It destroyed a Tennessee community and has been called America’s worst-ever environmental disaster, but the December 2008 TVA coal ash spill has had some surprisingly positive benefits 350 miles away in Perry County, Alabama. 

Financial benefits, that is. The county, which is very poor and almost 70 percent black, received a $3 million windfall for storing 8,500 tons of toxic sludge shipped by train to the Arrowhead Landfill. But not everyone who lives there is convinced that the money, and the 30 jobs that storing the waste created, is worth the potential environmental and health effects of taking on the coal ash.

County leaders, many of whom are black, bristle at accusations of environmental racism. Across the country, minority communities are disproportionately targeted for the siting of polluting industries and storage of hazardous waste – but Perry County commissioner Albert Turner Jr. insists that the coal ash is safe and that they’d be stupid to turn the money down.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees with him, stating that the landfill was an isolated dry storage site 600 feet above the water table with a contaminant collection system that could prevent dangerous toxins from leaching out of the ash.

The public isn’t buying it. They’ve seen the studies showing high concentrations of arsenic in coal ash, and they feel like they’re being thrown under a bus by lawmakers with dollar signs in their eyes.

But despite banding together into a group called Concerned Citizens of Perry County, landfill opponents have had little success. They voted in an anti-landfill commissioner named Fairest Cureton to replace a lawmaker who helped push the project through, only to see him flip-flop once elected. Cureton cited the economic benefits of the project, like funding schools, as the reason for his change of heart.

His defeated opponent, Johnny Flowers, told The New York Times that he was proud of his work to bring the coal ash to Perry County.

“The community don’t know what’s good for them,” said Flowers.

Battle over TVA coal ash in Alabama
Alabama county’s decision to store coal ash from the Tennessee spill fills coffers, but also spurs worries about consequences.