EPA closes Uniontown investigations

Published 11:22 am Saturday, March 10, 2018

By Adam Dodson | The Selma Times-Journal

Residents of Uniontown are condemning a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding complaints against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), an EPA affiliate, when they chose to close two civil rights investigations.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Environmental Justice Clinic for Yale Law are involved in the civil rights complaints.

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The first complaint dealt with what is known as a “prima facie case of discrimination based on disparate impact,” meaning harm caused to an individual or society due to discriminatory practices based on race, sex or other factors. This legal complaint was filed in relation to the four million tons of coal ash being shipped from Kingston, Tennessee, a white, middle-class city, and deposited in Arrowhead Landfill located in Uniontown, a rural, low-income community with a 90 percent African-American population.

Residents and those representing Uniontown claim that the landfill’s presence and alleged negligible maintenance has caused health risks, environmental destruction and financial harm to the city. The civil rights complaint was filed to the EPA against ADEM.

After the first suit was filed, Uniontown filed another suit claiming intimidation practices were used upon them to halt them from protesting the presence of the landfill and environmental shortcomings of its conservation. The residents also claim a historical black cemetery in the area has been destroyed by heavy equipment associated with the landfill being transported right through the site.

The city says that it being an African-American community makes it an easy target for mistreatment and apathy towards environmental issues, and that the ultimate fallout has had detrimental effects. Not only is the negligence causing harm, they say, but some also think the EPA and ADEM know about it.

“I believe the EPA knows what is going on. You have evidence that shows what’s happening. We have coal ash in the air. We have pests in our homes because the landfill is not fenced in properly,” said Esther Calhoun, Uniontown citizen and member of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. “This goes on in every poor community. All these problems are happening in a small area. We are human beings too.”

Despite what residents believe is irrefutable evidence, the EPA announced on March 5 that they have decided to close the two civil rights complaints, to the dismay of the city, the ACLU and Yale Law.

The EPA announced this decision alongside a 20-plus page “Closure of Complaint” document detailing the rationalization behind their decision. According to the document, there are four facets needed to establish an adverse disparate impact in a prima facie case:

The identification of the specific policy or practice at issue, for example, the transportation of a large amount of material known to have health or environmental risks.

The proof and establishment of harm or adversity caused by this action, for example, claims that health issues have arisen from the landfill and property values have sunken due to the landfill’s presence.

The proof and establishment of the disparate impact on a group of people, for example, claims that ADEM knowingly allowed a large amount of potentially harmful material to be transported from a predominantly white area to a predominately black area.

Establishing the connection between the harms in the civil rights complaint and the party the complainant claims is responsible, for example, proving that ADEM knowingly allowed faulty environmental practices, and that this is truly what has caused these issues.

Despite what representatives of Uniontown believe was a legitimate case for both complaints, the EPA deemed that “the record evidence does not establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on disparate impact.”

In addition to this finding, the EPA also found that no better alternatives to the action were available or known to ADEM, which is required by ADEM if a safer alternate was present in a situation with “substantial justification.”

To Claudia Wack, member of Yale Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic, the decision by the EPA was an unwelcome one. According to Wack and previous reports from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the EPA has a longstanding history of doing nothing when it comes to possible civil rights shortcomings.

“There is a troubled history with the EPA regarding civil rights complaints. One civil rights organization says the EPA has never once found any case with discrimination,” said Wack. “The landfill is not isolated from where people live and travel. We went to the EPA hoping that they would take money away from ADEM, which is their obligation, but they did not.”

The EPA, a federal organization, gives out funds to their state affiliates, and all these affiliates must comply with the EPA’s rules and regulations, including policies surrounding nondiscrimination. If a state affiliate, such as ADEM, did not comply with any policy regarding nondiscrimination, the EPA would be compelled to penalize, or threaten to penalize, the affiliate for noncompliance.

Although the recent ruling seems to end any hopes of a civil rights complaint succeeding for Uniontown against ADEM, Wack says they have not exhausted all their options just yet.t.“We are still looking at further legal action. We are keeping up the good fight.”

The announcement of the findings came from the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, known as ECRCO. It is unknown what maintenance will be done to restore the historical black cemetery, or if other organizations plan to bring suits against ADEM.