Many Communities Don’t Have the Complexion for Protection

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Charlie Powell in Birmingham, Alabama has waited since 2005 for action from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Instead he gets the run around. Why? Because like so many other communities that we work with they are poor and African American. They have the wrong complexion for real protection.
Instead of stopping the air emissions of an industrial coke plant or properly cleaning up the contaminated soils throughout the community EPA and health authorities gave each family a piece of paper. It included a list of things they should do, not the polluter, to avoid exposures to chemicals in their air and backyard soils.
“Undress the children at the doorway so any chemical that gets onto their clothes and shoes will not be tracked into the home.” Really. Every teenager wants to strip down to their underclothing at the front door in front of their brother, sister and entire family.
If you are a vulnerable person like a pregnant woman or asthmatic child, the recommendation was, “don’t inevitably breathe the air or come in contact with the soil.” I guess that means hold your breath while outdoors.
EPA’s also concluded that, “past and current exposure to arsenic found in surface soil of some residential yards could harm people’s health. Children are especially at risk.”
Now if this was a white, middle- or high-income neighborhood do you think that the actions or lack of them with such strong health risk conclusions would be treated the same? I don’t.
The site consists of an area of lead, arsenic, and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)-contaminated soil from multiple possible sources, including nearby facility smoke stack emissions and coke oven battery emissions, as well as from possible flooding along Five Mile Creek. The 35th Avenue site and surrounding area include two coke oven plants, asphalt batch plants, pipe manufacturing facilities, steel producing facilities, quarries, coal gas holder and purification system facility, and the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
Clearly, the North Birmingham community has the wrong complexion for protection.
But they are not alone. In Uniontown, AL a very similar story is playing out.
Uniontown is 30 miles west of Selma, and is home to families that are 84% African American, almost half of whom live under the poverty level. Despite its proximity to a town famous for its civil rights marches, families still feel very much tied to its past. Many residents know which plantations enslaved their great-grandparents, and people as young as 50 remember growing up with sharecropper parents and no running water or toilets. Uniontown’s polluters include a massive landfill next to the historic black cemetery that started accepting coal ash after a spill of the waste in Tennessee. There’s the pungent odor from a cheese plant that has released its waste into a local creek and then there’s the waste water from the catfish processing plant, which contributes to an overwhelmed sewage system that spills fecal matter into local waterways.
People are afraid to drink their water.
A local farmer, Alex Jones, takes people on a tour pointing out the runoff from the cheese factory. “See that, that looks like a lake, it’s runoff.” It’s not only ugly but stinks. A leader of a Riverkeeper group described it as, “one of the worst smells ever. The smell is so putrid you immediately start dry heaving. It makes your body involuntarily try to throw up.”
Again, this would not be the situation in a middle class, higher income area as they have the complexion and income for government’s protection.
When asked why the families don’t move away from Uniontown, Phyllis from the local community group Black Belt Citizens said, “We don’t give up because the end result is to run us off the land and make the entire community a landfill. So what are your choices?”
The American Public Health Journal study published in April found that black people are more burdened by air pollution than any other group, even when taking poverty into account. And the agency has taken years or even decades to respond to all complaints.
EPA has faced criticism on civil rights issues around a number of contaminated sites in the state. Earlier this year, the agency denied Uniontown’s environmental racism complaint.
Today with the hurricanes and associated record rains, innocent families across the south will be in more danger than ever before from widespread contamination from coal ash, industrial run off, pig manure, and yes, even putrid smelling cheese factory waste. Such communities need protection that is equal to that of white and higher income families.
Water doesn’t stay still. Air doesn’t stay still. Nor are the families in contaminated communities willing to stay still. They are fighters as they have everything to lose – their land, their health and the future for their families. I’m proud and honored to stand with them and continue to fight for justice and invite you to join us.

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