Emelle, Alabama: Home Of The Nation’s Largest Hazardous Waste Landfill.
Table Of Contents
|Map provided by the US Census Bureau
1978, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.,
purchased a landfill permit for a 300-acre tract of land near the village of
Emelle in the center of Sumter County, Alabama. In Sumter County, one of the country’s most impoverished regions,
one-third of the residents live below the poverty level. Over 65 percent of the
residents are Black and over 90 percent of the residents near the landfill in
Emelle are Black. Since acquiring the
landfill, Waste Management Inc. has dumped millions of tons of hazardous waste
on what was once lush farmland, creating the largest hazardous waste landfill
in the United States, and possibly the world.
Nearly 40 percent of the toxic waste disposed of nationwide between 1984
and 1987 under the federal Superfund removal program ended up at the landfill. The 2,700-acre landfill also sits directly
over the Eutaw Aquifer, which supplies water to a large part of Alabama
County is located in the heart of the Black belt soils region in western
Alabama. The Black belt was the center
of Alabama’s cotton plantation economy before the Civil War and Sumter County
was the major population center in the state.
Nearly half of the residents were slaves. Through sharecropping arrangements, cotton continued to be
produced which kept the Black population in a condition of poverty and
dependence. The Civil Rights Act of
1964 brought few immediate changes to the existing racial hierarchy. Schools
remained segregated until 1969, and at least one racially segregated
educational system still operates there today.
Challenges to white minority control in the county occurred for the
first time in the 1970s and Blacks were just being elected to public office in
1978 (Alley et al., 1995). Not only was
Sumter County going through great social upheaval during the time that the
hazardous waste industry arrived, but it was also undergoing a number of
significant demographic and economic changes.
Government and business elites were the primary players in affecting
land-use decisions and growth potentials.
Growth was stimulated in the area by the underemployed workforce, weak
labor unions, strong right-to-work laws, cheap labor, cheap land, and extremely
lenient environmental regulations. A
general theme in this region was the arrival of polluting industries into poor
minority communities with little input from local community leaders (Bullard,
industry used the argument of “jobs” for local residents to quell dissent by
any concerned citizens. The relatively
unknown environmental risks at the time were offered as unavoidable trade-offs
for jobs and a broadened tax base in economically depressed communities such as
Emelle. This industrial policy that
“any job is better than no job” may have been a major factor in the reasons
that local grassroots groups failed to stop polluting industries like Waste
Management Inc. from operating. Waste
Management Inc. and other industrial firms at these times tended to view the
black community as a “pushover, lacking community organization, environmental
consciousness, and having a strong and blind pro-jobs stance” (Bullard,
1990). Communities like Emelle were
exploited for these reasons and also because the residents of such impoverished
areas were intimidated by big corporations and deserted by local politicians
1977 a small company called Resource Industries Inc. purchased a 300-acre tract
of land just outside of Emelle in Sumter County. It seems that political ties allowed Resource Industries Inc. to
turn the 300 acres into a landfill. One
of the original owners, James Parsons, is the son in law of former Governor,
George Wallace. The political connections enabled the company to obtain the
necessary permits to operate the dump from the Health Department. In light of the Environmental Protection
Agency’s 1974 decision to nominate Sumter County as a possible hazardous waste
landfill site, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.
bought the permit from Resource Industries Inc. and expanded its operation to
consume 2700 acres (Alley, 1995).
in 1996, Resource Industries sued Chemical Waste Management for fraud and
misrepresentation and the Wallace crowd received $91 million while the
community received nothing (case No. 93-2343-H/V Mark Gregory, et al.,
Plaintiffs, vs. Chemical Waste Management, Inc.). The two companies were under no legal obligation to inform the
public about the arrival of the hazardous waste industry. This being the case, local residents of
Emelle and Sumter County did not have a chance to mobilize and protest against
such a facility. The local residents
did not realize the nature of the facility until it was already operating.
Chemical Waste Management is supported by key local leaders including locally
elected officials whose county commission, school board, and municipal budgets
were greatly increased by the company’s monthly payments of $5.00 for every ton
of waste buried in the county. These
user fee payments totaled approximately $20 million between 1978 and 1995 for
the county. Needless to say, the local
government bodies have become dependent on this money and officials responsible
for making budgets are not willing to criticize or challenge the company’s
policies (Alley, 1995). Residents, not wanting
to bite the hand that feeds them, were thus placed in a position where health
risks came second to jobs and government and business elites became the only
players affecting land-use decisions.
the opening of the facility in Emelle and prior to 1991, the dump has received
between 5 and 6 million tons of hazardous waste, according to activist Kaye
Kiker. At its peak, the company
received almost 800,000 tons of waste per year. Most of the waste came from 42 other states and military bases
overseas. The company has had on-site
fires, off-site water contamination, federal penalties for environmental
violations, reports of dumping of radioactive wastes without permits and the
unauthorized acceptance of dioxins (Cray, 1991). Workers at the facility, including at least one technical manager
resigned because of superiors ignoring complaints about inadequate waste
sampling and other practices that exposed workers to health hazards. Workers claim that the emphasis of the
company was to “hurry up and get it in the hole and cover it up regardless of
what it was” (Cray, 1991).
company has been accused of burying chemicals without waste location mapping
and adequate spacing, testing and inspecting of received containers. They have been noted for PCB violations
including cracks in storage floors, unmarked/dated containers and
spillage. Tests of wells, drainage
ditches and swamps outside of the landfill found indications that
cancer-causing PCBs have leached from the dump into water supplies.
problems at the facility include an accident in October 1984 producing a
reddish-brown cloud of acidic vapor containing sodium hydroxide that floated a
half-mile off site, a fire in April 1985 that prompted the evacuation of 180
workers, and a pipe that burst sending liquid waste onto adjacent
property. The company didn’t notify
officials of hazardous waste spills and did not implement contingency
plans. The corporation has also failed
to dispose of an undetermined amount of hazardous military DDT wastes (Ingersoll). Between 1983 and 1984, six off-site spills
occurred, and 12 onsite spills occurred, many involving PCBs. The list of violations and hazardous imports
goes on and the company also has a list of safety violations attached to leased
ships and trucks importing the waste (Cray, 1991).
Chemical Waste Management
Chemical Waste Management
Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., is the largest company in the
hazardous waste industry. Among the
landfill’s customers are America’s 10 largest companies, 159 military bases,
and other federal agencies (Cray, 1991).
The hazardous waste industry is motivated by the desire to establish and
obtain permits to operate treatment, disposal and storage facilities that
generate profits and revenue (Alley, 1995).
Aside from the hazardous waste management and radioactive waste services
in which the company is engaged in, its assets include more than 300 land
disposal sites, 16 trash to energy plants, more than 300 transfer stations and
over 1,400 collection facilities that provide recycling and waste collection
resources to thousands of communities.
The company serves more than 10 million residential customers and 1
million businesses nationally, and employs approximately 60,000 people. The company is now working on defining an
environmental image. It is
participating in projects such as the development of an electronics-recycling
program with Sony in Minnesota and introducing clean air trucks in San Diego. The corporation also has signed a cooperative
research and development agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency
to research and develop landfill bioreactor and biocover projects
Regulatory agencies share a
symbiotic relationship with the industry that may appear as an unfair or unjust
alliance to a community in close proximity to a hazardous waste landfill like
Emelle. State and Federal regulatory
agencies such as ADEM (Alabama Department of Environmental Management) and the
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) share a common goal with the
industry: to establish and permit
facilities that can handle the nation’s waste stream. However, their motivations are different. Regulatory agencies are responsible for
environmental protection and are mandated under the Resource Conservation and
Recovery Act (RCRA) to establish standards for hazardous waste management and
to issue permits to those who meet the standards (Alley, 1995).
Alabamians for a Clean
Alabamians for a Clean Environment (ACE) is a
grassroots environmental group in Alabama’s Black Belt region. The group formed with the intent to close
down Chemical Waste Management’s hazardous waste landfill located just outside
the town of Emelle in Sumter County.
The group formed in 1983, dissatisfied with a previous grassroots group,
Sumter Countians Organized for the Protection of the Environment (SCOPE). A few White women including lead activist
Kaye Kiker and their husbands formed the core of the group. They were mostly employed homeowners with
some record of family service in the county.
They were farmers, artists, professors and teachers, but they did not
consider themselves as part of the county as most of them distanced themselves
from the political and civil life of Sumter and Emelle (Alley et al., 1995).
County and the small village of Emelle are predominantly poor, African American
communities. According to 1990 census
data, the population of Sumter County is comprised of 16,174 residents. Of these, 46 are Asian or Pacific Islanders,
4770 are White and 11,358 are African American. The mean household income for Sumter County according to 1990
census data was $12,811.
above information is taken from Waste Management, INC: An Encyclopedia of Environmental Crimes and
to data provided by Charlie Cray in Waste
Management, INC: An Encyclopedia of
Environmental Crimes and Other Misdeeds, in 1989, ninety percent of the
residents in the village of Emelle were African American. The mean household income in Emelle,
according to 1989 census data, was $10,096.
above information is taken from Waste Management, INC: An Encyclopedia of Environmental Crimes and
Median Household Income in 1989
The above information
is taken from 1990 US Census Bureau State and County Quick Fact data.
to Chemical Waste Management in the form of grassroots groups came about in
1978, after a group of workers walked off the site because of unsafe working
conditions. In response to this, the
Minority Peoples Council, a Black organization headed by a local activist
organized and attracted the first local and regional media scrutiny that
Chemical Waste Management received. In
response to this, the company ended up creating a community relations manager
and encouraged local residents and other interested parties to tour the
facility (Alley et al., 1995).
after the walkout, a few residents living in Emelle formed an organization
called Sumter Countians Organized for the Protection of the Environment
(SCOPE). The main goal of this
predominantly White organization led by a Livingston University professor was
to make sure there would be rigorous monitoring of the facility, greater public
accountability and free access to accurate information. After several community meetings involving
experts in the field of hazardous waste landfills and the industry’s spokesman,
SCOPE became aligned with arguments in favor of the necessity of the landfill
(Alley et al., 1995).
with SCOPE, some residents established an organization called Alabamians for a
Clean Environment (ACE), with the specific purpose of closing down the
hazardous waste landfill. This was the main group involved in the Chemical
Waste Management struggle. The group
did not achieve their goal. However, by
examining the transformations that ACE underwent brings issues together that
are important to understand environmental activism, social movements and the
politics of waste in America (Alley et al., 1995). Resource-mobilization, the approach describing how organizations
obtain the resources they need to promote their objectives, in this case did
not lead the group to a final stage of greater strength. Instead, it promoted a multitude of
information gathering experiences that crossed spatial boundaries and mixed
national and local agendas. Ultimately,
this led the group’s members in directions that caused the fracture of the
groups cohesion and success.
few White women including local activist Kaye Kiker formed the group’s
core. Although ACE claimed to have over
300 members, the core group was comprised of only about 10 people. Moreover, the members (although not part of
the traditional White power structure) distanced themselves from the civic and
political life of Sumter County and didn’t consider themselves as members of
the “establishment” (Alley et al., 1995).
To them, “the civic and political life was shaped by a small White elite
trying to maintain political power in the face of an increasingly successful
process of Black political empowerment” (Alley, 1995). The group started its efforts with intensive
information gathering. They received
initial information about the background of Chemical Waste Management
operations in other states from a grassroots group in the adjacent county of
Noxubee, Mississippi. Some of ACE’s first
members were residents of this county who had opposed proposals for a waste
site. The public appeal of ACE was very
limited. Many residents and local
officials had interests in the company and the group was ineffective in
reaching Sumter County’s African American population that constituted nearly
70% of the county’s total population and over 90% of Emelle’s. Being that the group was so marginalized,
they were harassed, ostracized, and threatened when opposing the facility. This pressure eventually led to decrease in
membership (Alley et al., 1995).
the fact that ACE was unable to make any substantive changes in the political
affairs of Sumter County and despite the group’s marginality as an
organization, it was effective in making knowledge about hazardous waste
accessible to the public and maintained a voice of opposition in public
meetings. ACE forced political elites
in favor of promoting the well being of the hazardous waste industry, and the Alabama
Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to respond publicly when
questioned. The group asked questions
about the safety measure taken at the facility, about health risks and
groundwater contamination and about the validity of alleged concern of company
spokesman for the well being of the community.
Alabamians for a Clean Environment organized and practiced guerrilla
theater tactics like sign waving and name calling to draw attention to their
cause. They also had access to highly
visible and powerful actors to speak with them, such as the acting Alabama
Attorney, General Don Siegelman, and since elected Attorney General Jimmy
Evans. Coupled with the information
gathering and looming public voice and presence, representation and protests
were valuable resources mobilized in opposition to the hazardous waste
facility, and did result in the successful permit denial for a hazardous waste
incinerator on the site (Alley et al., 1995).
1987, ACE members disengaged from local White discourse in Sumter County and
formed an alliance with a key Black leader.
Under this alliance, ACE and a few Black residents of Sumter, supported
by Greenpeace, organized the “Toxic Trail of Tears” rally. Sumter County was the starting point for the
original trail of tears of the Creek Indians and their forced resettlement to
Oklahoma in the 1830s. This version
began at the state capitol with a public demonstration and was followed by a
funeral-like procession that moved across the state to the hazardous waste
landfill. Over a dozen people were
arrested after blocking the entrance to the dump for eight hours. The rally raised issues of the facility and
industry to minority groups in the state and stressed the disproportionate
number of hazardous waste sites in minority communities (Alley et al., 1995).
activities such as those discussed above, ACE gained the attention of national
organizations such as the National Toxics Fund Clearinghouse for Hazardous
Wastes, the National Toxics Fund Campaign, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Contact with these groups gave ACE a vast
amount of resources from technical expertise, information on Chemical Waste
Management and strategies on how to oppose them, to legal advice, publicity and
lobbying assistance. Unfortunately,
rather than helping with ACE’s cause, these groups who were unresponsive to
local needs, further separated the group from the people of the community
(Alley et al., 1995).
here, the group moved on to wider audiences as far as Japan. After failing to win the support of the
local media who, in news articles, wrote about them as “60’s escapees” who were
“shunned in their own home town”, ACE defined its image in the national
arena. On top of appearing in newspaper
articles, the group appeared in a music video on VH-1 promoting their cause. Government officials recognized Individual
group members as able activists. One
even received the Alabama Volunteer of the Year award from the Governor and was
honored by President Reagan (Alley et al., 1995).
two key leaders of ACE and the key Black leader in Sumter County who joined ACE
in the struggle with Chemical Waste Management were hired by the National
Toxics Campaign after claiming that “the goal of closing the facility was
beyond their reach” (Alley et al., 1995).
It is believed that their association with the National Toxics Campaign
led to the dissolution of ACE in part because their energies were turned
towards national agendas.
ACE was unsuccessful in closing the toxic waste facility, members claim that
“sharing information with others was a way to take what they had learned beyond
Sumter County to other places sharing similar risks” (Alley et al., 1995). The two core members of ace returned to
their hometown where one became the Chair of the Water Authority of Sumter
County to share the impact of the waste industry on the county’s water
supply. She succeeded in preventing the
Water Board from opening up a well near Emelle, leaving several communities
without water for three weeks. The
Alabama Department of Environmental Management issued strong objections and
began the attempt to remove her from the Board. The other member became a Board member of the Historical Society
in Sumter and is working to generate new job opportunities for residents and to
bring in tourism projects to bring together White and Black members in the
region. She also frequently receives
invitations to speak about hazardous waste and community organization from
various institutions today (Alley et al., 1995).
Over a decade ago, Emelle was ground zero in the controversy over the sprawling Chemical Waste Management landfill just outside of the city’s limits. So what is going on now?
we have seen with Alabamians for a Clean Environment, environmental outrage did
not succeed in closing the largest hazardous waste dump in the nation. However, a state tax and a series of federal
regulations decimated business during the 90s. The company still operates there today, but only 120,000 tons of
waste per year are buried at the landfill.
This is an 85 percent decline from earlier, due primarily to a $51-per-ton
fee imposed by legislators in 1991.
Federal law also changed and contributed to the current status of the
facility. Companies were required in
the early 90s to reduce the amount of hazardous waste they produced and certain
chemicals and solvents were no longer allowed to be dumped (Reeves, 2000).
far as ACE is concerned, the transformation that it underwent in the struggle
proved to be an important lesson. The
grassroots group had a marginal character and didn’t have the support of the
local Black community to aid in the struggle.
The group did form alliances with national networking groups and aided
others in their struggle, but that is exactly what took the steam out of the
struggle on a local level. There case
demonstrates that “relationships between grassroots groups and national
organizations do not push towards an increasingly inclusive and institutional
movement” (Alley et al., 1995).
is now desolate and dying, but not because of the disastrous pollution effects
that can occur with toxic landfills.
Even ACE activists argue that most residents of Emelle still accept the
waste industry as an important employer for the economy. And it is.
The landfill generated $35million in taxes for the state in 1991 and
last year, in 1999, it generated less than $1.5 million. 340 jobs were lost in Emelle (Reeves,
2000). The general sentiment of the
local people is that the decreased production of the facility has “killed”
Emelle. The only grocer retired a
couple of years ago, the City Hall paid for by hazardous waste dumping fees
sits locked and virtually empty and there is now not a single business left in
Emelle proper, so the jobs can not be replaced. This sentiment is further expressed when listening to resident
Rosie Bradley. She has served three
times on the City Council in part because no one else will run and worries
about what will become of her town. She
hopes the landfill holds tight and keeps its deadly contents away from her
children. She says: “Jobs or not, we’re stuck with that” (Reeves,
last statement by Bradley raises an interesting concern. The issue of siting hazardous waste
facilities has become an increasingly important issue within the last 20
years. In April 1987, the United Church
of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice released a survey of toxic waste dump
sites in the US. It found a pattern of
environmental racism, or toxic dump sites in areas populated by people of
color. It found that race was by far
the most prominent factor in the location of commercial hazardous-waste
landfills and Emelle was sited as an example.
indeed has been hurt by the loss of jobs.
There is no question about it.
However it may be important to think about why the situation exists. Activist Kaye Kiker points out: “Our water is polluted here, and it’s just
not the kind of place where you want to raise your family” (Montague,
1998). Should the health and quality of
life have to be sacrificed for jobs?
Shouldn’t a basic right of all
Americans, regardless of race or wealth
be to live and work in a healthy environment?
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