Residents of minority communities decry dumping of toxic coal ash

Panelists at a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing Friday said they are victims of environmental racism

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The panel on environmental justice held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights/Twitter

Evoking the contaminated-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed concern and compassion Friday for residents of polluted communities who maintain they are victims of environmental racism.

“I see the specter of Flint in the communities that are represented by our panelists,” Patricia Timmons-Goodson, vice chair of the commission, said via teleconference at a hearing that focused on the dumping of coal ash. “In your communities, like Flint, there is knowledge of the dire health consequences of many of these toxic products.” 

Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents have been exposed to elevated levels of lead after water from the Flint River corroded the city’s pipes. Some residents complained about the tainted water for two years before elected officials and regulators were compelled to act.

“Poor communities become saddled with decisions made by policy makers, politicians and others who frequently take the past of least resistance – that’s with the politically  un-empowered, those who have the least access to the justice system and to the ballot box,” Commissioner Michael Yaki said via teleconference.

Residents of Waukegan, Illinois; Uniontown, Alabama; and Florence, South Carolina, told the commission they were worried about leakage from coal ash pits and landfills. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power generation and contains harmful metals including arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.

Dulce Ortiz, who lives near a coal-fired power plant in Waukegan, said she feels her concerns are being ignored by state and federal officials.

“How are companies allowed to do this in my community time and time again?” she asked.

A Center for Public Integrity investigation last year examined how the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights handles discrimination complaints from communities. The Center found that the office has dismissed nine out of every 10 claims and has never once issued a formal finding of a civil-rights violation.

The commission began investigating the EPA last year and in January held a hearing to receive testimony from a trio of agency officials, including Velveta Golightly-Howell, head of the Office of Civil Rights. On Friday the commission heard testimony on the health effects of coal ash as well as comments from coal industry executives and advocacy groups such as Earthjustice.

Commissioners are mulling a visit to Uniontown and possibly another community to see firsthand what residents have described. The commission is slated to issue a report with its findings and recommendations in September.

Ideally, community members said Friday, they would like to see funds set aside for site cleanups, more facility closures – and to simply have their concerns taken seriously.

“I love Alabama; it’s a nice place to live,” said Uniontown resident Esther Calhoun, who lives near a large landfill that takes coal ash. “But I’m just telling you, the system is broken. Discrimination is still there. And if you’re black, your voice will hardly ever be heard.”

“Ms. Calhoun,” Timmons-Goodson said, “I’ll say your voice is being heard loud and clearly today.”

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