Emelle residents protest Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill 1978-1995

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
There was no specific end date for ACE's campaign. Most environmental justice activists and scholars agree that ACE's campaign ended in the 1990s. I ended this case in 1998 because of ACE's participation in the Southern Environmental Assembly ‘88.
1978
to
1988
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Emelle, Alabama
Goals: 
To close the Chemical Waste Management hazardous landfill near Emelle, Alabama.
 

In 1978, Chemical Waste Management Inc. (CWM), a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. (WMX), bought 300-acres of land near Emelle, Alabama for a hazardous waste landfill. Residents did not have the opportunity to protest the landfill prior to its construction because CWM was not legally obligated to disclose information about land use.

Many residents of Emelle believed a brick plant was to be built on the purchased land. WMX eventually expanded the landfill in the early 1990s to cover nearly 2,700 acres. CWM used 350 acres for the landfill, while the rest of the land served as a buffer zone. At this time, one-third of Sumter County lived below the poverty line, and 90 percent of Emelle residents were Black. In addition, part of the landfill lay above the Eutaw Aquifer.

Emelle residents began working at the plant immediately after it was built in 1978. Citing dangerous work conditions, employees staged a walkout in 1981 (date not known). Led by Wendell Paris, a prominent civil rights activist and member of the Minority Peoples Council, these workers were the first to bring attention to unsafe conditions within the so-called “‘Cadillac’ of hazardous waste landfills.”

The CWM landfill received toxic waste from federal Superfund sites, amounting to approximately 40 percent of America’s hazardous waste from 1984 to 1987. Between 1978 and 1995, Sumter County received $20 million from the company in monthly payments of $5.00 for every ton of waste buried. This payment system made it difficult for Emelle residents to protest the landfill because county budgets for school boards and county commissions relied heavily on Chemical Waste, also the largest employer in Sumter County.

Sumter Countians Organized for the Protection of the Environment (SCOPE), a majority white organization, formed shortly after the walkout. The group was comprised of Sumter County residents, including a biology professor from Livingston University. Some members of Emelle expressed dissatisfaction with SCOPE because the group concerned itself with regulating the landfill rather than eliminating it. A radical faction separated from the moderate organization to create Alabamians for a Clean Environment (ACE), which was also mainly white.

Contrary to SCOPE, ACE did not believe the landfill was a necessary industry for Sumter County and wanted it shut down. While ACE had nearly 300 members, its core consisted of ten people, including local activist Kaye Kiker. Concerned with the possibility of unemployment if the landfill closed, locals described ACE’s impact “like a mouse trying to stomp an elephant.” Prior to its formal designation as an organization, members of ACE worked with Greenpeace and the Alabama Chapter of the Sierra Club to petition the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authorization of CWM’s landfill. The EPA ultimately denied petitions submitted by the three organizations on 10 July 1987.

White and Black organizations in Sumter did not start working together until 1987. Each group, from the Minority Peoples Council to ACE, had vastly different agendas. Only the Black Minority Peoples Council challenged environmental racism and health hazards. The term “environmental racism” refers to the deliberate dumping of pollutants and toxins in Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities. Black Emelle residents wanted a single organization to work on issues related to social justice, race, and the environment. ACE made this goal possible with help from Greenpeace and Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes.

In 1987, ACE held the Toxic Trail of Tears rally in Montgomery, AL followed by a caravan to WMX’s landfill in Emelle. As a point on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, the location of this rally was historically significant to Sumter County residents. Montgomery was also a significant starting point because of the city’s historic role in the civil rights movement. The rally integrated Black and Native American voices and experiences to address the disproportionate waste dumping in Emelle; speakers also used civil rights songs and chants to spread their message. Wendell Paris attempted to integrate Black residents into the action to diminish the racial tension present during demonstrations.

In 1988, local environmentalists invited ACE leaders to participate in the Southern Environmental Assembly ‘88, a regional environmental meeting with more than 1,000 activists in attendance. Held in Atlanta, ACE was able to spread its message against WMX and its mission to close the landfill to a greater audience. The assembly coincided with the Super Tuesday primaries in an attempt to influence presidential candidates to address environmental concerns. During this year, President Reagan honored the past president of ACE as a leading environmental activist and Governor Guy Hunt presented her with the 1988 Alabama Volunteer of the Year award.

ACE’s role against WMX expanded after increased collaboration with other third-party organizations, like the Sierra Club, and when one of its members created Southern Women Against Toxics (SWAT) in 1991. These organizations provided legal advice and tactics to use against WMX. Alabama Attorney Generals Don Siegelman and Jimmy Evans served as prominent elite support during ACE’s campaign. Prior to becoming AG, Jimmy Evans subpoenaed documents to examine CWM’s work in Alabama. Aside from news stories, ACE appeared in a VH1 music video about environmental justice.

A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling greatly decreased the amount of waste that entered Emelle, and Alabama passed a waste management ordinance in 1994. The amount of waste buried in the Chemical Waste facility dropped from 788,000 tons in 1989, to 290,000 tons in 1995. Despite additional protest methods, including sign waving and name calling, ACE was unsuccessful in closing the Chemical Waste hazardous landfill. The organization fell apart after its key members began working for the National Toxics Campaign, Water Authority of Sumter County, and the Historical Society in Sumter. However, ACE proved successful in bringing global attention to environmental racism and scholars refer to ACE as one of the first environmental justice campaigns in America.

Research Notes
Sources: 

Anon. (ND). “Emelle, Alabama: Home of the Nation’s Largest Hazardous Waste Landfill.” Web site: University of Michigan. Retrieved 19 March 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170320023532/http://umich.edu/~snre492/Jones/emelle.htm).

Bezdek, Roger. (1995). Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Bullard, Robert D, ed. (1993). Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Dunlap, Riley E. and Angela G. Mertig, eds. (1992). American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis New York Inc.

Dorceta, Taylor E. (2014). Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Pérez, Alejandro C. (2015). “Emelle nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill, USA.” 7 August 2015. Web site: Environmental Justice Atlas. Retrieved 17 March 2017 (https://ejatlas.org/conflict/emelle-nations-largest-hazardous-waste-landfill-usa)

Schmidt, William E. (1985). “When the Neighbor is a Toxic Landfill.” 16 October 1995. Web site: New York Times. Retrieved 19 March 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170322224200/http://www.nytimes.com/1985/10/16/us/when-the-neighbor-is-a-toxic-landfill.html).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Shayla Smith 22/03/2017