This is a story that deserves more attention. Coal ash from a catastrophic spill in Kingston, Tennessee is being sent to several rural landfills in neighboring states, with 60% of the toxic slurry headed for a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. Uniontown is a rural community with nearly half of the population living below the federal poverty line. The environmental practices of the landfill are flawed, endangering the health of residents. Ask yourself the obvious question - why did toxic waste from a power plant spill in Tennessee wind up in the backyard of a poor community 350 miles away in Alabama?
The disaster in Tennessee
Here is a brief synopsis. On December 22, 2008, an unlined retention pond holding a billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry failed and created the largest toxic waste spill in United States history. Coal ash varies in toxicity depending on the coal composition and combustion process, but the ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant is known to have high levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, barium, selenium, and chromium. Cleanup is expected to cost more than $1 billion dollars and is expected to take at least 5 years to complete.
Here is a brief video documenting the immediate effects of the spill on the surrounding area.
A longer documentary of the spill aftermath can be found here
An excellent photo essay related to the spill can be found here.
Fascinating before and after satellite images of spill site courtesy of NASA can be found here.
Environmental health and toxicology resource links related to the disaster can be found here.
Environmental Protection Agency documents, photographs, and other materials related to the Kingston spill and cleanup can be found here.
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Welcome to Uniontown, Alabama
Uniontown is a small rural community, due south of Nashville, and 350 miles by train from Kingston, Tennessee. It is predominantly African-American and has a high rate of poverty.
As of the census of 2000, there were 1,636 people, 617 households, and 433 families residing in the city.
The racial makeup of the city was 88.20% Black or African American and 11.80% White. 1.10% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
The median income for a household in the city was $12,386, and the median income for a family was $14,148. The per capita income for the city was $8,268. About 48.2% of families and 47.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 60.4% of those under age 18 and 31.9% of those age 65 or over.
Uniontown is located in Perry County, the poorest county in Alabama.
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According to the EPA, the decision to send the waste to Uniontown was based on the landfill's structure, capacity, cost and proximity to rail.
Several landfills in Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee were evaluated as part of the disposal options analysis. EPA agreed with the TVA selection of the Perry County Arrowhead Landfill near Uniontown, Alabama, based upon a number of reasons, including:
- The Arrowhead Landfill is a municipal solid waste landfill that is in compliance with all applicable federal and state environmental regulations and is permitted to accept waste materials such as coal ash;
- The Arrowhead Landfill meets and exceeds all technical requirements specified in EPA’s order with TVA in that it is constructed with a compacted clay composite liner, a polyethylene geomembrane liner, a leachate collection system, a protective cover and a 100-foot buffer that surrounds the property. The landfill also conducts regular groundwater monitoring;
- The Arrowhead Landfill has the capacity to accommodate the volume of coal ash anticipated to be disposed of in the landfill and prevailed in a competitive bidding process; and
- Norfolk Southern has a direct rail line from the TVA facility to the Arrowhead Landfill. The benefits of rail transport greatly outweighed those of truck transport including reducing potential vehicle accidents, greater fuel efficiency of rail cars versus trucks, and avoiding burdens on local traffic and roads.
On the surface, the decision seems defensible from an environmental standpoint, although it is difficult to believe that there are not other equally suitable sites much closer to Kingston. Notice that siting decision was made by the TVA, not the EPA ("EPA agreed with the TVA selection of the Perry County Arrowhead Landfill"). The residents of Uniontown were not given the opportunity for public comment before the agreement was finalized. It is clear that a poor community in the poorest county in Alabama has limited resources to have fought the decision. It is also clear that this community lacks the resources to deal with adverse consequences and to fight for strict compliance.
Let me give you a bit of history to buttress the point. Many irresponsible environmental toxic waste practices have been aimed at poor, especially poor African-American, communities under the jurisdiction of Region 4 of the EPA (which covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee)..
Nearly four decades of Region 4 harmful and discriminatory decisions have turned too many black communities into the dumping grounds, lowering nearby residents' property values, stealing their wealth, and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks.
Adding to my suspicion about the targeting of Uniontown for the toxic waste is the following.
Six years later, in 2006, Perry County's Uniontown residents fought the Arrowhead Landfill. However, without national support, Perry County residents were not able to stop the landfill from being built and permitted.
Ask yourself why a very large landfill with rail off-loading facilities was built in a sparsely populated county outside of Birmingham. Ask yourself why that landfill included double-lined containment construction typically used for toxic wastes to prevent leaching of contaminants into soil and groundwater. You might be tempted to think this site was built with the potential to handle something like coal combustion waste from the area's coal-fired power plants. (There are five coal-fired plants operated by Alabama Power Company within a 100-mile radius of Uniontown.)
From the Arrowhead Landfill website.
Arrowhead Landfill is designed and permitted to be one of the largest commercial landfills in the United States. The site is permitted to receive a maximum of 15,000 tons per day of MSW, C&D, Industrial and Special Residual wastes from all states east of the Mississippi River, those states bordered by the Mississippi River, and Texas.
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One piece of the EPA Region 4 announcement about the Arrowhead Landfill caught my eye.
Landfill management and the groundwater monitoring program are overseen by the Alabama
Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).
ADEM will ensure proper disposal of the coal ash at the Arrowhead Landfill. Regular monitoring of the landfill takes place in accordance with RCRA guidelines and regulations, and both the Arrowhead Landfill and ADEM are responsible for regular monitoring.
The ADEM was given sole oversight responsibility for coal ash disposal at Arrowhead Landfill. The ADEM has history of failure to inspect, test, and enforce state and national environmental laws. Conservation and environmental justice groups have fighting lax oversight and enforcement for many years. Many of those groups had complained to the EPA about the performance of ADEM. Here is a sample of those complaints.
State conservation groups are asking the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency to assume Alabama’s regulatory authority over the federal Clean Water Act, charging that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is failing to enforce provisions of the act.
ADEM is accused of failing to issue penalties for pollution violations as required under federal law, failing to respond to complaints and information from citizen whistle-blowers and inspecting only 20 percent of large permit holders in 2009. Federal law requires that all of the major permit holders be inspected annually.
Environmental attorney David Ludder for the ADEM Reform Coalition and Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper Mike Mullen each gave compelling presentations about weak enforcement at in ADEM’s NPDES and stormwater programs during the August 21 meeting of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission. However, their presentations were met with resistance from ADEM Director Trey Glenn, calling the claims of lax enforcement as “insulting and offensive to the department’s 600 employees to suggest that they’re somehow not doing their job.”
Mullen gave a pictorial display of chronic stormwater violations in the Choctawhatchee watershed. Some pictures were dated 2008, while others were from earlier in the year. Director Glenn responded that the information was out of date and if someone visited those sites today, you would see a much different picture. Mullen has provided more recent pictures to the Director since August 21’s presentation revealing the sites discussed are still in violation.
Until his resignation two months ago, ADEM was run by Onis "Trey" Glenn III. Before being appointed to head ADEM, Glenn was the Office of Water Resources director and frequently cited for water use policies favorable to business interests. After being selected to head ADEM in 2005, inspection and enforcement became virtually non-existent. He was also under scrutiny for ethics violations for much of his tenure, including accepting gifts and favors from Alabama Power Company, his former employer before becoming a public servant. He also made the strange decision to buy a private jet for his use out of the ADEM budget which was already facing shortfalls.
Manna from heaven dropped in Glenn's lap in May of 2009. As part of the oversight deal for the dumping of Kingston coal ash at the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, the ADEM was given $1.05 per ton tipping fee. Since over 3 million tons of coal waste were targeted for Arrowhead, the deal was a welcome infusion of cash for ADEM. In fact, the Arrowhead deal more than covered the cost of the jet that was creating so much unwelcome attention.
It is difficult to believe that the lax enforcement history by ADEM under Glenn was not a factor in the selection of the Uniontown dump site by the TVA to send the Kingston spill waste. It is equally difficult to believe that the Region 4 EPA could not have anticipated lax oversight given the reputation of the ADEM under Glenn.
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The coal waste from the Kingston spill is handled with care. Loving care. The dredged material is loaded on trucks, which are washed and covered. It is then loaded on rail cars and wrapped in plastic ("burrito bags") and sent to the Arrowhead Landfill. Very, very tidy.
Upon arrival at the Arrowhead Landfill, the handling of the coal ash waste becomes a serious issue. In an expose' written for the Tuscaloosa News, environmental activist John Walthen described handling of the Kingston spill waste ash as follows.
The ash is being layered in with the garbage and left in the weather to soak up any rain that might fall, as well as the leachate created by the garbage. The water that remains in the ash is the same water we tested in Kingston and found to be full of arsenic and other heavy metals. The ash water, garbage liquids and rain are creating an enormous amount of toxic leachate that is trapped in the landfill until removed by the leachate collection system. Because of the unprecedented amount of water produced at the landfill, the system has been overtaxed and cannot handle the amount of this mixture being produced.
The leachate created by this toxic mix was then sent by truck to nearby Marion. There it was dumped into an open sewer lagoon and mixed with municipal sewage, within a few hundred feet of residents' homes there. The smell emanating from it wafted throughout the community and made people sick.
That is after full treatment at the wastewater facility run by Marion. None of the treatment facilities in the area were set up or approved to treat water contaminated by heavy metals. The arsenic dumped into the lagoon is flowing straight through into Rice Creek, a tributary of the Cahaba River. Even as far as 1.5 miles downstream, we found arsenic levels to exceed standards deemed safe by the EPA.
While the Arrowhead Landfill met the technical requirements to handle toxic waste, it was not designed to handle the large volume of water-laden slurry rapidly coming from the Kingston spill. Thanks to complaints from residents, the EPA stopped the leachate from being sent to Marion. The lucrative shipments (for the landfill owners) were still coming in from Tennessee, but now the accumulated contaminated water threatened to overflow containment, which would have shut down the project if discovered. The landfill owners decided to cut corners.
With the shipments of ash still coming in and no place to remove the leachate, what happened next surprised even me. I went to the landfill to investigate a photo I had taken earlier on July 13, 2009. It looked like a pond with hoses in it and a culvert leading from it directly into the Perry County 1 roadside ditch. The photo shows a quantity of ash collected in one corner, with the road wet all around the pond. When I arrived at the location in November, I was struck by the sight of a white ditch with standing reddish water, similar to mine waste. A sample taken there later showed arsenic at 0.007 mg/l, exceeding EPA standards.
Interviews with resident confirmed many of my suspicions. One lady stated that the smell was worse at night. She later stated that the smell was much worse at night “when they are pumping their water out.” Many residents also told of seeing the ditches run white with landfill waste and the smell that accompianed it.
Based on the lady's comment about nighttime pumping, I went to the landfill on Dec. 15 after dark, just after a rain. The smell was overpowering, and the ditch was full of a white slimy substance that was coming from the landfill. I followed the flow up to where it came out of the landfill and took samples (results are not available yet.) I then followed the flow further until I found what I was looking for. A high-volume pump was set up to pump out leachate that had accumulated in the haul road ditch during the day. The pump was still warm to the touch and the hoses were weighed down to direct the outflow to the roadside after flowing through the landfill muck a distance of several hundred feet. I will never forget that stench.
When thwarted in sending the contaminated water (leachate) to the local sewage treatment plant, the landfill owners pumped it outside the lined containment areas to areas where it would contaminate soil and groundwater. Fortunately, Walthen and others were paying attention. By threatening legal action, the landfill owners were forced to find another solution. They contracted with a wastewater processing company in Mobile, Alabama, called Liquid Environmental Solutions. The leachate was treated and discharged into the Mobile sewage treatment where it was released in Mobile Bay. However, concerned citizens got in the way again.
In a statement, the Dallas-based Liquid Environmental Solution’s senior vice president, Dana King, said the shipments have been stopped “due to local concerns” because “some people are up in arms” even though the company has “properly accepted, tested and treated the non-hazardous Perry County landfill wastewater.”
With public complaints and several lawsuits against the owners of the Arrowhead Landfill filed for environmental violations, the owners declared bankruptcy on January 25, 2010. That filing will not stop the ash from coming in, but will stop the lawsuits from going forward, not to mention slow payments to Perry County for use of the landfill (the county is supposed to receive 3 million dollars as the "host county fee") and to the State of Alabama for sales tax revenues. The bankruptcy filing raises many questions.
First, the owners of the landfill are listed as Perry County Associates and Perry Uniontown Ventures. When the local paper decided to investigate the ownership of those companies after the bankruptcy filing, they found a murky mixture of real estate investment firms, trusts, and associated other ill-defined partners. I find it troubling that a large landfill permitted to accept to toxic industrial wastes is owned by "murky" shell companies.
Besides halting legal action against the facility’s owners, the bankruptcy proceedings help to reveal the complicated nature of the landfill’s business organization. Rather than a single business venture, the landfill is the product of many large and small corporations and limited liability companies, along with a large group of loosely connected personalities whose level of involvement with the project at any given time is often murky.
Second, why did the U.S. EPA, Region 4 EPA, and ADEM sign off on the use of the Arrowhead Landfill for disposing coal ash waste from the Kingston spill when its ownership (and legal liability) is so difficult to trace? Cashiers at your local WalMart undergo more scrutiny than the ownership of the Arrowhead Landfill received before the disposal contract was awarded. Or perhaps vague liability was considered an advantage by the agencies responsible for protecting the public.
Third, what is the precise relationship between the TVA, the Arrowhead Landfill owners, and Knoxville construction and consulting firm Phillips and Jordan? Phillips and Jordan received 95 million dollars from TVA for contracts related to Kingston spill cleanup. The landfill owners retained Phillips and Jordan and Phill-Con Services (a Phillips and Jordan subsidiary) to build out and operate the landfill, apparently before the spill. The landfill owners claim they were not paid by Phillips and Jordan for use fees related to the coal ash disposal.
Perry-Uniontown Venture I’s bankruptcy filings also reveal the creditors holding the 20 largest unsecured claims against it. While PUV’s complaint claims Phillips and Jordan and Phill-Con Services are withholding large sums of money they owe the landfill owners, filings reveal that P&J and Phill-Con are also two of the firm’s largest creditors. According to filings, Phillips and Jordan holds a $4 million lein against PUV, and Phill-Con Services is owed $2.5 million in trade debt from the landfill owners.
It is amazing how a coal ash spill in Tennessee has been able to pollute so many waterways.
Eight river systems have come in contact with the disaster ash. The Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers flow into the Mississippi. The disaster ash is literally being railroaded into the Perry County community. The landfill lies in the Chilatchee and Tayloe Creek watersheds and flows into the Alabama River. Leachate from the landfill was being shipped to Marion, where it was discharged into the Cahaba River Basin. It is being trucked into Demopolis, where it goes to the Tombigbee River that flows into the Mobile River. That adds up to 8 rivers with two separate entries to the Gulf of Mexico. It is spreading through our rivers like cancer flows through the blood steam.
Love that "clean" coal. 130 million tons of coal combustion waste is produced in the United States for our enjoyment and enrichment every year. Cheers.