In autumn of 2013, a senior executive from a powerful coal company and a lawyer from one of the state’s most influential firms hashed out a strategy for avoiding a serious — and expensive — problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in north Birmingham, where residents, about 95 percent of them African Americans, live in the shadow of massive waste berms, industrial chimneys, and the fortresses of steel, coking and cement manufacturing.
West Jefferson, Alabama, a somnolent town of around 420 people north-west of Birmingham, was an unlikely venue to seize the national imagination. Now, it has the misfortune to be forever associated with the “poop train”.
On March 3, a tornado outbreak struck several southern states in the U.S., including Alabama, where a monster of a tornado reached estimated wind speeds of 170 mph. It left a path of destruction more than 20 miles long in Lee County, killing 23 people and injuring at least 100 others. In the days since, survivors have been picking through the pieces of their homes, recovering what they can, as they try to determine their next steps.
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.
The racial element of America’s poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the “Black Belt,” the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.
The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.
A United Nations official investigating poverty in the United States was shocked at the level of environmental degradation in some areas of rural Alabama, saying he had never seen anything like it in the developed world.
“I think it’s very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this,” Philip Alston, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told Connor Sheets of AL.com earlier this week as they toured a community in Butler County where “raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits.”
A United Nations official who tours the globe investigating extreme poverty said Thursday that areas of Alabama’s Black Belt are suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place he has visited in a developed country.
Children playing feet away from open pools of raw sewage; drinking water pumped beside cracked pipes of untreated waste; human faeces flushed back into kitchen sinks and bathtubs whenever the rains come; people testing positive for hookworm, an intestinal parasite that thrives on extreme poverty.
These are the findings of a new study into endemic tropical diseases, not in places usually associated with them in the developing world of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but in a corner of the richest nation on earth: Alabama.
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.
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.