Low-Income Black Communities in Alabama Have Become Dumping Grounds

They called it the “poop train“: 252 tractor trailer loads worth of “biosolids” were marooned near an Alabama town in 2018, filling the community with the stench of rotting human waste. The incident attracted international headlines because it was so extreme — and because the waste wasn’t even from town residents. It had been hauled in from New York and New Jersey.

If it sounds bananas to truck sewage hundreds of miles to dump it in a landfill rather than processing it in a local wastewater treatment plant, welcome to the wild world of waste management.

But it’s not just poop, and it’s not just one Alabama town.

According to The GuardianAlabama has 35 landfill sites for every million residents, and 173 in total. States with much bigger populations, like New York and California, have a fraction of that; just five landfills for every million in California, and three in New York. These landfills accept waste from across Alabama, but they also take an assortment of waste from across the United States — and a lot of that waste is toxic.

It includes “biosolids,” but also waste products like dredge spoils, coal ash, construction refuse, asbestos and more. These sites are disproportionately located in or near low-income communities of color, and they’ve been causing environmental problems for decades, contaminating air, water and soil.

Trash companies pay a pittance per ton, and communities rarely see much, if any, of the money — though they experience chronic health problems, birth defects and other quality of life issues caused by living in close proximity to these sites.

This is a classic example of environmental racism: Harm inflicted on the environment tends to concentrate in low-income communities of color, thanks to decades of racist legacies — including slavery, Jim Crow and other elements of our collective past.

These communities often struggle to fight back, because they lack financial resources and support. In Alabama, The Guardian reports that residents are organizing to apply pressure to the companies poisoning their communities, even as the Environmental Protection Agency insists there’s no evidence of discriminatory practices.

Surprisingly, the agency’s Environmental Justice office hasn’t been completely decimated under Trump yet — though the office’s founder quit in early 2017, frustrated with attempts at undermining the agency.

While the poop train may have been the subject of many joking headlines, it was no laughing matter for residents, who have struggled to get the nation to take interest in the issue. While individual communities, industries, construction and a variety of routine activities generate a great deal of toxic waste, the nation is also dealing with an influx of waste associated with natural disasters.

Ever wondered where material from the Deepwater Horizon spill, myriad wildfires and a parade of hurricanes ends up? Often, it’s communities like these in Alabama.

If you’re appalled at the thought that your community might be using another state’s low-income communities of color as a dumping ground, there’s good news: There are actions you can take.

For starters, find out where your municipal waste goes, and be aware that cities need to periodically renew municipal waste contracts or review policies if they act as their own solid waste authority. That gives you a chance to have input on where your garbage ends up. Ask not just about residential and commercial waste, but also material from construction.

And if your community experiences an environmental disaster, take action early to find out where all the waste will be sent. Injustices like this happen because no one really likes to think about garbage; it’s time to change that narrative!

Photo Credit: USDA/Flickr

49 comments

Ben O
Ben O6 days ago

Signed the petition

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Olivia H
Olivia H6 days ago

shame on them

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Peter B
Peter B8 days ago

Thank you for sharing

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Lara A
Lara A10 days ago

Thanks for this

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Martha P
Martha P17 days ago

Horrible

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Hannah A
Hannah A18 days ago

that's dreadful

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heather g
heather g24 days ago

Appalling planning and appalling behaviour.

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Shirley S
Shirley S24 days ago

Shameful !

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Jan S
Jan S25 days ago

Thank you for sharing

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Sue H
Sue H25 days ago

Shameful. :(

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