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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Foul Home, Alabama

March 2010  businessalabama  /  17










Fifteen months after the spill,
Alabama is paying the environmental price of cleaning
up TVA’s monumental mess in Kingston, Tenn. last year.
No matter the revenue stream flowing to Perry County
government, the outfall is choking Perry County residents
and continuing downstream to Mobile Bay.  
By Glynn Wilson • Photos by John L. Wathen

Ruby Holmes has lived all of her 80
years in the same house in Perry
County, in Alabama’s Black Belt
region. When a landfill was proposed on
land across the street from her house in
2004, she was one of a group of residents
who opposed the permit. But after the
county commission supported the dump
and a local lawsuit failed to stop it, she
accepted the inevitable.
The inevitable, she thought, meant
living next to a solid waste landfill — a
garbage dump. But Holmes had no idea
how far beyond the inevitable things
would go.
A retaining wall failed on the
Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal fired
power plant in Kingston, Tenn. three
days before Christmas in 2008, and the
spill of impounded coal ash created one
of the worst environmental disasters in
U.S. history. Cleanup of the sludge in the
Emory River in Tennessee raised the next
question: Where to dump it? And the
landfill next door to Holmes became a
quick answer to the big problem.
Within four months, the TVA received
approval to ship the coal sludge 300 miles
south — as the buzzard flies — to the
Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County.
All her life, Holmes says, she has grown
a garden in the dark, rich soil that gave
the Black Belt its name. But after the coal
waste started arriving next door — about
85 rail car loads a day — and after watching
the buzzards from the landfill defecating
in her yard, she says she’s stopped eating
vegetables from her garden. She also has
noticed a bad smell in her well water, “an
old smell like it has been sitting there for a
long time,” she says. “This odor wakes me
up at night. It smells like some kind of gas.
It gets all through my house and smells like
rotten eggs. I’m very concerned about my
health. I’m breathing this stuff. It’s going
into my lungs.”

Holmes used to enjoy a cup of coffee on
the front porch in the morning. Now, she
says, it is

“not much of a life at all. Nobody
listens.”


Fifteen months after the spill, residents
of the relatively affluent area near the
disaster are hiring lawyers and suing the
TVA, and the media chronicles their
complaints, at least in Tennessee.
Down in Alabama it’s a different story.
No story, actually, as far as the media is
concerned. And the only refuge for the
residents is to stay holed up in their homes.
In the winter, they run their air conditioners
to filter the air. They feel walled off from
both the media and their own elected
officials. County commissioners have taken
refuge in the $3.5 million in annual tipping
fees.
“I sleep well at night knowing we’ve
got coal ash in the ground and cash in the
bank,” County Commission Chairman
Albert Turner Jr. told the Knoxville News.
U.S. Rep. Artur Davis says he
sympathizes with both the revenue-starved
local officials and the coal industry.
“I am more than sympathetic that the
storage of industrial waste is a job source
in high unemployment counties like Perry
and that the county will benefit from tax revenues generated by this storage,” Davis
says. “I am also mindful that the storage
violates no current state or federal law,
and that a reclassification of coal ash as
hazardous could pose significant burdens
on coal-reliant industries.”
Current Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) policy for enforcing the
Clean Air Act specifically excludes from
the category of hazardous waste the fly ash
of coal-fired power plants.
Critics of the EPA policy say coal
ash contains high levels of toxic waste,
including radioactive and carcinogenic
compounds, such as arsenic, chromium,
lead, mercury, thorium and uranium. They
claim the cancer risk to the elderly and
children who drink water contaminated
with arsenic from coal combustion
waste is 900 times higher than EPA’s
recommended level of risk.
Those were among the stipulations
in a lawsuit environmental defense
attorney David Ludder planned to file in
December. The complaint called on the
EPA and the Alabama Department of
Environmental Management to reclassify
coal ash as toxic, requiring disposal in a
hazardous waste landfill.
Just days before a mandatory 60-day
notice was up on the filing of Ludder’s
suit, owners of the Arrowhead Landfill
filed for bankruptcy protection in federal
court in Mobile. The bankruptcy filing
automatically stays or prevents any new
lawsuits from being filed against the
company, Ludder says. Attorneys for the
landfill owners, Perry Uniontown Ventures
I, claim in their bankruptcy filing that
the landfill operator has failed to make
payments or to provide an accounting
of the funds. The operator, Phillips &
Jordan Inc., a Tennessee company with
a long history of working for the TVA,
says revenues have failed to cover costs.
Meanwhile, owners and operators say the
landfill operations will go on.
Even if the waste is not classified as
hazardous, landfills that accept the waste
must still manage the liquid waste in a
responsible manner, which is not being
done, says John Wathen, an environmental
activist in Tuscaloosa, who is one of
the few who have taken up the cause of
the Perry County residents around the
Arrowhead Landfill.
Wathen took the lead in December
publicizing contamination of local sewer
systems resulting from the Arrowhead
coal ash impoundment. That problem
stems from the nature of the spill material
when it reaches Arrowhead — a sludge
that is as much as 30 percent water when
it is shipped in plastic-lined train cars.
The liquid state keeps debris from
becoming airborne on its train ride, but
after arrival and separation, the left over
leachate has to be disposed of also. Glynn
Wilson, in the alternative independent
news website, The Locust Fork News-
Journal, broke the story that leachate
Ruby Holmes, a Perry County resident who lives
close to the Arrowhead Landfill says, “I’m very
concerned about my health. I’m breathing this
stuff. It’s going into my lungs.”
was being dumped into a sewer system
lagoon in the city of Marion, Perry
County’s county seat — a sewer system
that already was overrun with waste from
a local cheese factory. Wathen published
his account in December in his blog
Creekkeeperblogspot.com.
The lagoon disposal was halted and
landfill company managers and county
officials say they have been negotiating
deals for other sewer systems in nearby
communities. But few takers have stepped
forward, with the exception of a sewer
system in Demopolis.
Jackie Fike, who lives near the treatment
plant and lagoon in Marion where some
of the wastewater from the landfill was
dumped, says his wife is now forced to stay
inside on oxygen most of the time.
“We hardly have a bird now,” Fike says.
“This stuff is about to kill a lot of fish, a lot
of people.”
Attorney Ludder says, “The
unfortunate thing all around is that the
government that was supposed to protect
the people, once again, is not doing it. And
the people have to face the consequences.”
Wathan says the Kingston coal ash “has
now come into contact with eight river
systems.” In Tennessee, waste went into the
Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers, which
run into the Mississippi. When the ash is
impounded in the Arrowhead Landfill,
waste can drain to the Alabama River
then to the Tombigbee River. The leachate
created by the wet ash was trucked to
Marion, Ala. where it was discharged into
Rice Creek and other streams that flow
into the Cahaba River. Now, since some of
the liquid is being trucked to Demopolis,
Wathen says, it too ends up discharged
into the Tombigbee River, which ends up
flowing into the Mobile River.
“Just like the cancer it carries with
it,” Wathen says, “this ash has impacted
people in places who have never heard
of Kingston, Tennessee, destroying their
quality of life and peace of mind.”
This is an opinion piece by Glynn Wilson,
who is a freelance writer, editor and publisher
of the alternative independent news website,
Locust Fork News-Journal, located on the
Web at LocustFork.Net. The photographs were
provided by John L. Wathen of Hurricane
Creekkeeper.

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