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Not a ‘bubbling cauldron’: Environmental discussion draws both sides

EMELLE — There was a time, back in the 1980s, when Rodger Hinson didn’t go a day without answering to the press. If Daisy Carter and Kaye Kiker had their way, the questions wouldn’t have stopped.

Hinson, area market manager for the Waste Management facility here, knows the perception many have of hazardous waste dumps.

“There are a lot of misconceptions in the national and world community,” Hinson said. “When you say hazardous waste to a man or a woman on the street, people picture a bubbling cauldron. And the biggest misconception is that we just don’t care.”

Carter and Kiker never instigated a careless attitude by the current management of the Emelle facility widely known as Chem Waste, but they openly discussed a concern about the environmental impact of such a plant.

“We really try to make citizens aware of the various issues that threaten their health,” said Carter, who heads Project Awake in Sumter County. “We want environmental justice, and we’re educating the public on the possible health threats of pollution.”

Kiker, nationally known for her advocacy of environmental issues, gave a more succinct opinion about the hazardous waste dump in her county.

“We are home of the largest toxic landfill, and leaders did not support the citizens when [the plant located in Emelle],” she said. “When Chem Waste came here, we had a 5.8 percent unemployment rate. After they came, we had a 21.1 percent unemployment rate.”

At issue, for Kiker especially, is the trend of placing landfills and waste facilities in poor, rural communities where the majority of residents are black.

“We’ve been disempowered here,” said Kiker, who is white. “This has been called environmental racism, and thankfully, we have someone who wants to address the issue.”

That someone, according to both Kiker and Carter, is U.S. Rep. Artur Davis.

On Tuesday, Davis launched an “Environmental Justice Initiative,” a program that will allow the Congressman to take a first-hand look at facilities many in the public consider environmental hazards.

“As I’ve thought about the conversations I’ve had with people in the Black Belt, I’ve found myself asking why we have to fight for jobs; why do we have to struggle to have a voice when so many other cities have a voice?” he said. “Why do we have to bear the burden for other people’s indifference?”

Particularly, Davis said he is concerned that many in his district face the option of economic growth and environmental peril at the same time.

“I don’t accept that we have to choose between creating jobs and having safe and responsible environmental policies,” he said.

After a stop in Selma, where Davis toured the long closed All-Lock factory — once a teeming site of pollution — the Congressman traveled to Emelle to speak with members of the media about his plans for creating a symposium on the environment.

“I want to make it clear that we are not here with an anti-industry agenda,” Davis said. “We’re concerned about their perspectives… But we want to get beyond the promises we make each other. We want to see what works.”

Kiker and Carter, evidenced through their local environmental concerns, openly questioned whether Chem Waste has lived up to its promises.

“Since they opened, we have found three major aquifers under [the Chem Waste] site,” Kiker said. “That would provide for our area.”

The Other Side

Rodger Hinson has grown accustomed to persistent questions by members of the media. After working at the Chem Waste site for almost 25 years, he has an answer for every question, even before the question is asked.

But Hinson has valid arguments about his hazardous waste facility, and during Tuesday’s environmental tour, he shared many of them with Davis.

For starters, there are no bubbling cauldrons in Emelle. In fact, the landfill is quite the opposite. Every piece of hazardous material brought into Emelle goes through a rigorous cleansing process. The toxic chemicals, drained from the material, are not dumped into the ground. Rather, only the metal from the materials is buried — and even that isn’t a one-step process.

“Once we drain the liquids out, we take the metal and make them solid in sort of a cement-like material,” Hinson said. “What we bury is almost a solid cement block.”

With labs that “test and test and test” the buried materials, Hinson said there is little reality that Chem Waste pollutes the area.

But there’s another step that helps protect the Emelle environment from pollution, he said.

“We’re located on an 800-foot thick formation of chalky clay,” Hinson said. “It’s called Selma chalk, and this is the deepest part of the Selma chalk.”

Along with plastic liners that keep chemicals from seeping below ground, Hinson believes his company works hard to remain an environmentally friendly neighbor in Sumter County.

In response to a question about “environmental racism,” Hinson was quick to point out the real reason for locating the landfill in Emelle.

“Because it’s located in rural Alabama, that’s secondary,” he said. “Our [environmental] security is not even in the plastic liners. It’s in the chalk. Nothing will leak out of this, and it’s the reason I’ve worked here for 25 years and can sleep at night.”

Along with numerous labs that test and clean chemicals that enter Emelle, Hinson also said Waste Management has been a good economic partner with Sumter County.

Every year, the company pays at least $4.2 million in local taxes.

“We also have about 75 employees with a payroll of $3.2 million,” he said.

Why Now?

There are many reasons to speculate why Davis has chosen to launch this “Environmental Justice Initiative” right now.

Davis, seeking re-election to his Congressional seat, faces Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. in a June 1 Democratic primary.

Turner and other members of the Perry County Commission have been targeted by environmental groups concerning plans to build a landfill near Uniontown.

“I have no control over what the commission does,” Davis said. “But I think this is the symptom of a broader issue; it’s a question of whether or not we can find a different strategy; can we make some of these facilities work for their communities.”

What’s Next?

Determining the next phase to Davis’ “Environmental Justice Initiative” will take time, according to the Congressman.

After his trip to Emelle, Davis was scheduled to visit Hurricane Creek in Tuscaloosa County.

“We’re going to take this information and get everyone at the table together,” Davis said.

With such a hot issue as environmental protection, Davis said he’s quickly learned that a quote his mother constantly repeated holds true for most all negotiations.

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

According to Davis, “That seems to work for almost anything.”

No date has been set, but Davis said he plans to hold a summer symposium to openly discuss his environmental findings. And while he wouldn’t dub the program reactive or preventive, Davis said he wants this initiative to create a “proactive” mindset for people looking to grow the economy of Alabama’s Black Belt.