Coal Ash Controversy

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Every day for the rest of the year, a long train will travel through Birmingham on its way from a power plant in Tennessee to a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. Tim Lennox has our report on the controversy the muck on board that train is causing in Alabama’s Black Belt.

It all started here in East Central Tennessee, just before Christmas, when the 50 foot tall earthen wall of a huge containment pool collapsed. 500-million gallons of coal ash and water rushed out and covered 300 acres of land and part of the Emory River adjoining that land.

“I’m Leo Francendese with the U.S. EPA. I’m what’s called the on scene coordinator and I’m the lead person for this project. The size of the site can’t be appreciated from the ground. When you’re in a helicopter you really see the amount of material we’re dealing with.”

Aerial photos can help you visual the scope of the event at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Power Plant. It was the largest industrial spill in U.S. history.

Watching the hundreds of people using earth and water moving machines at the site of the spill, it looks like a military battlefield operation. And if it were, the TVA’s Mike Scott would be the general in charge. I rode with him on a tour in his truck as worked pulled coal ash from the River. they spray it with water because the TVA says one of the main dangers of coal ash is breathing it in.

“We are on one of the dykes similar to the dyke that broke?”

“Very similar to the dyke that broke, this is what we call Dyke C.

“Are we safe?”

“Yes we are. I feel very comfortable driving up here.”

“But to be honest, before December 22nd or 23rd, you would have been comfortable driving across the dyke that collapsed too, no?”

“I would have to say yes because we would not have expected it, however we’ve done a lot of evaluations of the dyke that we’re on, we’ve had geo-technical surveys, we had reports, so in terms of this dyke, yes, I feel safe driving us here. I wouldn’t put us in harm’s way.”

It will cost the TVA more than a billion dollars to clean up the mess, and a good portion of that money will go to pay for the part of this story that takes us to Alabama. The part of the story that involves rail cars.

“Down below us to our left, you can see a backhoe, its got a load of ash, and you can watch it now, it’s just picked up the ash and its depositing it into the railcar.”

Norfolk-Southern Railroad got the contract. The Tuscaloosa News calculated it will take 35,000 cars to do the job. The Norfolk southern folks won’t say what route the trains will take, but other sources say they’ll pass through nine Alabama counties including St. Clair, Jefferson and Shelby.

“In downtown Birmingham there are a half dozen railroad tracks that run right through town, they bisect the city actually, and a half a dozen streets span over those railroad tracks. I’m on 22nd Street for example right now and below me a freight train moving through Birmingham.”

The tons of coal ash are being moved 300 miles to a landfill in Uniontown in Perry County, a location that has brougth charges of environmental racism.

“I’m Michael Jackson, I’m the District Attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit and I cover Bibb, Dallas, Wilcox, Perry and Hale Counties. I have the largest Circuit in the state.

“When did you first hear about the coal ash coming to Perry County, and what was your first action after that?”

“I heard about it a few months ago, and when I found out about it I immediately expressed my opinion to the News and others that I was totally against this. I think it’s dangerous to bring this material to Alabama.”

Whether it is dangerous or not, the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the coal ash transfer and other dumping in poor and minority communities. Perry County has a majority African American population. A third of the residents live in povrety. There’s 20% unemployment. And that, says Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Junior, is why he supports the landfill. We talked with him at a radio station where he’d just been interviewed.

“I know of no other single industry that has come into Perry County and has generated that kind of economic cash windfall for the county government as well as economic opportunities for its citizens than the landfill. We are coming in with a five million dollars cash influx money from this coal ash, and the number of jobs, we first said fifty, now it is moving toward a-hundred, and that is encouraging when you have double-digit unemployment like we are facing in Perry County.”

“Are you satisfied that they’re treating this material in a safe manner? That the community will be safe?”

“Yes I am, and I am even more satisfied now that I know we have ash ponds all over the state of Alabama, nine to be exact, all over the state of Alabama they’re in ponds that are not lined, there are no regulations on. They just can dig a hole put some water in and put the ash in. At landfills they are regulated, they are lined, it’s just more safer for our community being in the landfill than in those ponds.”

We wanted to watch the railcars of coal ash being put into the landfill, but Uniontown City Police blocked the entrance, even though the landfill is located outside the city limits. And company officials would agree to neither an interview nor a tour.

Lifelong Uniontown resident Isiah Hudson doubts the jobs created by the landfill are worth it.

“They’re killing peoples! What kind of jobs would you like to see brought in here? Well I don’t know, something better than that! Anything better than that! You know, destroying people. It’s going to destroy people it’s going to get loose!”

“Do you know anything about coal ash? Do you know what it is?”

“No, I don’t know too much but I heard about it…and something else I believe, they say they got it pinned down in the ground, I believe sooner or later it’s going to break out! I really do. Now I might not be here to see it, But what about my grandchildren and children and whatever?”

Despite objections like those, the rail cars continue their daily journey to and from Perry County, Alabama, carrying the remains of a Tennessee coal-fired power plant, coal ash that polluted the land and water there. While the district attorney considers a suit and the ETP begins an investigation into allegations of environmental racism, the trains keep on coming. Once a day, every day.

~ Tim Lennox, August 19, 2009.


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