By Preston Thompson and William Barshop

When a catastrophic spill of coal ash plagued Kingston, Tenn. and Swan Pond, the toxic grey sludge recovered from the site had to go somewhere. It was shipped southward by train car, to Alabama, specifically Uniontown.
“I was one of the ones who took samples both in Tennessee and in Uniontown and found arsenic in the coal ash,” said John Wathen, the Hurricane Creek Keeper and well-known environmental activist. “Massive amounts of it. They were pumping it right out into the roadside ditches in front of people’s homes. I got arsenic that was so many magnitudes above lethal in a ditch in front of people’s homes, that it was really scary. A man’s horse died that came in contact with this stuff.”
At a January meeting of the University of Alabama Environmental Council, Wathen described the careless disposal he witnessed when the sludge arrived in Uniontown. He said the treatment came in stark contrast to the precautions taken in Tennessee.
“The community that it came out of in Swan Pond was a very affluent, white community,” Wathen said. “It was treated like a hazardous waste there. They weren’t allowed to use backpack blowers within 100 yards of the fence line of the plant because none of this stuff could become airborne.”
He said the train cars were lined with foam pieces to lock in any leaking water, but when the waste arrived it was wrapped in what they call “burrito bags.
“Big train-sized garbage bags is all they were,” Wathen said. “When they pulled them into the they took track hoses and just dug this stuff out and you can see them dumping it into creeks. The runoff was so grey that you could see it from the airplane 3000 feet away. You knew exactly what they were doing.”
But why would Alabamians be exposed to dangerous chemicals when the community in Tennessee was so meticulously protected? Wathen said
“Because the poor black folks have no political value,” Wathen said. “They have no money. They grow their own food.”
Uniontown has previously spoken up about improper sewage treatment that had illegal amounts of raw sewage leaking into Freetown Creek, a body of water used for swimming and fishing.
“People in Uniontown have been dealing with the stench and the smell of inadequately handled sewage for a long time,” said Nelson Brooke, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper in a documentary by Carlos Estrada called “Down the Drain,” depicting the water issues in Uniontown.
“This environmental injustice is crazy,” said Esther Calhoun, president of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”
The Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) has also spoken up about the Shepherd Bend Mine, a coal mine located on land owned by the University of Alabama, and its possible effect on Birmingham, Ala.’s drinking water.
“There’s about nine miles of the Black Warrior River that’s classified as public drinking water, and there’s coal mines all around this area,” said Adam Johnston of the ARA at the same environmental council meeting. “And of course every bit of study and literature will tell you that coal mining does affect downstream surface water.”
The ARA recommended that Birmingham Citizen’s Advisory Board pass a resolution to urge the Alabama Board of Trustee’s to prevent the mine from polluting the drinking water supply.
“Not only chemicals and heavy metals but also sediment,” Johnston said. “And that creates higher costs for the treatment company, and guess who they pass that buck to? Not the industry, but the customer. When companies are allowed to dirty our water, and the treatment plant has to up their cost, they pass that cost onto us. That’s not fair is it?”
The ARA first came to fruition in September, 1996, when the board of directors held their first meeting to develop a plan of action. Almost 20 years later, the ARA has four full time staff members, and an annual budget of $300,000. The organization’s mission statement rounds out with the daunting task of helping to develop a “healthy system of government for the state of Alabama.” Cue their next legislative agenda.
In 2012, Governor Bentley called upon the state agencies to develop a water management plan in the coming years. ARA is doing its part, as a privately funded agency, to move the state forward. “Alabama’s river community recognizes the important role of the Alabama legislature in the protection of our waterways for future generations,” said Mitch Reid, the program director and registered lobbyist for the ARA. Reid will be bringing three priorities to Alabama’s elected officials this legislative season.
Priority 1: Dam Safety
Alabama utilizes a system of 2,200 dams statewide, that each provide their own advantages and challenges. The advantages are clear: a non-fossil fuel energy source that could last for decades while remaining easily manageable. What may not be as clear are the threats that dams pose to river life in Alabama. The ARA is mainly concerned with how dams affect downstream communities. Put simply, while a dam can serve as a source for electricity, many of Alabama’s river dwelling species rely on a steady water table and the ability to move up and down stream. Dams have a tendency to interfere with both of these elements of the ecosystem. To help bring the right legislation to the state, the ARA will work in conjunction with The American Society of Civil Engineers and the Association of Dam Safety Officials.
Priority 2: Fisher’s Rights
This issue presents itself after a rough 2014, a year in which the Alabama Department of Public Health was forced to issue a warning for 75 water bodies in Alabama in terms of fish consumption. With Alabama being one of the most prominent subsistence fishing states in the country, it’s no surprise this made the ARA’s list. The legislative action on the table seeks to improve not only the aforementioned bodies of water, but also the task of notifying the public of the risk, or lack thereof, in consuming Alabama fish.
Priority 3: Open Government
The ideas and goals of the ARA here are not unlike many other federal and state organizations. They seek transparency in government dealings, when it comes to the water in Alabama. No more closed door meetings, no more secret agendas. With this resolution comes greater public access, which in the eyes of the ARA could lead to a well-informed public.
Although it’s not listed as a priority by the ARA, the EPA (environmental protection agency) has recently taken steps to reduce and weaken the runoff of coal combustion residuals into water systems. On December 19th, 2014, head of the EPA Gina McCarthy signed the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) from Electric Utilities final rule. After months of work to make the rule as effective as possible, with one of the fiercest regulations concerning the leaking of CCR landfills into groundwater systems. The introduction of the issue to the EPA was in 2008, when a large coal ash spill occurred at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Kingston, TN. The catastrophic failure of the plant to control the CCR resulted in the flooding of 300 acres, including a coal runoff into the Emory and Clinch rivers. Homes were destroyed as the entire communities landscape was changed in an instant. The TVA’s popular Watts Bar Reservoir was also greatly affected by the spill, causing property values of the lakefront to plummet. After years of deliberation, the nation will finally see the results of the EPA’s work in their new ruling. But not all in Washington are on the same page.
West Virginia Republican David McKinley was first charged with working with the EPA as a congressman to help them craft a suitable bill. Now as the bill is almost law, McKinley is starting to have second thoughts. The Energy and Commerce committee within the House of Representatives will hear McKinley’s proposal this week, which will ultimately ask the EPA to step back on some of its regulations. McKinley is seen by his fellow republicans as promoting free business practices, whereas the EPA is trying to avoid a tragedy like Kingston, Tenn. in 2008. And while McKinley still encourages environmental control on the state level, it’s important to not overlook a few things. Make that a few hundred thousand things. According to Maplight, Rep. Mckinley has received $263,928 of campaign money from the coal mining and electric power industries. He is second to only speaker of the house John Boehner ($529,117) in that category. While that quarter-million sum may not break the bank for any political campaign, it still manages to be 18 times higher than the average congressional representative gets from the same industry. McKinley still won’t propose utter environmental anarchy, but his fight against federal interference seems to be coming from multiple places.
If McKinley were to succeed in his endeavor, then the state of Alabama would be solely responsible for the maintenance of its CCR deposits. Currently, three Alabama Power plants have coal ash facilities in the Black Warrior Basin: Gorgas Steam Plant, Miller Steam Plant, and the Greene County Steam Plant. The closest plants to Tuscaloosa are the Gorgas and Miller plants, both of whom would overflow into the Black Warrior River should such a catastrophic event occur. While the EPA’s rulings may impose harsh rulings, a possible future of negligence will only put us closer to a Kingston disaster that could alter many of west Alabama’s communities.
The three priorities will go before the Alabama state congress this legislative season, but the war against pollution is also being fought with elbow grease as volunteers tackle the lake cleanup on April 11th. At the seventh annual Lake Tuscaloosa Cleanup Day, the city will host another team with the goal to make the recreation spot and water source more hospitable to Tuscaloosans.
The 5,885 acre lake is able to single handedly provide Tuscaloosa with drinking and industrial water from its massive 40 million gallons. In 2014, 524 volunteers met at the Binion Creek boat landing to help make sure those 40 million gallons can reach their full potential.
According to a report from Alabama Department of Environmental Management in 2003, the state’s 553 trillion gallons of reservoir could be enough to provide residents with quality water for multiple millennia. However, 12 years later Alabama is on the back end of some of the worst droughts in the state’s history. In 2011, Birmingham experienced its second worst drought since 1900 (just shy of than the drought of 1989). Until recently, groundwater use wasn’t a problem for the heart of Dixieland, but now the water drawn has grown in excess of the recharge rates. In other words, more is going out than coming in. And although it’s far from home, the rising of saltwater water tables along the Alabama coast could intrude on some of the state’s larger groundwater tables, making the preservation of Lake Tuscaloosa all the more crucial.
To add more to the case for cleanup, a study from the Journal of the American Water Resources Association noted that even without imminent climate change, Alabama’s fast growing population could lead to water consumption problems as soon as 2050. Add in the inevitable changing climate, and it’s no wonder the ARA are taking charge with Lake Tuscaloosa.

It’s clear that while Georgia and Florida engage in their Water Wars, the state of Alabama is taking part in a war of it’s own. To support the ARA in their fight for clean water, you can attend the April 11 cleanup, or visit their website at

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