“I firmly believe that the TVA, ADEM, EPA and Perry County Commission have teamed up to present a willful campaign of misinformation designed to facilitate the placement of this toxic mess in an environmental justice community where they thought the people were either too dumb or too poor to protest loudly,” Hurricane Creekkeeper John L. Wathen wrote in a Tuscaloosa News editorial published Sunday, Jan. 3. The “toxic mess” he’s referring to is coal ash from a Kingston, Tenn., plant that had a dam failure on Dec. 22, 2008, causing more than a million cubic yards of ash to flood into the Emory River. The “community” Wathen refers to is Uniontown, in Perry County, Ala., which is where the coal ash is being shipped for disposal in a landfill.
Wathen’s account of the aftermath of the Kingston disaster and the effects the ash is having on the mostly black, mostly poor Black Belt town it’s being stored in is a stunning portrayal of our government’s failure to respond adequately or transparently to an environmental disaster of catastrophic proportions.
Within days of the disaster, while the Tennessee Valley Authority was assuring folks that the ash posed no threat, Wathen says he and several fellow riverkeepers floated the Emory River to take samples of the ash. On the river Wathen encountered mounds of ash (cleverly, he called them “ash-bergs”) as tall as a house sitting in the riverbed. The samples Wathen took revealed that water at the site were “found to contain about 300 times the allowable limits of arsenic.”
Wathen documents many trips he’s taken to the Uniontown landfill where the ash is collected, and the samples he’s taken around the open sewer lagoon in Marion that houses the wastewater leachate (which is transported to Marion after being collected from the ash at the landfill). He found abnormally high levels of ammonia and arsenic in the water, and a pungent stench that caused headaches, nausea and vomiting among those accompanying Wathen.
“It became apparent that the Marion Lagoon was failing in a huge way,” Wathen wrote.
His story continues in great detail, and includes surveys as recent as December. Without risking cribbing too much from the editorial, we urge you to check out the story online here.