EPA drops two investigations in Uniontown

Published 11:49 pm Tuesday, March 27, 2018

By: Adam Dodson

The United States Commission on Civil Rights has released a statement regarding their disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to drop two civil rights investigations in Uniontown regarding their coal ash landfill and the alleged intimidation factors used against unhappy residents.

In the civil rights complaints, Uniontown residents claim the coal ash has caused health and economic damages to the community. However, the EPA dropped the cases, saying that the evidence did not establish a case where disparate impact was done unto a group of people. Uniontown is a 90 percent African-American community.

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The members of Uniontown say that their property values have gone down, their air has been polluted and their health negatively affected, but yet nothing has been done. According to the Commission on Civil Rights, this is nothing new for the EPA.

“We, by majority vote, express our deep concern over the EPA’s recent decision to dismiss two Uniontown civil rights investigations without violation findings. Sadly, these dismissals continue the EPA’s disturbing and longstanding track record of not making a formal finding of discrimination or not denying or withdrawing financial assistance from a recipient for civil rights violations,” the Civil Rights Commission’s statement read.

If found in violation of civil rights laws and regulations, it is the EPA’s obligation to step in by making a formal finding of violation and restricting funds to their lower enforcement agencies, such as the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Yet, the EPA found no solid connection between the coal ash and Uniontown’s grievances, so ADEM has remained unscathed.

Also in their statement, The Commission on Civil Rights mentioned a 2016 Statutory Enforcement Report, which disclosed various details of the EPA’s history of delaying findings and denying complaints and also established the connection between coal ash and community damages.

According to member of the Environmental Justice Clinic for Yale Law, Claudia Wack, the 2016 report closely resembles what is going on with the two complaints and other concerns filed by Uniontown.

According to the report, health and environmental concerns exist with coal ash. It says that heavy metals exist in the coal ash, containing 15 different types of toxic pollutants which could cause cancer or other health problems. Furthermore, the report claims that “hazardous contaminants leach from coal ash dumps into groundwater” and has contaminated up to 200 bodies of water in America.

The report also provided examples of the negative effects coal ash has caused on communities. In 2005, a coal ash dam breakage released over 100 million gallons of the material into the Delaware River, which took four days to contain.

In 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash burst through a dike in Kingston, Tennessee, covering 300 acres of land and destroying 40 homes, polluting the Emory River and causing an estimated $3 billion in economic damages. Soon after this, Uniontown inherited this same coal ash from the predominately-white community.

Wack, who has talked to Uniontown residents frequently throughout this process, says that the EPA decision was an unfortunate one, but something they were prepared for.

“I would say we are disappointed, but not necessarily surprised. We were always aware the decision may not go our way,” Wack said.

Moving forward, Wack says that they are considering different options, but have not made any final decision over where to go from here. The complainants now have the option to legally challenge the EPA decisions, but Wack states that the appeals process is an “uphill battle.”

The Commission on Civil Rights will continue to be involved in the situation, but have concerns that the EPA is getting worse.

“We will continue to monitor the EPA’s enforcement of federal civil rights statutes, and find this is yet another distressing step in the wrong direction for the agency.”

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Environmental Justice Clinic are involved in the civil rights complaints. Updates on the legal situation will be provided as needed.