Emelle, Alabama Toxic Waste Cadillac
By Booth Gunter and Mike Williams
Vol. 6, No. 4, 1984, pp. 1-7
Down in the Heart of Dixie, in the gently rolling hills of the Black Belt, lie gigantic pits–twice as wide as football fields are long–filled to the brim with an alphabet soup mix of dangerous chemicals.
Silver and maroon tanker trucks wind down a narrow blacktop, bringing the deadly leftovers from a chemical industry reluctant to change its wasteful ways. Against a white, moonlike landscape hailed as the Selma Chalk, the workers perform their duty. Into the 150-foot-deep pits go thousands of drums per day of foul-smelling chemical wastes. The trucks come and go. Workers stationed in the burial pits use tractors to make mud pies out of liquid chemicals and cement dust–because federal regulations require chemical wastes to be “solidified” before burial.
This is Emelle, Alabama, located three miles from the
Mississippi border. This is home to what many call the largest hazardous waste dump in the United States, some say the world. In 1983, the dump accepted about 288,000 tons of hazardous wastes. It is the permanent residence for hundreds of thousands–perhaps millions–of gallons of toxic chemicals brought from around the country since the landfill opened in 1977.
This is Sumter County, a sparsely populated area, speckled with cattle ranches, farm ponds, ramshackle houses. About seventy percent of the seventeen thousand people living in the county are black. Almost all of the white children go to private schools; all black children go to the public schools, which are consistently ranked among the state’s worst. Unemployment for blacks is a way of life. Per capita income was $6,362 in 1982, about $2,300 below the state average.
Owners of the dump, Chemical Waste Management Inc.–the largest handler of hazardous wastes in the country–claim the “secure landfill” is the safest anywhere, that five hundred to seven-hundred feet of the highly impermeable Selma Chalk would prevent any leakage of poisonous chemicals for at least ten thousand years. Underneath the dump, some seven hundred feet down, lies the Eutaw Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for people of west and central Alabama.
Country neighbors of the dump–farmers, ranchers and poor blacks–have noticed the foul stench emanating from the dump for several years. But only recently have citizens across Alabama encountered the questionable origins and politics that accompanied the landfill’s evolution. And only recently have Alabamians discovered the lackadaisical manner in which state and federal regulators have monitored the dump for safety.
For years, operators of the dump maintained a close arrangement with state officials. That arrangement included a country barbeque thrown by the company for regulators. The state Health Department officer who signed the dump’s permit even bought stock in the company that owns the dump, and sold it after a three-for-one stock split.
It appears, though, that the close relationship has come to a grinding halt–after a barrage of newspaper stories, fervent action by environmental groups and interference by an Environmental Protection Agency whistleblower.
The origins of the dump are cloudy–state incorporation records do not accurately reflect the original owners. In 1977, a group of men from a Tennessee engineering firm enlisted the help of James Parsons, who happened to be the son-in-law of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, then serving his third term in office. With little public participation, the state Health Department, which had jurisdiction over hazardous waste disposal at the time, granted a permit to the group, called Resource Industries of Alabama. Shortly after the permit was issued, the company–which had retained a prominent local attorney, who was also a key Wallace campaign supporter–sold the then-340 acre landfill to Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of the billion-dollar, multi-national disposal giant, Waste Management, Inc.
The attorney, Drayton Pruitt, helped the company acquire about two thousand more acres, giving the landfill an anticipated lifespan of one-hundred years. Pruitt had been a local kingpin for years in Livingston, the Sumter County seat. He was mayor for twelve years. He was county attorney until recently when blacks finally won control of county government. His father had been a state legislator for about thirty years and a staunch Wallace supporter. Wendell Paris, chairman of the Minority Peoples Council in the county, describes the socio-economic setting in Sumter as little more than a modern feudal system, with Pruitt as the liege lord.
“The white people in Sumter County are as afraid of Dray on Pruitt as I am of a rattlesnake,” Paris says. “He’s a kingpin in several groups, where nothing comes in unless he says so.”
In 1982, Pruitt bought 229 acres from a state legislator who sponsored a law that gave Chemical Waste Management a monopoly on commercial hazardous waste disposal in Alabama. The law–called the Minus Act, after former Representative Preston “Mann” Minus–said the legislature had to approve of any new hazardous waste landfills in the
state. After adverse press reports, Minus insisted that the Alabama Ethics Commission investigate his land deal with Pruitt. He was cleared by the subsequent investigation.
Since Chemical Waste Management took over operation of the site, the landfill has grown into a waste importer, drawing toxic shipments from forty-five states, Puerto Rico and Canada. The site accepts pesticides, industrial solvents, lubricants, industrial sludges, and highly toxic, suspected carcinogens such as DDT and PCBs.
But the company claims the 2,400-acre facility is the “Cadillac” of hazardous waste landfills. The Selma Chalk, company spokesmen say, is perhaps the most secure geological setting in the country for landfill disposal of toxic waste, because the impermeable character of the formation slows the movement of liquids to a snail’s pace. Scientists such as Dr. Kirk Brown of Texas A M University, however, point out that more studies are needed on the reaction of toxic wastes with materials typically used to line hazardous waste disposal trenches. Tests on materials other than the Selma Chalk have shown rates of movement up to one-hundred times greater than initial estimates when toxic substances are put into contact with liner materials. A University of Alabama engineering professor is currently conducting more research in the area, and plans to test the Selma Chalk.
The chalk is also marked by geologic faults, which can act as a conduit to the flow of liquids into subsurface layers. A consulting firm hired by Chemical Waste Management claims the faults at Emelle have “healed,” or closed themselves to the flow of liquids. The US Geological Survey, however, has proposed more research on the faults, but as yet has not obtained funding to carry out the work.
Alabamians have only recently awakened to the fact that perhaps the largest hazardous waste landfill in the nation is busily burying what may be a time bomb in the rolling Sumter County countryside.
Linda Munoz, a quiet-spoken, part-time nurse who lives about twenty miles from the landfill in the town of Cuba, says most Sumter County residents never knew what went on at the Emelle site until years after the facility opened.
“Until I left some information at her house, one woman thought the place was a fertilizer factory,” she laughed. “It’s not that people here are ignorant, it’s just that there has been so little about it in the local papers.”
Ms. Munoz and a band of half a dozen others have been busy since this spring organizing a homegrown environmental group, which they call ACE, for Alabamians for a Clean Environment. They say their eventual goal is to close down the Emelle site, although at this early stage, they admit the struggle is an uphill battle.
“People are very fond of the money that comes from the landfill, so they won’t speak out,” said Ms. Munoz, referring to the high-paying jobs at the landfill and the $1.4 million in fees paid by the company to the county last year. The money is divided among county agencies, and helps fund everything from highway maintenance to the-historic preservation society.
“But the money is nothing compared to the risks,” says Ms. Munoz. “Groundwater is one of Alabama’s most important resources, and we’re appalled at how we’ve jeopardized our groundwater by allowing the landfill.”
The fact of the matter is that few of Sumter County’s citizens had any say at all in “allowing” the landfill to locate at Emelle–except, of course, for a handful of powerful white men like Drayton Pruitt. For years, Pruitt has run the county like an empire, and with the appearance of Chemical Waste Management, has simply taken his backwoods power-brokering several notches up the scale of intensity and profitability.
But Pruitt’s story is a familiar one, and, because of the Selma Chalk, it may be more familiar to those who live in the 250-mile long swatch of the Black Belt, where the formation located is located, than to people in any other part of the country.
Ted Lingham, mayor of the tiny Lowndes County village of Lowndesboro for “the past eight or ten years–I really can’t remember exactly how long”–was out in his pasture one day checking his cattle when he saw a drilling crew hard at work in a neighboring pasture.
“I asked them what they were doing and they wouldn’t answer for awhile, and then they told me they were drilling for oil,” said Lingham, who lives about fifteen miles southwest of Montgomery.
“Now I know you don’t drill for oil with a little bitty old gasoline-powered rig,” he said.
Lingham soon learned that the crew was drilling core samples for the nation’s second-largest hazardous waste disposal firm, Browning-Ferris Industries, Inc., which later purchased an option to buy two-thousand acres of land for a hazardous waste landfill not two miles from Lingham’s ranch. The option was sold by Lowndes County Probate Judge Harrell Hammonds, who, since the sale, “hasn’t been the most popular man in the county,” as one observer puts it.
When Lingham learned of the plan, he quickly mobilized his neighbors and headed a crowd of five hundred citizens who attended a meeting with company representatives.
“We raised such a stink the company has slacked off its plans,” said Lingham.
Browning-Ferris was also shut out of Lowndes County by the Minus Act, but not before enlisting the aid of state Rep. Nelson Starkey of Florence, who tried unsuccessfully to convince lawmakers to repeal the act.
Chemical Waste Management has also attempted to expand its exploitation of the Selma Chalk by purchasing an option to buy 564 acres of land in the rural east Mississippi County of Noxubee–a site not twenty-five miles from Emelle, as the crow flies. The company moved into the area with little fanfare, and proceeded to locate a local powerbroker of sorts, purchasing an option from A.T. Evans, a member of the Board of Aldermen in the tiny town of Shuqualak, located about two miles from the proposed dump site. The Board of Aldermen in 1983 unanimously passed a resolution supporting the location of the landfill in the largely black county.
But other residents didn’t give Chemical Waste Management the chance to sneak into Noxubee County un-announced. Bill Thomas, a local lumber company executive, organized a drive that netted 3,500 signatures on a petition opposing the landfill–in a county with a total population that Thomas estimates at between eight thousand and ten-thousand.
“Every landfill eventually leaks,” Thomas says. “We’re sitting right on top of the water we drink, and if we pollute that, then all of us are going to have to leave–even Chemical Waste Management.”
Thomas doesn’t trust the company, either, citing a list of problems encountered at Chemical Waste Management sites in Colorado, Kansas, Illinois and Ohio.
“The past performance of the company has been terrible,” he said. “They have flagrantly violated EPA rules on PCB storage at Emelle. We don’t have confidence in them to operate a toxic waste site.”
Thomas’ reference to PCBs at Emelle strikes at the heart of what has become a roiling controversy in Alabama in the past six months, a controversy that stretches from Waste Management headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, to the halls of EPA in Washington, to the offices of state legislators and regulators in Montgomery and finally to the homes of concerned residents in Sumter County and in Chickasaw, a small industrial port city near Mobile. The story of Chemical Waste Management and its “problem” with PCBs stored a Emelle has attracted nation-wide attention.
PCBs, an oil-based substance used to insulate electrical equipment such as transformers, were banned by EPA in 1977 after studies indicated they might cause cancer. So persistent are the constituent elements of the substance that federal laws prohibit the landfill disposal of PCBs in concentrations greater than five hundred parts per million. Such waste must be incinerated, and on land, incinerators must have expensive scrubbers to trap residues that might otherwise go up the incinerator’s stack and contaminate the air.
In the early 1970’s, several European companies pioneered the technology of adapting hazardous waste incinerators to ocean-going ships. The ships provided a clear advantage over land-based incinerators for two reasons: far out at sea, the fumes and unburned particles coming up the incinerator stack are deposited miles from populated areas. Also, depending on the regulations in force, incineration ships are not necessarily required to install scrubbers, which provides a competitive edge over land-based incineration.
Although several incineration ships operated out of European and Asian ports throughout the 1970’s, in the United States, EPA failed to write rules for regulating ocean. incineration, despite the urging of several congressional committees. Sailing in an unregulatd sea, Chemical Waste Management in 1980 bought a Dutch incineration vessel and in 1983 commissioned construction of a second toxic-waste burning ship. The vessels were christened the Vulcanus I and II.
EPA officials encouraged the company’s plans by granting
two research permits that allowed the company to burn several hundred thousand gallons of PCBs and other waste in a specially-designated burn site located 190 miles off the coast of Brownsville, Texas. To load the ships, the company leased a docking slip in Chickasaw, Alabama.
Even though federal ocean incineration regulations still had not been adopted, EPA in 1983 appeared well on its way to issuing a permit that would have allowed the company to burn almost eighty million gallons of PCBs and other chlorinated wastes off Brownsville. Anticipating a prompt receipt of the permits, the company had been stockpiling PCBs from across the country at Emelle, which is located just 150 miles north of Chickasaw.
The company’s plans, however–and EPA’s cooperation–ran into a storm of protest in late 1983 when thousands showed up at public hearings in Brownsville and Mobile to protest the burns, as well as EPA’s handling of the permit.
Collette King, a thirty-six-year-old homemaker and mother of three, galvanized citizens in Chickasaw to oppose the company’s plans. They first drew battle with the company in March 1983 over its plans to build two large hazardous-waste storage tanks at the port facility to hold the waste until it could be loaded onto the ships. At that time, the only public hearings on ocean incineration had been held in Brownsville.
“We had to organize a letter-writing campaign,” says Ms. King. “EPA was going to make a decision for Alabama based on public hearings in Texas. And the loading facility for the thing is here in Chickasaw.”
Stung by the public outcry, EPA scheduled a public hearing in Mobile for November, 1983. Gulf Coast residents and environmentalists turned out en masse to express their anger and opposition at the company’s plans.
In February 1984, Ms. King’s group convinced the Chickasaw City Council to pass a tough ordinance restricting the hauling of hazardous waste through the town. The ordinance said such trucks traveling to the port could take only one route through town, a route which passed over a narrow, winding railroad viaduct bridge with a weight limit of fifteen tons. Company spokesmen said the waste trucks weighed nearly that much empty, and the company in April went to court to fight the ordinance. The case is still pending, but events in the meantime may make the suit unnecessary.
One significant event came in February when EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman–whose revelations about inside dealings at Reagan’s EPA led to the scandal that rocked the agency last year and culminated in the resignation of administrator Anne Burford–claimed in an interagency memorandum that Chemical Waste Management was trying to “blackmail” EPA into granting the Vulcanus permits by storing PCBs at Emelle longer than federal rules allow. The rules call for the incineration of high-concentration PCBs within one year of the date they are accepted at disposal facilities.
Kaufman’s allegations were prompted by a proposed consent agreement between EPA and Chemical Waste Management, which called for the company to dispose of the PCBs at Emelle upon receipt of a permit to operate the Vulcanus ships. The agreement set a $100,000 fine for the storage upon the company’s compliance. If the company did not receive the ocean incineration permits within one year of the date of the agreement, it would have to submit a schedule for disposal of the PCBs–which would have to be burned at one of only three land-based PCB incinerators licensed by EPA, all operated by Chemical Waste Management competitors. So confident had the company been of EPA’s commitment to ocean incineration that it had put all its eggs in the Vulcanus basket–and did not apply for permits to build its own land-based incinerator.
Chemical Waste Management’s fortunes in Alabama took a turn for the worse in March, when Montgomery County District Attorney Jimmy Evans announced he would soon begin an investigation into waste-handling practices at Emelle. Evans lacked direct jurisdiction over the Emelle facility, but said he would examine reports the company was required to file with state officials headquartered in Montgomery. In June, Evans convened a grand jury, saying the panel might meet for months in its effort to uncover the entire story at the landfill–a facility that Evans claimed was turning Alabama into “the toilet bowl of the nation.” Evans has said the grand jury is investigating allegations that Chemical Waste Management improperly accepted such deadly wastes as dioxin at Emelle–without informing the state.
During a five-month period beginning in March, when almost daily press reports in the Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery newspapers chronicled the fastest chapters in the Vulcanus/Emelle saga, state politicians began to take notice. Alabama’s attorney general filed a motion with EPA officials to intervene in the consent agreement between EPA and the company, saying he would not rest until fines were levied for the PCB violations at Emelle. Other politicians hopped on what some were calling the hazardous waste bandwagon, and a spate of bills dealing with financial
disclosure by owners of hazardous waste disposal firms and other issues was introduced. By the time the session ended in May, the Legislature had passed one bill calling for a permanent three-person technical monitoring team stationed at Emelle, and had created a joint interim committee to investigate the hazardous waste industry in Alabama.
Meanwhile, on the national scene, in April EPA hearing officer Steven Schatzow, who conducted the public hearings at Mobile and Brownsville on the proposed Vulcanus permits, recommended to EPA assistant administrator for water Jack Ravan that Chemical Waste Management be allowed to conduct “test” burns to destroy 3.3 millions gallons of PCBs aboard the ships. The company had publicly estimated the total amount of high concentration PCBs at Emelle at 2.8 million gallons, and critics immediately cried foul over the close coincidence of Schatzow’s recommendation and the company’s pressing needs. They also noted that the company had applied only for the eighty million gallon operating permit–and not for the test burn permits Schatzow was recommending. Shortly after announcing his recommendations, Schatzow was transferred to the office of pesticides as part of what EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus said was an innovative agency-wide program designed to infuse new blood at EPA’s top levels by giving career executives the chance to face new challenges by moving to new areas of the agency. No other transfers have since been announced under the program.
In May, however, Ravan assuaged critics and environmentalists by denying Chemical Waste Management any permits–research or operating–for the ships. Ravan said the EPA must first adopt ocean-incineration regulations before issuing more permits, and he called for additional scientific studies by the agency on the need for and efficiency of the technology. He did not, however, close the door on future permits.
Chemical Waste Management, though, was stuck without an incinerator for disposal of the Emelle PCBs. The EPA seemed content to allow the company to continue holding the waste in Alabama under the terms of the consent agreement, but, strangely, the agreement had never been formally adopted–perhaps because the agency was waiting for the Vulcanus permit decision. The lack of final approval left the door cracked for Alabama authorities, and in May an EPA administrative law judge ruled that the Alabama attorney general be made a party to the agreement. Graddick repeated his vows to push for heavy fines and rapid disposal of the PCBs.
In the meantime, though, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management entered the fray by issuing an April 16 directive ordering the company to stop taking PCBs at Emelle until the illegally-stored waste was removed from the site. ADEM gave the company a month to submit a disposal plan, but the company retaliated by filing suit in federal district court in Birmingham, claiming the state had no authority to issue the order because federal PCB laws preempted such an order.
U.S. District Judge J. Foy Guin granted the company a preliminary injunction on May 24, and issued a blistering opinion that scored state officials for impeding “the national goal of safe, uniform and effective PCB storage and disposal.”
Relieved but perhaps sated on PCBs, the company ceased accepting all but the low-concentration PCBs, which regulations allow it to bury at Emelle. ADEM, however, went back to its legal drawing board and on July 22 returned with a, new, proposed order that would impose a strict disposal schedule on the company, backed by a fine that would total $6.9 million if the company missed a series of deadlines called for in the order. Responding to the company’s claim that the April 16 order deprived it of due process, ADEM said the order would become final only after a July 24 meeting with the company to discuss the proposed schedule and fine.
The company claimed the order conflicted with Guin’s May ruling, but otherwise made no initial response. Observers expected the company to file suit again in federal court.
Although no one has said that the Emelle landfill leaks toxic chemicals, the attention focused on the dump in recent months has caused state officials to scrutinize the operation as never before. In July, ADEM officials announced they had determined that the groundwater monitoring system used since 1981 at the landfill was inadequate for several reasons, even though it complies with federal regulations.
“In that site, and in these formations, the idea of using a deep-aquifer monitoring well is not a prudent thing to do,” said Buddy Cox, chief of ADEM’s hazardous waste section. “By the time the material traversed that distance, if it were to happen, you would have a significant problem on your hands–so significant that it would be difficult, it not impossible to correct.”
Monitoring wells drilled at the site reach all the way into the Eutaw aquifer. The well will not detect leaks from the landfill’s disposal trenches until too late, Cox says–only
after the aquifer has been contaminated.
Cox stated publicly in July that he would soon require the company to drill shallow wells around each disposal trench on the site, wells that would angle under the trenches and detect leaks before pollutants reach the aquifer.
Presently, state and federal laws provide that materials contained in hazardous waste landfills become the property of the state following what is known as a “post-closure period”–usually a period of 30 years. Having learned that when companies like Chemical Waste Management finish their years of making profits from a site like Emelle, they can eventually wipe their hands and walk away clean from any liability for future problems, Alabamians are becoming more aware, and more outspoken, on the potential time bomb that may be ticking away in the Sumter County hills.
The feelings of many are summed up by Collette King, who says she has become active fighting the company for four very specific reasons: “my three children and this community.”
“They haven’t got enough money in the Superfund to buy this house,” she says.
Booth Gunter and Mike Williams are staff writers for the Montgomery Advertiser. Gunter worked as a political and general assignments reporter for the daily Huntsville (Texas) Item until 1983, writing, among other issues, about the Texas prison system and capital punishment. Williams, a native of Tuscaloosa, has written about the history of industrial workers in Birmingham as part of a project supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Youth grant.
Environmental policy in the Reagan Administration has encouraged industrial producers of hazardous waste to resume, or continue, long-practiced, devil-may-care ways. Anxious to dispose of toxic waste as cheaply as possible, many commercial waste companies have headed South. These companies say they have c~ me to take advantage of the region’s geology and to handle Southern-generated waste. They rarely mention that other attractions include the low level of environmental awareness among many Southerners, the laxity of state environmental laws, inadequate funding for regulatory agencies in most Southern states, and the willingness of many state and local politicians to assist the companies in their efforts to purchase land discreetly and to speedily obtain the necessary permits.
Ecological awareness among Southerners has grown in recent years as local groups have sprung up in opposition to particular sites and as reports of leaky landfills and questionable disposal practices have spilled into the press. Among the community activists stirs a growing conviction that toxic waste dumping in the South must be stopped before it becomes another chapter in an old story–the story of outsiders, aided by the greed and dishonesty of some of the region’s own politicians, taking advantage of the South’s resources for profit.