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Project Name:

Pollution Impacts in Uniontown, Alabama, a Low-Income African American Community

Organization Name:

Environmental Law Clinic, Columbia Law School

Preceptor Name(s) and Contact Information:

  • Marianne Engelman-Lado, Of Council, Environmental Law Clinic, Columbia Law School (marianne.engelman-lado@yale.edu)
  • Sacoby Wilson, Associate Professor, Applied Environmental Health, School of Public Health, University of Maryland-College Park (swilson2@umd.edu)
  • Officer (to be determined) of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice

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:

Arrowhead Landfill is Alabama’s largest municipal solid waste facility, which is located in Uniontown, a low-income African American community with a population of 2,300 that is in the 97th percentile of low-income populations in the state (EPA EJScreen, 2017, Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen [accessed October 15, 2017]). Arrowhead is licensed to accept waste from 33 states at a rate of up to 15,000 tons per day. Among the types of waste accepted by Arrowhead are water and waste water treatment sludge, contaminated soils, electronics, industrial waste, asbestos, and coal ash.

About 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States – a primary cause of global warming – comes from electric power plants, and coal accounts for two-thirds of emissions from this sector (US EPA. Sources of greenhouse gas emissions. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#electricity [accessed October 30, 2018]), The byproduct of coal combustion is coal ash, which is contaminated with toxic chemicals including arsenic, mercury, lead, hexavalent chromium, and cadmium. Nearly 130 million tons of coal ash are generated each year in the U.S. Coal ash wreaks havoc on human health and the environment when it is released to air and water (Alan H. Lockwood, Physicians for Social Responsibility & Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, 2014, Ash in Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash is Hazardous to Your Health http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Ash_In_Lungs_1.pdf [accessed October 15, 2017]).

In 2009-2010, the Landfill received more than 4 million tons of coal ash from a disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, where an unprecedented amount of coal ash breached an impoundment, and the Landfill continues to advertise to power plants as an appropriate place to receive coal ash.
 
In its analysis of the risks posed by fugitive dust from coal ash landfills, EPA concluded that, absent controls, dust levels at nearby locations could exceed the 24-hour PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulates (EPA, 2010,, Inhalation of Fugitive Dust: A Screening Assessment of the Risks Posed by Coal Combustion Waste Landfills. https://www.efis.psc.mo.gov/mpsc/commoncomponents/viewdocument.asp?DocId=935784779 [accessed October 15, 2017]). EPA has also found that excessive cancer risks are associated with the inhalation of hexavalent chromium in coal ash fugitive dust for residents who live in close proximity to a landfill accepting coal ash.

Uniontown residents are exposed to other sources of pollution in addition to the landfill: a cheese plant; a catfish processing plant; and an antiquated sewage system. Residents are extremely concerned about water and air pollution, including noxious odors, emanating from the Landfill and these other sources of pollution and the resultant harm to their health.

The Columbia Law School Environmental Law Clinic has been working with residents and a Uniontown community organization, Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, to fight this pollution. Community residents filed a complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management with EPA, alleging racial discrimination. Thus far, these legal/administrative efforts have failed. You can learn more about alleged environmental racism in Uniontown here.
 
Two of the project preceptors, Marianne Engelman-Lado (who has worked with the Uniontown community for many years) and Sacoby Wilson, along with four Columbia law students, recently travelled to Uniontown for a site visit and consultations with Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice and other community members about legal strategies as well as research to investigate the pollution and its adverse health effects using a community-based participatory research approach.

This project has the following provisional aims. These aims in their totality are likely too ambitious to be accomplished in a single semester. Based on ongoing consultations with the community between now and the start of the semester, these aims will be refined and prioritized.

Aim 1: Based on principles of community-based participatory research, develop and implement an air quality monitoring strategy for community members to conduct air quality monitoring on an ongoing basis

  • Using data from sources including but not limited to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management eFile database, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), the EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database, and data from any ADEM or EPA air monitors, document reported Landfill chemical releases and measured ambient pollution levels
  • Based on an analysis of waste streams accepted by Arrowhead Landfill, determine which air pollutants are likely emitted from the Landfill
  • Determine which air pollutants are emitted from cheese factories and catfish processing plants in general, and to the extent possible, from the Uniontown cheese factory and catfish processing plant in particular
  • Based on the likely ambient air pollutants in Uniontown and their known adverse health effects, make a judgment about which air pollutants are of greatest concern
  • Identify low-cost monitors for measuring the pollutants of greatest concern
  • Develop training materials for community members on how to operate the monitors, along with a strategy for placement of monitors and ongoing data management and analysis
  • Travel to Uniontown 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, develop and implement a community health survey

  • Based on known and suspected adverse health effects of pollutants, consultation with community members about health concerns, review of results from two previous preliminary health surveys, and review of previously used and validated instruments in the literature, develop a community health survey instrument geared toward a low-literacy population 
  • Develop a protocol for conducting the 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 Uniontown 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 Uniontown      

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 Uniontown to implement the report-back

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 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