Uniontown, AL: The struggle against environmental injustice and racism

Uniontown, a small Black Belt community in Perry County, Alabama, an hour south of Tuscaloosa, has been suffering from environmental injustices for more than two decades. The air in the town has been made toxic from coal ash dumped into the nearby Arrowhead landfill. Both the surface water and groundwater are filled with pollutants, and the city’s sewer system is overloaded by industrial wastewater from several sources. Uniontown is one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the U.S., where a largely poor and Black community has had more than one polluting facility foisted upon them without recourse.

The principal actor in Uniontown’s ongoing water crisis is a company known as Southeastern Cheese. Established in 1997, SE Cheese is a privately held cheese manufacturing and processing plant incorporated in Uniontown. The company received a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System general permit for its wastewater effective June 1, 2002, which allowed it to discharge its waste and runoff water to an unnamed tributary of Cottonwood Creek, with many parameters for compliance. Almost immediately, the company began a pattern of discharging too much wastewater, including solids, into the Cottonwood tributary and the Uniontown Lagoon. These actions polluted the creek and tributaries and overloaded the lagoon system of Uniontown’s wastewater treatment facility, adding fumes to the already present stomach-turning smell in the air and potentially hazardous seepage into the water table.

The Lagoon, roughly a quarter mile from the cheese plant, effectively handles all of the wastewater from Uniontown residents, corporations and businesses in a series of three large ponds. This is their wastewater treatment system, designed and modified by Sentell Engineering Group, whose incompetence has infuriated citizens for years. Citizens have demanded that the City Council hire a different engineer to design a proper facility that can handle the industrial wastewater without polluting the town. There are many houses in between the two facilities, caught between these two sources of noxious smelling waste.

In 2002, according to a Nutrient Management Plan, SE Cheese began applying whey, a byproduct of their own production process, as a “fertilizer and soil additive.” To facilitate this, a storage pond was constructed at the lagoons to hold wastewater that would spray out of several sprinkler heads. A more complicated system was undertaken in 2004 to expand the permit of this “sprayfield” operation, which continues to spray thousands of gallons of aerosolized wastewater-cocktail into Uniontown’s atmosphere on a bimonthly basis.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management filed a “unilateral order” to SE Cheese in 2010 demanding legal action due to violations of discharge limits between February and June 2009 and “a history of prior violations similar to those noted above.” The resulting civil penalty only cost SE Cheese $120,000. SE Cheese was ordered to hire an engineering company, named CFM Group, which was to identify the causes of certain violations as well as what changes were to be made to achieve compliance with its State Indirect Discharge permit (the type of permit allowing a company to dump a certain amount of pollutants, biological material, and/or chemicals into a system like the sprayfields and the Lagoon).

In 2011, the CFM Group published the process wastewater treatment system investigation report mandated by the unilateral order. The report claimed the damages from a tornado in 2008 caused SE Cheese to fall out of compliance, shed light on how the sprayfields were developed and operated, and proposed repairs and upgrades to the current system. Through 2012, SE Cheese submitted quarterly progress reports in its attempts at compliance. However, they were out of compliance for so many months that a public notice of their violations was advertised in newspapers.

The company and its owner knowingly discharged more water than the lagoons could handle. Cottonwood Creek and its tributaries have repeatedly overflowed with cheese by-products and other contaminants from the lagoon. The aerator pumps for the holding ponds were unable to process all of the wastewater in a safe, sanitary manner. As a result, high levels of bacteria and nitrogen-rich clumps of whey overwhelmed the flora and fauna near the creek. People’s farms have been polluted, their animals poisoned, and their health deteriorated. Citizens claim that all the severe problems arising from the Uniontown Lagoon and facilities that use it began around 10 years ago, which correlates with the documented pattern of noncompliance on the part of SE Cheese as well as the “upgrades” made to the Uniontown Lagoon.

While SE Cheese has been the principal actor in the destruction of Uniontown’s environment and overall livability, it is not the only company involved with destructive dumping and discharge to Uniontown’s strained wastewater treatment system. Harvest Select Catfish, owned by Alabama’s own Paul Bear Bryant, Jr., comprises another industrial operation that overloads Uniontown’s lagoons.

Harvest Select is a catfish processing plant that sells itself as a wholesome, farm-to-table, all-American source of catfish filets, fresh or frozen. While the company polishes its image online and on social media, the reality of its impact in Uniontown is not so benign and ethical. According to Nelson Brooke, a Black Warrior Riverkeeper, the Uniontown sewage system is designed to treat a maximum of 525,000 gallons per day but on some days receives that much from the Harvest Select catfish processing plant alone. Making “hand-over-fist” profits always comes at a price, and, in this case, every “premium” filet of catfish is produced through toxification of the bodies of Uniontown’s citizens. Observed and permitted by ADEM, these companies in Uniontown will pay minimum fines for gross overflows, stay in operation despite being out of compliance, and in conjunction with every other factor in this ongoing crisis continue to make life miserable for the residents of Uniontown.

Tap water brown and undrinkable

The Uniontown Lagoon and its sprayfield system, whose effects are worsened by entities like Harvest Select, Sentell Engineering/CFM Group, and Southeastern Cheese, are overloaded and cannot function. Because of the inadequate lagoon, floating wetland, and sprayfield method of processing the present amounts of industrial wastewater, the town’s tap water is brown and undrinkable. This forces people to purchase and use bottled water for every daily activity that mandates water. To purchase bottled water in bulk and at a reasonable price, residents need to drive to a nearby town like Greensboro or Demopolis. Piggly Wiggly, the one grocer in Uniontown, closed in April 2018, effectively making the city part of a growing chain of food deserts in poor, minority communities across the United States.

In response to the continued health risk of the sprayfields, Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice sent a letter to ADEM, dated January 19, 2015:

“We have observed in an aerial photo of August, 2014, that the land application of toxic wastewater to the SE Cheese spray field has killed all the vegetation within the reach of the irrigation spray, including grass, shrubs, and trees. In fact, there is nothing beneficial about this process, but instead quite the opposite is true. We are very disturbed to note that livestock is pastured in adjacent fields, and where the toxic spray can reach. Those fields, the grass, and other vegetation are also dead. This is potentially harmful or even deadly for the livestock, as it has proved to be for the habitat of Uniontown.”

The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice take action against these aggressions, and hold the community together to demand action. They give a voice to the town and its people, which makes people aware of the environmental and health crisis in Uniontown. They have demanded better lives, clean air, clean water, and a functioning sewer, and to hold those who have ruined their town responsible. It is imperative that we listen to, and amplify, Black Belt Citizens. We must stand in solidarity with them and assist in the fight for the lives of the people of Uniontown.

Similarly, what is needed is a revaluation of society’s relationship to the environment and an understanding of how people live and interact to survive and work to change the conditions of their lives. In 1999, geographer David Harvey coined the term “spatial fix” to describe the ways in which capitalist production and consumption can be extended to new locales and regions throughout the world. Because those who run companies tend to be removed from the effects of their operations, they have little incentive to protect resources or even provide for the continued health of their workers and those living in the communities within which the consequences of their operations are vividly felt. The environmental aspects of this sphere of the economy are the day-to-day conditions in which people are forced to live as they attempt to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is these pursuits that become threatened through the quest for profits. If a company dumps its toxic wastes into the water supply, as in Uniontown, they not only harm the environment but also endanger the livelihoods of everyone living in the surrounding community. Possibilities for environmental change arise when people demand companies clean up the messes they have created.

The fact that collective action demanding companies do this does not happen more often may be because people have come to think of the environment – including resources such as water, which were historically held in common – as a commodity that can be bought and sold rather than an intrinsic part of people’s daily lives. Environmental justice activists point directly to this problem, highlighting the persistent tendency for environmental hazards, waste, and noxious facilities to be sited in and around minority and low-income communities.

Direct correlation between proximity to environmental hazards and race and class

As of 2016, Uniontown’s population was estimated to be 2,329. Of this number, 84.4 percent are Black, 15.4 percent white, and 0.21 percent classified as other, according to the U.S. Census. Uniontown has a poverty rate of 48.8 percent, which is more than three times the national average of 14 percent. Of those living in poverty, 83.9 percent are Black. The median household income is $17,949. The observation that poor, Black, and immigrant communities are disproportionately put at risk from exposure to pollution is not an old one. Activists from the early 20th century onward have worked in vulnerable communities that were among the most socially and politically dis-empowered. In the past hundred years, evidence has mounted of a simple, reliable and direct correlation between proximity to environmental hazards and race and class. Low-income Black communities are consistently more likely to be close to hazards than whiter, wealthier ones.

This spatial correlation between toxic outputs and minority populations was brought to broader public attention in the 1980s by Robert Bullard, who studied the distribution of waste facilities in the American South. In his book “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality” (1990), he concluded:

“Growing empirical evidence shows that toxic-waste dumps, municipal landfills, garbage incinerators, and similar noxious facilities are not randomly scattered across the American landscape. The siting process has resulted in minority neighborhoods (regardless of class) carrying a greater burden of localized costs than either affluent or poor white neighborhoods.”

Uniontown is not a pollution crisis in some far off country or corner of the United States, such as Flint, Michigan – which still has not received a source of clean water. This crisis is unfolding right here in the heart of Alabama. Access to clean air and water should be treated as a fundamental human birthright, and physically debilitating living conditions should not be treated as an acceptable norm for poor, minority communities. Given the accumulation of power and wealth inherent in capitalism, we must pay attention to the ways in which human relationships with nature vary among people differently situated within the economy, whether they work in a sweatshop in Indonesia, a rural ranch in Montana, a grocery in London, or live in a Black Belt community in the Deep South. The Party for Socialism and Liberation supports this and other struggles against injustice and environmental racism across the whole of the United States and will continue to fight until the revolutionary end of the capitalist system from which it stems.

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