“They put dumps in Black and Brown communities, poor communities, that they think can’t fight back,’’ said Esther Calhoun, an independent activist and former president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.
In a documentary screening of the film Uniontown at Cinemapolis on Oct. 22, Calhoun, along with activists Alex Jones and Ben Jackson, all from Uniontown, Alabama, advocated against environmental injustice, specifically the harmful allocation of coal ash and other forms of pollution in their community.
Coal ash, although not hazardous waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, contains arsenic, mercury and other toxins that can cause cancer and other health problems. While the Trump Administration has suggested weakening the rules about coal ash disposal further, the status quo has already had a terrible cost for the health of Uniontown.
Calhoun described seeing high rates of cancer, respiratory conditions, kidney problems, and neuropathy among friends and neighbors. Calhoun’s own health has also suffered. She has difficulty walking because of nerve damage in her left leg.
“I can’t sleep at night. My leg hurts right now. I’m limited walking, I’m limited standing. My everyday life has changed because I can’t trust this leg,” Calhoun said.
In 2008, the dried waste from a coal ash spill at Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant was transported to Uniontown, Alabama, from which a civil rights complaint arose and was rejected by the EPA.
“There was a period where the coal ash was uncapped, meaning there was no soil covering it. During that period, it would get carried away by the wind and spread throughout the community,” Jackson said. “People claimed the coal ash came into their homes through air conditioning systems, and there are pictures of the coal ash eating through the paint on people’s cars. If it can take the paint off a car, what happens if I breathe it in?”
In addition to coal ash, Uniontown residents also struggle with inappropriate wastewater disposal from a Southeastern Cheese Corporation and from the Harvest Select catfish plant.
Jones, whose farm borders the Southeastern Cheese Corporation’s land, described the water as “black and blue,” and said that the runoff has killed many of his cows.
According to Calhoun, the waste lagoon that contains both the town’s sewage and runoff from the Harvest Select catfish plant is within a mile of the Uniontown school, and students smell the wastewater as they walk to the cafeteria.
“It is not our goal to remove the industries that are there. We just want them to stop polluting,” Jackson said.
“Right now, Uniontown is like Three Mile Island. Most of the folks are already gone.” Jones said.
Black Belt Citizens United For Health and Justice, which is currently in the process of becoming a non-profit organization, fights for the citizens who remain in Uniontown.
According to their website, the goals of the organization include no coal ash in Perry county, to which Uniontown belongs, and a modern wastewater treatment plant. The group runs events for the community, educates people about voting and partners with other organizations including the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.
The organization is also calling for an investigation of what happened to the 4.8 million dollars in USDA funding meant to address local pollution, in which the contract was granted to Sentell Engineering. According to Jackson, Sentell Engineering had built wastewater management for Uniontown without appropriate feasibility tests in the past.
Uniontown residents’ activism has come at a personal legal risk. Green Group Holdings LLC and Howling Coyote LLC, which own Arrowhead Landfill, sued four Uniontown residents, including Calhoun, for a total of 30 million dollars for making false and malicious statements, according to The Guardian. The lawsuit was withdrawn in February 2017.
“I decided to become an activist because I think all people should have equal rights … We deserve to not live around poison,” Calhoun said in an interview with The Sun.
“Educate people about the environment to save my community. People are dying,” Calhoun said at the end of the screening.