Uniontown is not getting fair treatment

Published 10:26 pm Friday, March 11, 2016

By Esther Calhoun
Esther was born and raised in Uniontown.

Last week, many gathered to celebrate Jubilee Weekend, commemorating the historic Bloody Sunday March, that led to the voting rights we have today.

On March 7 1965, civil rights activists were horribly beaten by state troopers on the march when they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on their way to Montgomery to demand voting rights for black people.

Black communities and elected representatives at all levels, from city councils and statehouses, to President Barack Obama, will forever be indebted to those who endured the firehoses, the dogs, the bombings that happened when black people confronted power.

Freedom is not free. People had to pay a price. And freedom can be taken unless we keep up the fight to maintain it.  I ask you, how far have we come in 50 years?

In recent decades, we’ve seen some progress start slipping away. School districts in the South that desegregated in the decades following the Brown v. Board of Education have become segregated once again. And predominately black schools lack the funds they need to give their children equal opportunities. Fifty-three percent of black children in the South go to schools where nine out of 10 children are black, according to a ProPublica report. In 1972, only 25 percent were attending highly segregated schools.

The voting rights we fought so hard for, no longer have the same protection because the U.S. Supreme Court has weakened the protection from the Voting Rights Act that prevented voting districts from changing rules and policies in ways that weaken the ability of black people to vote.

We must unite and fight for voting rights and fight against the forces that resegregate us.

There’s another area of discrimination that we have not paid enough attention to and that’s the environmental burdens that leaves black communities with more landfills, power plants and refineries that no one wants.

The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice have been battling for years to protect our community, Uniontown, from the Arrowhead landfill and its toxic waste, coal ash.

Coal ash is what remains when coal is burned in power plans to generate electricity and it contains arsenic, mercury, lead and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of them toxic. From July 2009-December 2010, over 4 million tons of toxic coal ash was dumped in Uniontown, which is nearly 90 percent black, following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history when one billion gallons of coal ash burst through a dam on December 22, 2008, in Kingston, Tennessee. The U.S. has over 1,000 coal ash sites, some sitting along rivers, upstream from public drinking supplies and stored in landfills — most of them located in predominantly low-income communities. There are already over 200 contaminated water sources in the U.S. alone due to this toxic waste.

We never wanted this landfill or toxic waste and then we were forced to live with the after-effects of the dust, the smells, the water issues and decreasing property values. People began spending less time outdoors because they feared getting sick. We worried about eating vegetables from our gardens and letting our kids play outside. We wondered if the illnesses, including nerve conditions, were related to coal ash toxins. We were not getting any answers from the landfill or the responsible state agency.

In 2011 and 2012, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) allowed the modification of the permit for the landfill to grow in size and capacity without adding any further protections for community’s public health and environmental quality, and that’s why we filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights.  Under the Title VI section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any agency receiving federal money cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The EPA is investigating ADEM for discrimination as the state failed to protect our rights during the landfill’s permitting. The landfill over-burdens us. Why must we dump toxins on our neighbors?

We have too many problems and too much pollution in Uniontown. We already have one of the world’s largest catfish processing plants, an industrial cheese factory and a decades-old failing sewage lagoon all within 1-2 miles of the downtown area and public school, which was the all black school during segregation. We feel that more than just our civil rights are being violated. Where is our ability to pursue liberty and happiness?

Last month, I traveled to Washington D.C. to share our testimony of living with toxic coal ash and environmental injustices with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. They are creating a report, named the 2016 Enforcement Report, Environmental Justice: Toxic Materials, Poor Economies, and the Impact on the Environment of Low-Income, Minority Communities. And on March 31, they’re planning to visit Uniontown to see the problem firsthand and talk to residents.

Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice invite all to join us in Uniontown on March 31 as we demand equal rights and justice for all people. We will also send the message to stop the water runoff and leachate problems with the landfill; stop the trespass and desecration of the adjacent cemetery; no more coal ash to be dumped on anyone and stop the burning of coal; allow equal access of renewable energy to help generate jobs; enforce environmental laws; sand top the policies and practices that discriminate against the poor.

Our community should be treated with the same respect that any other community receives. After all, the right to fair and equal treatment was the basis of the civil rights movement. And, unfortunately, we are fighting for that same right today.