About an hour away from The University of Alabama, the city of Uniontown faces a daily crisis.
In December 2008, a malfunction at the Tennessee Kingston Fossil Plant released more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash. Two years later, with approval from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Tennessee Valley Authority transported some of the coal ash more than 300 miles by train to Arrowhead Landfill in the low-income, predominantly Black community of Uniontown.
Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. It contains carcinogens, heavy metals and arsenic and is associated with a host of short and long-term health problems. Short-term exposure to coal ash can cause acute symptoms like respiratory tract inflammation, while long-term exposure is connected to cancer or asthma.
After seeing Uniontown, a documentary by Fraser Jones, UA student Mary Eliza Beaumont was inspired to act. Beaumont is a sophomore majoring in environmental science and a member of the Blackburn Institute, a leadership development and civic engagement program on campus.
“When I watched the documentary, I was absolutely shocked because I had no idea that that kind of environmental injustice and degradation was going on in the state,” Beaumont said. “I got the team on board with the idea of helping Uniontown with their current coal ash pollution crisis.”
Blackburn students have been working with Uniontown community leaders since June 2020. One of those students is Aaron Frederick, a junior majoring in microbiology and philosophy. Frederick said he was inspired by the community’s fight against injustice.
Due to environmental degradation, the community’s drinking water is polluted. The levels of arsenic in their drinking water from the coal ash dump is high enough that a normal water filter can’t get rid of it.
Beaumont and Frederick, along with fellow Blackburn students, brought 1,000 cases of bottled water to Uniontown residents on March 13 through a partnership with Coca-Cola.
The community uses plastic drinking bottles as its water source, but Uniontown has no recycling system. Students participating in the service project transported materials back to Tuscaloosa and will deliver them to the UA Recycling Center on Monday.
Access to clean drinking water is only one part of the response.
“We’re trying to amplify the voices of the community to the state legislature,” Frederick said. “There’s really nothing being done for environmental injustice in Alabama, especially in the Black Belt. The communities are working really hard on these issues, but their voices are not being heard.”
Perry County Commissioner Ben Eaton, former president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, proposed a resolution to ban coal ash from Arrowhead Landfill. His resolution was voted down. Since then, Eaton said he has seen “no positive change.”
Green Group Holdings, the company that owns the coal ash landfill, filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit against Eaton and three other residents. Green Group Holdings dropped the claim in 2017.
“I look at the community as being home,” Eaton said. “Everyone knows that if anything attacks your home, you have to protect it. The people here are good people and they do not deserve to be pounced on the way they have been.”
Beaumont said she viewed the crisis as an effect of environmental racism, or racial discrimination that occurs through environmental policy and regulations. Uniontown has a 91% Black population. She organized documentary screenings and letter-writing campaigns before Saturday’s service project.
“They are loving and incredible people, just like any community,” she said. “They also understand what they’re going through, and they know that they’re being oppressed by this environmental injustice.”
Eaton said he welcomes the assistance from UA students.
“Anything helps,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct Beaumont’s year. She is a sophomore, not a senior.