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.