Posted by Ellen

Why do people keep dumping noxious, toxic, no-good very bad stuff in west Alabama? Which do you want first, the geologic reason or the political reason?

The geologic reason is a thick, 100-million-year-old layer of chalk that sits not far below the surface in Sumter County, Alabama, and thereabouts. You can make compelling arguments that this chalk is pretty much impermeable, sealing off any pollutants that might be deposited in a hazardous-waste landfill, such as the Arrowhead facility pictured here. (The only problem with those arguments is that unmapped faults deep in the chalk seem eventually to compromise these landfills; over time, they all spring leaks.)

The political reason is that west Alabama is desperately poor and majority African American. Local governments in less desperate parts of the country would not allow projects like Arrowhead, which clearly put citizens' health at risk and drive away more reputable industrial development. But where there are no jobs and no tax base, an opportunity to store other people's dangerous filth can seem better than no opportunity at all.

And so it came to pass that companies operating the Arrowhead landfill won a supposedly lucrative contract to "dispose of" a billion gallons of waterlogged coal ash that had spilled near Kingston, Tennessee, last year when a retention pond failed outside a power plant. 

Arrowhead's neighbors soon complained of horrible odors and other concerns. They threatened to sue. Arrowhead immediately declared bankruptcy, claiming that people from New Jersey had run off with all the money from the cleanup contract. They are now un-sueable, but at last word, trucks were still pulling up to the landfill day and night with loads of coal ash to dump.