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Project Name:

Health Impacts of the Stone’s Throw Landfill in Tallassee, Alabama, a Low-Income African American Community

Organization Name:

Environmental Law Clinic, Columbia Law School 

Preceptor Names and Contact Information:

Brief Description of Organization:

Students in the Environmental Law Clinic represent local, regional, and national environmental and community organizations working to solve critical environmental challenges.

Project Description:

In 2013, the US generated 254 million metric tons of trash, 55% of which was sent to landfills. Landfills are the third leading source of anthropogenic US emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, landfills emit toxic and noxious air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds and landfill runoff can pollute local waterways.

Stone’s Throw Landfill, a municipal solid waste landfill in Tallassee, Alabama, reopened in the spring of 2002 in the historically African American Ashurst Bar/Smith neighborhood after it had been closed in part due to concerns about arsenic contamination. The landfill processes up to 1,500 tons of waste daily, including asbestos and sewage, and claims to have the capacity to continue accepting waste through 2053. In 2003, the Ashurst Bar/Smith Community Organization (ABSCO) filed a complaint with the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The complaint asserted that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) violated the civil rights of the community by permitting the landfill due to the unjustified, disparate negative impact of the landfill on African-Americans. This complaint remained open at EPA until 2017, when the Ashurst Bar/Smith Community Organization and four other communities across the country sued EPA for failing to investigate in a timely way. On April 2, 2018, a federal court ruled that EPA violated the law by waiting a decade or more to investigate civil rights complaints within the time frame mandated by the law. ABSCO filed a second civil rights complaint against ADEM in 2017 to challenge ADEM’s reissuance of a permit for the landfill.  EPA accepted this complaint for investigation and the complaint is currently pending.

During the Spring 2018 Term, a student team in the course EPH 555b, Climate Change, Sustainability, and Public Health, conducted a project entitled Air Quality Impacts of the Stone’s Throw Landfill in Tallassee, Alabama: A Pilot Study. The team produced a report that included the following recommendations and next steps:

The research presented in this pilot study is highly preliminary and limited. However, this initial research identified some key warning signs, including hydrogen sulfide (H2S) levels approaching the odor threshold, high non-methane volatile organic compound (NMVOC) levels of unknown composition, transient elevated PM2.5 levels, high noise levels in relation to community standards, high prevalence rates of asthma and COPD, and, importantly, high levels of concern in the community about landfill impacts. We suggest prioritizing future planning and public and private research through collaborative partnerships with the Yale School of Public Health, the Department of Graduate Public Health at Tuskegee University, and Ashurst Bar/Smith community members, using a community-based participatory research approach if favored by the community. Furthermore, we suggest that the community consider seeking support from ADEM, the landfill, the City of Tallassee, or the county, for monitoring efforts.

Further air monitoring for H2S, NMVOCs, PM2.5, and asbestos is clearly indicated. In general, we suggest that air quality monitoring should be performed for longer periods of time at various locations both daily and annually because air quality can change dramatically according to time of day, day of week (weekdays versus weekends), season, landfill activity, and weather conditions. In addition, it is particularly important to monitor at locations downwind of the landfill, which was difficult to do with our limited amount of time.

For community members who are interested in continuing air pollution monitoring to gather more data, we see the greatest opportunities in monitoring particulate matter and noise, due to the low cost and technical accessibility of the monitoring devices: Purple Air Monitor for PM2.5 (approximately $250) and the NIOSH Noise App (available free for download on iPhones). Also feasible would be truck traffic counts by community members to provide additional information on the impacts of the landfill on quality of life and health, as well as provide data on the potential correlation between truck traffic and emissions.

In addition to air monitoring, testing of water and soil samples for possible pollution from landfill runoff is indicated. Initial soil test is already being planned or carried out by Tuskegee University researchers. Monitoring of indoor air quality should be considered as well.

The elevated prevalence of asthma and COPD, although based on a relatively small sample size, are of obvious concern. The main limitation of our community health survey was its relatively small sample size. We recommend collecting more health surveys from the community to increase the sample size and develop more robust data on the health impacts of the landfill.

The Spring 2019 Term student team will build upon the work of the 2018 team. One of the 2018 team members will travel to Tallassee for a report-back to the community on November 10. During this trip, she will consult with community members about next steps. Based on this consultation as well as ongoing consultation with the community between now and the start of the course, we will refine and prioritize the aims of the 2019 project, which could include the following aims (again, currently provisional).

Aim 1: Based on principles of community-based participatory research, develop and implement an air quality monitoring strategy (including noise and truck traffic counts) for community members to conduct air quality monitoring on an ongoing basis

  • Identify a low-cost monitoring strategy for H2S
  • Identify which specific NMVOCs would be most useful to monitor, along with a low-cost monitoring strategy
  • Develop training materials for community members on how to operate the monitors (including the Purple Air for PM2.5 and the NIOSH Noise App), along with a strategy for placement of monitors and ongoing data management and analysis
  • Travel to Tallassee during spring break to conduct the training and help community members set up the monitoring.
  • Ongoing follow-up and data analysis after spring break.

Aim 2: Based on principles of community-based participatory research, expand the sample size of the community health survey such that more definitive conclusions can be drawn from the results

  • Refine the current community health survey instrument based on the experience of the 2018 team 
  • Develop a protocol for conducting the expanded survey, including target population, eligibility criteria, sampling scheme, recruitment method(s), and data analysis plan. It is anticipated that the survey will be conducted by students going door to door accompanied by a community member trusted by the community, as well as by trained community member surveyors
  • Develop training materials for community member surveyors on how to administer the survey in an unbiased manner
  • Travel to Tallassee during spring break for survey implementation
  • Analyze survey results

Aim 3: Help the community develop a strategy for addressing noxious odors

  • Review the literature on the adverse health and quality of life effects of odors
  • Compile materials produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, EPA, and others on approaches to controlling odors
  • Review ordinances and regulatory approaches to controlling odors, on the municipal, state/province, and national levels, in the U.S. and internationally
  • In consultation with the community, formulate actionable recommendations about how to ameliorate the noxious odor problem in Tallassee

Aim 4: Report findings, with an emphasis on actionable recommendations, to the community

  • In consultation with the community, identify appropriate report-back mechanisms, which could include written materials, videos, public meetings, or other methods
  • Develop literacy-level-appropriate report-back materials
  • Travel to Tallassee to implement the report-back

Aim 5: It is possible there will be a water or soil testing aim

Expected Work Products and Deliverables:

The deliverables for this project will include the following:

  • A detailed protocol for air monitoring and/or a community health survey (including the updated survey instrument)
  • Educational and training materials for community members participating in the community air monitoring and/or the community health survey
  • Implementation of the research
  • A final “academic” report of the scientific findings, including executive summary, background and significance of project, methods, results, discussion, recommendations, references, and appendices
  • Literacy-level-appropriate report-back materials, which could include written materials, videos, oral presentations, or other materials 
  • Implementation of the report-back