The Environmental Protection Agency has abruptly closed a longstanding civil rights complaint. In December 2003, the Ashurst Bar/Smith community in Tallassee, Alabama, filed a complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which receives federal funds from the EPA, alleging that by permitting the expansion of a landfill community members had long seen as toxic, the agency violated their civil rights. On April 28, lawyers representing the community received a letter from the EPA notifying them that the federal agency would be dismissing the case, citing “insufficient evidence.”
“To say it’s disappointing is an understatement,” says Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer at Earthjustice who represents the majority black community, “that after all these years of sitting on the complaint, EPA would just close the case.”
The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is tasked with enforcing federal civil rights laws that ban discrimination against members of the public by agencies that receive federal funds, and takes complaints through its External Civil Rights Compliance Office.
According to the the landfill’s official website, when the Stone’s Throw Landfill was owned by another company, it was shut down for undisclosed reasons but in 2002, it was reopened by its current owners, Advanced Disposal. The community quickly expressed concerns about the environmental harms in their community. Today, the landfill has doubled in size, accepting 1,050 tons of trash per day from all over Alabama. In 2015, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management named Stone’s Throw its “Landfill of the Year” for its “community involvement, innovation, and appearance.”
The residents of Ashurst Bar/Smith would probably disagree. Most are black, and the community has deep historical roots. During Reconstruction, even when many newly freed slaves struggled, some black people were able to become land owners and this area became a place where people could trace their ancestry back to the days of post-Civil War America. Phyllis Gosa’s family has lived in the Ashurst Bar/Smith community for six generations. “I believe these negative impacts are allowed to happen by EPA, ADEM, and other officials who are supposed to protect us but don’t, because we are black people,” she said in a press release.
Residents have worried that the ever-expanding landfill will encroach on their land to such an extent that it will be impossible to live there. Community members allege that a myriad of environmental problems and a decrease of property values has harmed their close-knit community. According to the community’s lawyers, residents also worry the landfill has contaminated the community’s source of water. “People pay for public water or buy bottled water,” says Leah Aden who is senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as opposed to well water. “They don’t fish and they don’t garden.”