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Emelle nation's largest hazardous waste landfill, USA


Description:

In 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. The landfill receives wastes from Superfund sites and from all 48 contiguous states. 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 (360 in use) also sits directly over the Eutaw Aquifer, which supplies water to a large part of Alabama.

Opposition to the plant began in 1978 when a group of workers walked off the plant complaining of unsafe working conditions. Unhappy with the work of local environmental communities, a group of residents founded Alabamians for a Clean Environment (ACE) aiming to close down the landfill. Activism within this community involved information gathering, media attention, collaboration with national and international organizations that provided resources (economic, legal, technical) However, the positive economic impact of Chemical Waste Management in the county (monthly payments of $5 for every ton of waste buried in the county) drove support for the corporation from local leaders. Moreover, the impact of this case in national media and the movement shifted community leaders’ agendas away from the local issues and prompted the dissolution of ACE.

After decades of fighting, residents have been unsuccessful in closing the toxic waste facility. However, their complaints gained media attention and prompted some changes, such as a state tax and a series of federal regulations that have caused a decline in the amount of waste buried per year. Although ACE dissolved and did not achieve its goal of shutting down the landfill, their experiences have helped the wider environmental justice movement in the United States to fight the emergence of similar injustices in other parts of the country.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Emelle nation's largest hazardous waste landfill, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Alabama
Location of conflict:Emelle (Sumter County)
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Chemical Waste And Hazardous Materials
Domestic municipal waste
Industrial waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

At its peak, the company received almost 800,000 tons of waste per year.

Project area:93
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:300-400
Start of the conflict:1978
Relevant government actors:Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) , United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Alabamians for a Clean Environment; Minority Peoples Council; National Toxics Fund Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes; the National Toxics Fund Campaign; Sierra Club; Greenpeace.

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Industrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Strikes
Rally across the State to complain about the facility

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Fires, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Oil spills, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Potential: Global warming
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
New legislation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite decades of fighting, residents have been unsuccessful in closing the toxic waste facility. However, their complaints gained media attention and prompted some changes, such as a state tax and a series of federal regulations that have caused a decline in the amount of waste buried per year (currently abound 120,000 tons/year). Although ACE dissolved and did not achieve its goal of shutting down the landfill, their experiences have helped the wider environmental justice movement in the United States to fight the emergence of similar injustices in other parts of the country.
However, the future of Emelle is uncertain since most of the people have lost their jobs.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

EPA's Hazardous Waste Facility Permit
http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/tsd/permit/tsd-regs/tool/cwm-emelle.pdf

2013. Alabama Department of Environmental Management Land Division- Hazardous Waste Program Division 14 - ADEM Admin. Code r. 335-14-x-.xx
http://adem.alabama.gov/alenviroreglaws/files/division14.pdf

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Bullard, Robert D., and Beverly H. Wright. "The quest for environmental equity: Mobilizing the African‐American community for social change." Society & Natural Resources 3.4 (1990): 301-311.

Bullard, Robert D. "In our backyards." EPA J. 18 (1992): 11.

McDermott, Charles J. "Balancing the Scales of Environmental Justice." Fordham Urb. LJ 21 (1993): 689.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

University of Michigan's Environmental Justice Case Study: Emelle, Alabama: Home Of The Nation's Largest Hazardous Waste Landfill.
http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/Jones/emelle.htm

Schmidt, William E. "WHEN THE NEIGHBOR IS A TOXIC LANDFILL." The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Oct. 1985. Web. 10 May 2014. .
http://www.nytimes.com/1985/10/16/us/when-the-neighbor-is-a-toxic-landfill.html

Environmental Racism in the Alabama Blackbelt by Robert D. Bullard
http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/envracismalablackbelt.htm

Alabama Department Of Environmental Management - Information for Waste/Remediation Programs
http://www.adem.state.al.us/programs/land/default.cnt

Other comments:This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan

Meta information

Contributor:Alejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/07/2015