Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News, July 19, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Residents of one of the blackest and poorest counties in Alabama are fighting another attempt to create a major landfill.]

It looks like there's some dirty business brewing down in Lowndes County.

Residents of one of the blackest and poorest counties in Alabama are trying to fight another attempt to create a major landfill.

Two years ago, Lowndes residents succeeded in fighting off an effort to build a dump just off U.S. Highway 80. Though Lowndes is poor and has little political pull, residents mounted a powerful emotional campaign against the proposed landfill, saying it would tarnish the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and those who marched with him along U.S. 80 in 1965 in support of voting rights.

Faced with that kind of opposition, the owner of the site eventually backed off.

That didn't deter a new venture, Alabama River Partners LLC, which is proposing to build a complex on the Alabama River near Burkville.

The latest proposal has a new wrinkle. It includes a "construction and demolition" landfill as one of the elements in a $25 million complex that also would feature an inland port and a sand-and-gravel operation.

According to the developers, the landfill would be used to bury waste from six states, including debris from Louisiana and Mississippi generated by last year's Hurricane Katrina.

Like previous developers, they are touting potential economic benefits, including up to 75 new jobs and $750,000 annually to the government of the economically depressed county.

The Lowndes County Commission will decide whether to offer them a permit. But as badly as the county needs jobs and money, some local leaders aren't buying the proposal.

"We are a poor county, and we need economic growth, but at what cost?" asks Rick Pate, mayor of Lowndesboro. "Do we sell our future for something that will cause problems for generations?"

Perhaps that's overstating the case. According to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, a construction and demolition landfill could be used only for disposal of "benign" material like lumber, leaves and construction debris.

However, the concern over creating a landfill in Lowndes to bury waste hauled in from other states is understandable. Until residents learned to resist, similar situations in the past threatened to make Alabama a national toilet bowl.

The hazardous waste landfill at Emelle in Sumter County established the template. Centered in a largely black and impoverished section of the state, the landfill took in nearly 40 percent of the nation's toxic waste between 1984 and 1987.

A construction and demolition landfill is a very different sort of creature. But authorizing a multistate dump of any variety could mark the beginning of a very slippery slope.

We like the constructive approach that U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., has taken in such controversies.

He says the areas targeted for landfills need to have a discussion of environmental justice issues and develop "first principles." The goal, he says, should be to empower communities to be "full partners in environmental decision making and dispel the false choice between economic development and safe, healthy communities."

We hope that's the approach the leaders in Lowndes will follow.