Freedom of speech rights prevailed in a small Alabama town this week when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won a federal lawsuit brought against four community activists who voiced opposition to a coal ash landfill, citing objections to what they saw as a racial and environmental injustice. The ACLU victory in defending the activists against defamation also includes two permanent environmental protections.
The defendants were sued for $30 million by a Georgia-based waste company for their vocal opposition to the hazardous coal ash that the company keeps in a landfill in a residential area of Uniontown. Speaking out against the risk to their environment and health, the defendants also disagreed with the location of the landfill, which is across the street from several homes and next to one of the town’s historic Black cemeteries.
The population of Uniontown is 91 percent Black, and 48 percent live below the poverty line with a median per capita income of around $8,000.
“No one should have to fear a multi-million dollar lawsuit just for speaking up about their community — but our clients did,” said Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Fortunately, as they do in the face of all injustice, our clients fought back. This settlement reaffirms our clients’ — and everyone’s — constitutional right to speak out and fight for health and justice in their community. In addition to advocating for community health and justice, our clients also became heroes of the First Amendment.”
The ACLU settlement defined several areas moving forward:
- Green Group Holdings agreed to permanently drop the lawsuit;
- They committed to addressing future disagreements with community dialogue first rather than litigation;
- They will provide the public with notice before the landfill receives any potentially hazardous waste products; and,
- The landfill will continue to use the current EPA-approved standards to seal off any future shipments of coal ash.
A concerned citizens’ group called Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice had created a Facebook page that publishes concerns about risks to their environment and health. Green Group sued over the Facebook posts, which included statements such as “We should all have the right to clean air and clean water,” and “It affected our everyday life.”
Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown accepted millions of cubic yards of coal ash starting in 2009 after a catastrophic dike failure and subsequent landfill instability in Tennessee. That coal ash in Tennessee had contaminated land, rivers, reservoirs, and shore areas with so much arsenic and lead that the Environmental Protection Agency concluded there was a potential “imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health.”
Uniontown, in addition to having the Arrowhead Landfill — the biggest municipal waste dump in the state — is also the location of a sewage lagoon, catfish farms, and a large cheese processing plant. The site of the Arrowhead Landfill was once a plantation where Uniontown residents’ Black ancestors, including both enslaved people and tenant farmers, picked cotton. Several burial plots are also near the landfill, and the location and treatment of these remains is still uncertain.
“In Uniontown, we are fighting for so much: our health, our environment, clean air, clean water, and access to justice,” argued Esther Calhoun, one of the Uniontown residents accused of defamation. “And if we want to fight, first we need to speak out about what is happening in our community. We’re not afraid to speak out, and I want people to know that they shouldn’t be afraid, either.”
Some 35 residents filed a complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleges that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management violated their civil rights by allowing the Arrowhead Landfill to locate in their predominately Black neighborhood without adequate protections for the health of residents or the environment.
“Uniontown’s numerous problems reflect policy failures at every level of government to value Black residents’ lives and health,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “And perhaps the greatest tragedy is that people like our clients are expected to bear this oppression silently. This settlement reaffirms every activist’s right to fight for racial and environmental justice in his or her community — out loud and without fear.”
Photo credits: ACLU