Uniontown, Alabama — As Esther Calhoun sees it, discrimination, rooted in the acts of many, has turned this wisp of a town into a dumping ground.
A landfill owner that staked out roughly 1,000 acres for Alabama’s biggest municipal-waste site on a county road dotted by well-worn homes. A county commission that approved the landfill over objections from a largely African-American neighborhood. And a state agency that issued operating permits time and again.
“If this had been a rich, white neighborhood, the landfill would never have gotten here,” said Calhoun, whose sharecropper and slave ancestors toiled on local plantations, explaining why so many of her fellow citizens view the facility as discriminatory.
“They put it here because we’re a poor, black community,” she said. “They knew we couldn’t fight back.”
In the last decade, little has roused this town in the heart of Alabama’s “black belt,” 30 miles west of Selma, like the Arrowhead Landfill, a sprawling dump capable of collecting thousands of tons per day of household garbage, industrial waste and other debris — including coal ash, an often-toxic byproduct of coal-fired electricity — from more than half the nation. Foul odors, corrosive dust and menacing buzzards have become facts of life for people who live here. Some no longer sit on their porches, grow their gardens or let children play in their yards. In the area abutting the landfill, almost everyone claims to have suffered ill effects, from headaches and earaches to neuropathy. Residents say state regulators are absent; their sense of powerlessness is palpable.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while touting the importance of tackling environmental racism, has done little to address the residents’ concerns — until now. Spurred by a citizens’ complaint alleging the Arrowhead Landfill violates the civil rights of surrounding black property owners, regulators in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights have launched an investigation into the facility’s permitting.
A little-known program within the EPA, the civil-rights office has one mission: to ensure that agencies receiving EPA funding do not act in a discriminatory manner. The mandate comes from Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law prohibiting racial discrimination by those receiving federal financial assistance. Experts say the provision offers the EPA a legal tool for combating environmental injustices.