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Bad Chemistry: An APR News series -- Two communities and their shared issue with coal ash

Pat Duggins

It’s been two decades since the chemical company Monsanto settled a lawsuit with Anniston residents. People there said Monsanto exposed them to chemicals called PCBs which caused birth defects and cancer. But Monsanto is far from the only alleged instance of harmful chemicals in Alabama. Here’s a tale of two cities. One that’s trying to head off problems linked to chemical pollution, and another that says it’s been dealing with the issue for years…

Cori Yonge

Eighteen wheelers rumbling through Uniontown’s main intersection are a common site. They drive past crumbling antebellum homes and deserted store fronts. Some are passing through this poor and mostly Black community. Others have a local destination in mind. It’s privately owned Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County four miles away. The landfill has a permit to take industrial waste - including coal ash - from 33 states. Coal ash is what’s left after coal is burned.

Fourteen years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency picked the Arrowhead Landfill as the dumping ground for four million tons of toxic coal ash from that Tennessee spill. Rail cars filled with ash arrived daily. Residents say it created a stench and covered the area in a fine powder.

Cori Yonge

“The trees in that area looks like snow tipped trees with gray dust,” said Ben Eaton in a 2015 interview with APR. Eaton is president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. We caught up with him to see how things are going now. Eaton says area residents blame many of their health issues on the coal ash.

“Kidney problems, nerve problems breathing problems there are some people say that they can't stand to take showers because the water sort of burns them have such an odor they can't stand it,” he recalled.

Coal ash contains heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead. Kris Zierold is an environmental health researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She studies coal ash in children.

“What we’re seeing are neurobehavioral problems and mental health problems,” she said.

Zierold says in adults - long-term health problems from living near coal ash may not appear right away.

“Chronically you can see things like COPD, cancers. There's a latency period with Cancers usually between 10 and 20 years,” Zierold said.

Zierold and Eaton agree without more studies, it’s hard to prove a connection between the landfill ash and health problems. So Eaton’s group recently started monitoring air quality in the county.

“If it's the smallest. The smallest of things. We want to take notice because it means something,” Eaton said.

In March, the Alabama Department of Environment Management renewed the landfill’s permit for another ten years and in August the landfill changed hands. Its new owner, Waste Connections hasn’t answered APRs calls or emails. Eaton says after more than a decade of fighting, it’s hard not to feel beat down.

“We haven't quit anything that we feel that we can oppose in any kind of way, we'll standing up and do that.

Three hours south of Uniontown, Travis Franklin scoops blue crabs from Mobile Bay. His peace shattered by morning commuters. Coal ash is a concern here as well.

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Franklin said with a chuckle.

He’s talking about the unlined coal ash pit at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry. Franklin is one of many south Alabama residents unaware of the massive lagoon on the edge of the Mobile River.

Cori Yonge

“We want that coal ash moved. We are educating people so people know how big the issue is,” said eighty- year-old Sallie Smith. She’s one in a trio of grandmothers taking issue with Alabama Power’s plans to close the pond in place. Despite a stage-four cancer diagnosis and being an Alabama Power shareholder, Smith co-founded the Coal Ash Action Group. It’s a grass roots environmental effort. Seventy-five year old Diane Thomas is another senior in the group.

“When we go out, we tell people there’s a ticking time bomb, 20 miles from the head of the bay,” said Smith.

Alabama Power has a state permit to cap the pond. That means the ash would stay at the water’s edge forever. But the women are worried the ecologically diverse tangle of rivers and streams feeding Mobile Bay is just one flood away from an environmental catastrophe.

Cori Yonge

Seventy-nine year old Savan Wilson is the group’s third co-founder. She’s in charge of social media.

“We also now have an Instagram. And we even have a thread account because they’re tied together,” said Wilson.

The women want Alabama power to mirror actions in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia where they’re moving coal ash to lined landfills.

The group may get a boost from the EPA which recently held a public hearing in Montgomery. The agency proposes denying the state’s coal ash permit program. At the hearing, Susan Comensky, Alabama Power’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs opposed the denial.

“Alabama Power’s plans are safe, compliant with federal and state regulations, and protect human health and the environment,” she said.

But Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center takes sides with the seniors.

 “The question in my mind is, if South Carolina can do it, can’t Alabama do it? If North Carolina can do it, can’t Alabama do it? If Virginia can do it and Georgia can do it, can’t Alabama?” he said.

There’s no word on when the EPA will issue its decision. Until it does, the seniors will keep fighting. Like Ben Eaton in Uniontown, they know the battle against coal ash could be a long one.

Editor's Note— APR is sad to report the Coal Ash Action group lost its co-founder Sallie Smith, who was featured in Cori Yonge's story. She died from cancer last week at the age of 80.

APR Graduate student intern Cori Yonge returns to journalism after spending time in the corporate world. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Journalism and Media Studies from The University of Alabama and is ecstatic to be back working with public radio. Cori has an interest in health, environment, and science reporting and is the winner of both an Associated Press award and Sigma Delta Chi award for healthcare related stories. The mother of two daughters, Cori spent twelve years as a Girl Scout leader. Though her daughters are grown, she still enjoys camping with friends and family – especially if that time allows her to do some gourmet outdoor cooking. Cori and her husband Lynn live in Fairhope.
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  • This month marks two decades since the Monsanto chemical company settled with residents of the town of Anniston. The payments were over health issues blamed on chemicals called PCBs that Monsanto started manufacturing back in the mid 1930’s. People living in Anniston say cases of cancer and other medical problems were linked to PCB exposure. It was a situation that didn’t harm just one generation, but many. Alabama Public Radio asked one longtime resident to explain what happened to her family and how it impacted the direction her life would take.
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