Womack, a retired army major who grew up in the area and is now the leader of a local environmental justice group, has parked on a patch of dirt under a stories-high interstate bridge, wedged between a paper mill, oil storage tanks and an industrial railroad.
Between the tangle of heavy industry, it’s about as close as you can still get to the area where the Clotilda and the 110 kidnapped west Africans aboard are said to have first touched ground – and where the remains of what might in fact be the ship were recently discovered, thanks to unusual weather conditions.
It is hard to imagine how many oysters were present in Mobile Bay before we got here. It is hard, even, to understand how many there were just 100 years ago. According to AL.com calculations, it is likely we have removed about 1.8 billion adult oysters from the bay in the last century.
Did you know that nearly one million pounds of toxic chemicals are dumped into the Coosa River each year? Nearly 95% of that waste comes from two Koch Foods chicken processing plants near Gadsden in the form of nitrate compounds. Excessive nitrogen pollution stimulates the growth of aquatic plants, weeds and algae, which fishermen and lake goers alike know grow in excess on Coosa River lakes. Too much nitrogen in drinking water can also be harmful to young children and livestock.
When looking at the most harmful chemicals though, the Gaston Steam Plant in Wilsonville and the Resolute Forest Products Coosa Pines paper mill in Childersburg outpace others. In fact, Alabama Power’s Gaston Steam Plant released three times as much developmental toxins to the river, at 473 pounds, as all the other facilities in the basin combined.
When a disease outbreak occurs, Chaisson explained, “the norm is panic, for people to demand testing from the health department, and you can’t do it fast enough.” But the Hill has never been much for demands. The town of Marion sits in the belly of the Black Belt — historically, a ribbon of seventeen counties in central Alabama and parts of northeastern Mississippi, where whites enslaved black people to farm cotton in the dark, fertile soil; the term has come to refer broadly to predominantly African-American areas in the rural South. Across the Black Belt, there is grave poverty; Alabama is the fourth-most-impoverished state in the nation, and Perry is its worst-off county — 47 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The burden is shouldered unequally, as the poverty rate in Perry County is three times higher for black people than for whites. Jim Crow is gone, yet segregation lingers, along with its associated injustices. While Black Belt districts typically go blue, the rest of their states are deep red; last year, after the state of Alabama enacted a law requiring photo identification to vote and then promptly closed D.M.V. offices in Black Belt counties, a federal investigation confirmed that this targeting amounted to discrimination.
Up close, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States isn’t as big as you’d expect it to be. From most angles, you can’t even see it until you’re right on top of it.
But hit the right gap in the rolling hills of north-central Alabama, and the James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant looms large even from miles away. Nestled on about 800 acres on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, the plant is one of Alabama Power’s coal-burning workhorses, putting out enough electricity to power about a million homes. It virtually never stops running – and never stops producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Alabama has been trying on the nickname “New Detroit.” Its burgeoning auto parts industry employs 26,000 workers, who last year earned $1.3 billion in wages. Georgia and Mississippi have similar, though smaller, auto parts sectors. This factory growth, after the long, painful demise of the region’s textile industry, would seem to be just the kind of manufacturing renaissance President Donald Trump and his supporters are looking for.
Except that it also epitomizes the global economy’s race to the bottom. Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.
Leaning forward on a plush chair with his hands clasped so tightly his knuckles were white, Mitch Reid wondered aloud what Theodore Roosevelt might think of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which calls for a 31-percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency.
If passed in its current form, Reid said, the budget will be severely detrimental to the preservation of the Alabama’s natural resources — and he is angry about it.
A little-known federal program has turned dozens of Gulf of Mexico fishermen into the lords of the sea — able to earn millions annually without even going fishing — and transformed dozens more into modern-day serfs who must pay the lords for the right to harvest red snapper.
Some call it a boon to industrial development and commercial trade in Alabama and Mississippi.
Others say it’s a boondoggle, a waste of two billion taxpayer dollars that cost farmers their land and animals their habitat.