Environmental Justice in Alabama

If the planned relocation of Alabama’s Greene County jail goes ahead as scheduled, prisoners may be sentenced to inhaling toxic waste as part of their incarceration.

Greene County is mostly poor and African-American, in the heart of Alabama’s so-called Black Belt. One of the major employers in the region is Waste Management, which operates the largest hazardous waste facility in the U.S., taking in toxins from all 50 states.

According to Lukata Mjumbe, director of the Alabama-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, the jail plan is just business as usual in the rural South. "It essentially sentences all of the inmates, the jail staff and the construction crew to a potential death sentence," says Mjumbe. "We just don’t know the level of contamination in that landfill. Despite that, the County Commission is recklessly pushing to site the jail in this contaminated corridor."

The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), which is acting as legal counsel to the local protesters, says that Alabama Department of Environmental Management files suggest industrial waste was dumped in the Eutaw, Alabama landfill on several occasions. State records indicate there is considerable groundwater degradation at the site, and that high levels of arsenic and antimony have been recorded. "Statistically significant" amounts of chlorobenzene and other toxins were also detected.

SCHR attorney Tamara Serwer wrote to the Greene County Commission last July indicating that methane in the dump presents "a substantial risk of an explosion at the [proposed] facility." She added, "Most of the gases currently being emitted from the Greene County landfill are hazardous air pollutants under the federal Clean Air Act and are carcinogenic."

The commission voted 3-2 to relocate the jail from its current, overcrowded home in downtown Eutaw to the landfill site. Commissioner Donald Means was one of the dissenters; he says the jail could have expanded and stayed where it is by acquiring nearby vacant lots. "There’s no question it’s a bad idea to relocate the jail there, with the fumes coming off," says Means. "With all the available land in Greene County we could have found a much better site." Sheriff Johnny Isaac is also opposed to the relocation.

But the commission’s chief of staff, Reverend James Carter, says there’s nothing to worry about. "It’s not a toxic waste site," he says. "It’s a closed county landfill that never to our knowledge received anything but household garbage."

Local resident Daisy Carter, a member of local activist group Project Awake, has attended protests against the dump. "I"m very worried about the health of those prisoners," she says. "And the commissioners are just not listening." A threatened lawsuit could delay construction of the jail. At the groundbreaking last spring, according to the Greene County Democrat, "The smell
caused some people to have to leave early."