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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

Alabama Poor Fight New York Trash

by Pat Veitch

What does a wealthy New York City suburb have in common with a rural, working-class town in Alabama? Garbage. Westchester County and several other counties in New York and Connecticut send their garbage to Moody, Ala., to the Acmar Regional Landfill, a 50-acre site located in the heart of this residential community.

As business and the volume of refuse continue to grow, current owner Paul Burke plans to expand the landfill to 750 acres -- 15 times its current size. In response, the citizens of this small town have begun to mobilize. "This landfill is located in a poor, mostly black, working-class town," said Club member and Moody resident Aaron Head. "The hazards of this dump will not only affect Moody citizens; it poses a threat to other communities as well. We need to inform citizens of the danger, especially those downstream in Birmingham."

Head gave fellow activists the landfill lowdown during a grassroots training seminar held by the Sierra Club's Training Academy. By participating in the SCTA and taking his newfound media and organizing skills back to the Cahaba Group, Head has become part of the Club's Environmental Public Education Campaign success story. The goal of EPEC is to reach out into communities, attract coalition allies and ensure the environment is a visible, politically salient issue in communities around the country. The training academy works as part of EPEC to give leaders and coalition allies skills training that will help them plan, organize and implement public education campaigns around a local or national issue. "Our first step in fighting the landfill was to educate our own community," said Head. "Most people had no idea such a hazard exists in their own town."

The Moody landfill is built on the banks of the Big Black Creek, which flows into the Cahaba River, which in turn supplies drinking water to 1 million Alabamians. The landfill is also situated over the active Helena Fault, and 85 percent of it rests on underground coal mines. And if the threat of cave-ins, water pollution and earthquakes weren't enough, the landfill has a history of violating its permit; in March 1996, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management levied a $150,000 fine against ARL for burying garbage outside legal boundaries -- including the banks of the Big Black Creek.

Most residents were unaware of any hazards until 1995 -- two years after the Moody Town Council quietly approved Burke's 20-year expansion plan. That's when adjacent property owners were first notified. "One of the biggest obstacles to fighting the landfill expansion is that most of the decisions made by the Moody Town Council and the St. Clair County Commission have been made without public knowledge or input," said Jean Duke, head of the Acmar/Moody Environmental Justice Society.

"The approval process works backward," she said. "First the city and county governments go through all the steps to approve the landfill expansion, and by the time the public learns about it, it's practically a done deal." Duke's home is about 2.5 miles from landfill boundaries. "I didn't even know there was a landfill there when I bought my home," she said. "If the expansion goes through, the landfill will border my property."

In February of this year, the environmental justice society, led by Duke, held its first meeting to begin a campaign to educate the people of Alabama. Using tactics they would later hone with Sierra Club training, members raised public awareness of the landfill issue by talking to people in their community. This led to increased attendance at town council and planning commission meetings. "We began to speak out," said Duke, "and got media attention." They contacted the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in the area and joined forces with them. This summer, Duke, Head and other members attended the Club's training academy event in New Orleans. "I learned a lot about community organizing, including how to stay focused on your goals and how to motivate others. We also shared our experience and demonstrated first-hand how vital an aware, educated public is to the issues we care about," said Head. "Joining with the Sierra Club has strengthened both organizations."

The Moody group has used EPEC tactics to rally public opinion against the landfill expansion, raising enough of an outcry that the town council agreed to withdraw its approval. The decision is now in the appeals process. "Once the public got involved, things began to happen," said Duke. At Duke's urging, Fox 6 News in Birmingham sampled the water in Big Black Creek and found that it exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency standards for antimony, lead, barium and thallium."They've located the outhouse over the well," said Duke. The fate of the expansion is still undecided. "This fight is not over," said Duke. "The first step is to halt the expansion and the next step will be to close the landfill entirely. With an informed, involved public and working in coalition with groups like the Sierra Club, we can do it."

For more information: Contact Jean Duke at (205) 640-7987. Upcoming trainings: New Hampshire, Oct. 18-19; New Mexico, Nov. 1-2; Minneapolis, Nov. 8-9, Michigan, Nov. 15-16; Los Angeles, Dec. 6. For more information, contact Emily McFarland at (415) 977-5535;

The mission of the Sierra Club Training Academy is to empower activists by teaching them the organizing skills they need to carry out the Club's priority local and national campaigns and to support dynamic, community-based chapters and groups. Formed in early 1997 as part of the Club's Environmental Public Education Campaign, the SCTA curriculum includes: creating a public demand for environmental protection, developing a strategic media plan and devising effective tactics for winning concrete and immediate environmental victories. The training is based on the belief that Sierra Club chapters and groups in coalition with other community-based organizations can effect positive changes in environmental policy and protection.

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