Huge Coal Ash Spill Cleanup Brings Concerns Of Environmental Racism: More “Dumping in Dixie”

What is Environmental Racism? Here’s a description from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional racial discrimination in the enforcement of environmental rules and regulations, the intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities for the siting of polluting industries, or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.

Since the term “environmental racism” was coined, researchers have investigated why minorities are more likely than whites to reside in areas where there is more pollution.

Some social scientists suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are examples of white privilege that have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism.

In the United States, the wealth of a community is not nearly as good a predictor of hazardous waste locations as the ethnic background of the residents, suggesting that the selection of sites for hazardous waste disposal involves racism. These minority communities may be easier targets for environmental racism because they are less likely to organize and protest than their middle or upper class white counterparts. This lack of protest could be due to fear of losing their jobs, thereby jeopardizing their economic survival.

In brief, environmental racism is the idea that black communities, because of their economic or political vulnerabilities, are targeted for the placement of noxious facilities, locally unwanted land uses, and environmental hazards.

The main victims of environmental racism have been poor black areas in the South. The ground breaking book Dumping in Dixie by Dr. Robert D. Bullard was one of the first to provide details on this disturbing phenomenon.

Bullard’s book was written in 1990. Fast forward to 2009, and it doesn’t look like things have changed at all. In December of last year, there was a huge spill of toxic coal ash around Kingston, Tennessee. The clean-up effort – you guessed it – seems to include a lot of dumping in Dixie.

The toxic spill in Tennessee, which has been called “one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory,” was the result of an accident at a coal power plant. As described by CNN:

The sludge is a byproduct of the ash from coal combustion. A retention site at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power plant in Kingston, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, contained the waste until a wall breached last Monday, sending the sludge downhill to damage 15 homes and cover at least 300 acres.

All the residents were evacuated, and three homes were deemed uninhabitable, according to the TVA.
The TVA’s initial estimate for the spill tripled from 1.8 million cubic yards, or more than 360 million gallons of sludge, to 5.4 million cubic yards, or more than 1 billion gallons.

The waste sludge from the spill has to go somewhere. Some of it was slated to go to Pennsylvania, but the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rejected it. As stated by DEP Secretary John Hanger:

This ash material was accidentally released from a disposal impoundment and mixed with unknown materials in the river water and bottom sediment. DEP only certifies coal ash for mine reclamation in Pennsylvania that is not contaminated with other materials and can meet our stringent chemical requirements.

But while the toxic ash won’t be going north to Pennsylvania, it does seem like it will be headed south to Alabama and Georgia. Facing South, in their article Dumping in Dixie: TVA sends toxic coal ash to poor black communities in Georgia and Alabama, describes the communities that will be receiving this toxic trash:

Located in western Georgia’s Piedmont, Taylor County is an agricultural area where almost 41% of the population is African-American and more than 24% of residents live in poverty, according to census data. By comparison, the state is 30% black with 14.3% of its residents in poverty. In recent years, Taylor County gained notoriety as one of the last communities in the South to still hold racially segregated high-school proms.

Part of the historic “Black Belt,” Alabama’s Perry County is 69% African-American with more than 32% of its residents living in poverty, making it one of the poorest counties in the state, which is 26.5% black with 16.6% of its residents in poverty. In 1965, the killing of a black man by a white state trooper in Perry County sparked the Selma to Montgomery marches; last year the county landed in a more flattering spotlight when it voted to establish Barack Obama Day, a legal holiday to be held every second Monday of November.

I want to give a hat tip to Facing South and its publisher, the Institute for Southern Studies, for its work in publicizing this injustice.

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