessee were approved to receive limited quantities of the toxic ash. However, the bulk of the toxic goop is headed to Uniontown, Alabama-some 300 miles from the spill. Uniontown has about 1,600 residents, 88 percent of whom are black. TVA's toxic waste disposal decision is consistent with the theme of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality which illustrates that all communities are still not created equal. Millions of Americans are demanding that this unfair and unjust pattern change with under the Obama administration.
No environmental justice or equity analysis has been made public by the federal EPA, State of Tennessee or the TVA called for under the 1994 Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which seeks "to ensure that no segment of the population, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, or net worth bears disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental impacts as a result of EPA's policies, programs and activities." Under this Order, each Federal agency must make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minorities and low-income populations.
The controversial decision by the TVA to ship the toxic fly ash to the 976.5 acres Subtitle D Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Arrowhead Landfill in PerryCounty is not rocket science (see aerial photos of landfill). Shipping toxic waste to poor and people of color communities is also not news since an overwhelming share of waste facilities are located there.
Some grassroots EJ advocates will be traveling to Arlington, VA to express these views at the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), not "Knee Jerk," slated for July 21-23. They will be asking the Obama administration to make environmental justice and equal protection top priorities. They will be reminding the EPA that the agency not forget that it was the shipment and disposal of dirt contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in a 142-acre landfill in rural, poor, and mostly black Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 that sparked protests, arrests, and the national Environmental Justice Movement.
Can Americans trust the government to protect them? EPA and North Carolina officials insisted the PCB landfill was safe and would not leak. They were dead wrong. The landfill was suspected of leaking as early as 1993. It took more than two decades for Warren County residents to get the leaky landfill site detoxified by the state and federal government. In all, a private contractor was paid $18 million to dig up and burn more than 81,500 tons of contaminated soil in a kiln on site.
Warren County is located in Eastern North Carolina, the 29 counties located "Down East" which are noticeably different from the rest of North Carolina. According to 2000 census, whites comprised 62 percent of the population in Eastern North Carolina and 72 percent statewide. Blacks are concentrated in the northeastern and the central parts of the region. Warren County is one of six counties in the state's "Black Belt" where African Americans comprise a majority of the population: Bertie County (62.3%), Hertford (59.6%), Northhampton (59.4), Edgecombe (57.5%), Warren (54.5%), and Halifax (52.6%). Eastern North Carolina is also significantly poorer than the rest of the state.
The Warren County protests led the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1987 to produce its landmark Toxic Wastes and Race report, the first national study to correlate hazardous waste facility sites and demographic characteristics. Over the past two decades, too many African American, other people of color, and poor communities have become environmental "sacrifice zones" where polluting facilities expose fence-line residents to dangerous emissions and releases into the air, water, and ground.
The 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty study found people of color make up 56 percent of residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of a commercial hazardous waste facility. People of color make up 69 percent of residents of neighborhoods with clustered facilities.
In EPA Region 4, eight southern states of the old Confederacy (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), African Americans make up just over 20 percent of the population. However, African Americans make up more than 54.3 percent of the residents who live within a two-mile radius of the 67 commercial hazardous wastes facilities in the region. People of color comprise the majority of residents living within two miles of commercial hazardous waste facilities in Alabama (66.3%), Georgia (55.6%), and Tennessee (53.8%).
Residents who are on the front-line of toxic assault, like those in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, need to have EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson and her assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) Mathy V. Stanislaus conduct site visits and take "toxic tours" to the impacted communities in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia so they can see, hear, and learn firsthand. Residents who live near "ground zero" where hazardous wastes are treated, stored, and disposed want to see aggressive steps taken to address the legacy of unequal protection and government decisions that increase health and environmental vulnerability of low income and people of color communities.
Environmental justice leaders from New York to California want the Obama administration to put protection back in the EPA. Community leaders want to see this administration fully implement the 1994 Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which seeks "to ensure that no segment of the population, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, or net worth bears disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental impacts as a result of EPA's policies, programs and activities." Under this Order, each Federal agency (all eleven of them covered under the order) must make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minorities and low-income populations.
Finally, EJ advocates want to see a "new" EPA reverse the legacy of unequal protection and stop environmental injustice in its tracks. This is not much to ask of the Obama administration, given the high stakes involved.