Friday, June 26, 2009

Tim Lennox OFFair and ONline: Coal Ash for Perry County

Tim Lennox OFFair and ONline: Coal Ash for Perry County

Why all the blogging all of a sudden?

I know, I know. I never update this thing anymore. But this is a special case. When Franklin Hill from the EPA came to talk to Perry County Wednesday night about TVA's plan to dispose of their coal ash here, he had some unkind things to say about local newspapers. That we're misinforming the public, that we have some insidious "other agendas" that cause us to fabricate information about this ash to get people up in arms. That we, not the ash, were the problem for making people here worry. Though he didn't come out and say it, this is what he meant: nobody down here, least of all the press, has the slightest idea what they're talking about. He was here to set the record straight for us, to correct our misguided and ill-informed concerns. I could see Commission Chairman Fairest Cureton giggling when Hill took his jabs at us. 

When people presented him with their worries, real and valid ones about the implications of disposing of the toxic ash here, he deftly brushed off their concerns. "I realize you have your perceptions, and your perceptions are real to you," Hill told the crowd. The implied meaning: they may be real to YOU, but they're certainly not ACTUALLY real. 

Our concern here at the Herald is this precise attitude: that bureaucrats, politicians, and executives know what's best for Perry County, and its own people don't. We can't get our local leaders to listen to us. They're only in it for the money. We can't get EPA to heed our concerns, Hill told us as much Wednesday night: "I'm not here asking, quite frankly for approval."

The arrogance displayed by federal, state, and local officials toward the real and deeply-felt concerns of our residents is disgusting. There are people living in Perry County right now who feel completely powerless, and rightfully so. Their concerns about the quality of life for them and future generations are being brushed aside. Their worry, and ours too, is that no one listens. Decisions are being made that will impact Perry County forever — once that ash is here, it's here to stay. That makes some of us uncomfortable. On one hand, EPA sent us a representative to tell us that the ash was perfectly safe, and we had no need to worry. In Washington, though, that same agency is rethinking its position on coal ash as we speak. Concerns about the material's toxic constituents may mean it gets reclassified as hazardous waste. The Dept. of Homeland Security wants to scrub over 40 existing coal ash storage facilities from the map, citing the danger they pose to surrounding communities as potential terrorist targets. With mixed messages like that, tell us again why we shouldn't be concerned. 

I've posted the Herald's coverage of the coal ash debacle thus far to get it to a wider audience. Does it seem inflammatory, or fabricated, or intended to mislead? That's not our intention. We check all our facts, and when we are informed of inaccuracies, we correct them. We're not here to lie to the people. We're here to give them a voice. 

From the look of things, we're the only ones who will. 

Compson Sartain's take on coal ash

Columnist W. Compson Sartain has also weighed in on the coal ash debate in his weekly feature, "Don't listen to me..." Here are selected items from the past three weeks of Sartain's musings on what the coal ash means to Perry County. 

For those unfamiliar with the format of Sartain's column, each item is considered to be the continuation of his column's titular suggestion. While the column is meant to be lighthearted and satirical, Sartain's work has a way of cutting to the meat of many political issues in a way that straight news and commentary simply cannot. 

— John A. Clark

June 11, 2009

…but I’m learning more about coal ash than I ever wanted to know. First of all, we’re pretty sure now that the coal ash from the now famous TVA spill is coming to the Perry County Landfill. We’ll likely be giving a home to all three million tons of it. Now, the $1 per ton tipping fee the county gets from the landfill would help out our general funds considerably—especially now that the county is considering making good on its promise to split the money with Marion and Uniontown, if, that is, they play ball—but there are still some concerns. Despite some reports that such material is not hazardous, we’re pretty sure that it is. Why would you need to clean up a spilled anything if it wasn’t hazardous? If this isn’t enough to alarm y’all alarmists out there, consider the report from independent scientists from Duke University, who tested this particular coal ash for its dangerous content. Most alarmingly, they found a considerably higher percentage of arsenic and radium (which is radioactive) than one normally finds in coal ash. Now, we’re reassured that if things are done properly, if the plastic lining of the landfill doesn’t rupture, if the underlying layer of chalk does in fact help safeguard the ground water, if the coal ash remains securely covered to prevent toxic airborne dust, if we never ever ever have a torrential rain that overflows the landfill, and if every person along the long chain of people who have to do everything just right does in fact do everything just right, we should all be fine with nothing to worry about. But how often does that happen in Perry County, or in the world anywhere? If everything was being done just right, this stuff wouldn’t have been spilled in the first place.

…but even though I’m not very good at math, my wife is, and she checked my numbers on this one. If even a very small amount of this coal ash is hazardous, say one-one-thousandth of one percent—which sounds tiny—of this stuff that is what we’d call bad stuff, that would still be 300 tons of pure bad stuff in our back yards. Sounds like a lot to me.

…but several of our leaders flew in a private TVA plant to negotiate with TVA officials to dump the coal ash in our dump. I think it matters who went: Commissioners Albert Turner, Tim Sanderson, Marion Councilman Corin Harrison, and Uniontown Mayor Jamal Hunter all took the trip, but so did Commissioners Fairest Cureton and Clarence Black, who won their commission seats on campaign promises to fight the landfill. Looks like the fight is over, and we’ve established the dollar value of a campaign promise.

…but I wonder, what with all the improvements being made to Vaiden Field—our own airport—and with the fact that the more use that airport sees, the more grant money it will be able to get—and with all the commission’s talk of what a good and useful economic tool the airport could be for the Black Belt, why all of these people chose to fly out of Craig Field in Selma, probably driving right past Vaiden on their way out of town. I think every one of us should ask them. A lot.

June 18, 2009

…but I’m sorry that we’re becoming Coal Ash Weekly around here, but this stuff just won’t go away. As a matter of fact, it’s coming. Ever since the TVA spill of this stuff, officials have been looking for a place to put the mess once it gets cleaned up. Despite EPA tests that have revealed highly toxic and even radioactive substances in said coal ash, TVA—the people who spilled the ash—and the EPA—the people who have to negotiate with the needs of large organizations and who in so doing have never ever lied to any member of the public ever under any circumstances in the history of its existence—say the coal ash is as safe as mother’s milk. I suppose that depends on the dietary habits of said metaphorical mother. If she lives on a steady diet of arsenic and radium, then I guess the analogy might hold up. Hypothetically toxic teats notwithstanding, I have to return to my persistent question: if this stuff is so safe, why bother cleaning it up when it spills? I won’t feel comfortable until I see a delegation from EPA and TVA standing on the courthouse square, each member stirring a heaping spoonful of this coal ash into a glass of Tennessee river water this stuff has already fallen into, and gargling with it. Go ahead. Put our money where your mouth is.

…but if this stuff is so safe, why don’t we give that away for free as fill dirt and mobile home pads? Why not pile it all up on the courthouse square for people to come get as they please? We’ll never have to buy cat litter again. Fill your kids’ sandboxes. A spoonful will probably kill whatever parasites you have troubling you. Maybe it’ll make a dandy ice cream topping. According to Marion Councilman Corin Harrison, TVA and EPA promise that this coal ash contains fewer toxins and in less quantity than dirt from your own back yard. I’m not comforted by this, and you shouldn’t be either. Maybe they’re right. After all, these are two groups who probably know what was dumped here back before we had a landfill to put it in.

…but it’s possible that not all of the coal ash is coming to Perry County. Some of it may going to Cumberland County, Tennessee, where the locals are just as upset about this as we are. What a way to make a sister city. I hereby challenge Cumberland County to a duel. Whoever has the most birth defects in ten years wins. Or maybe we should use an elaborate points system I devised. Extra toes and fingers are worth one point. Siamese twins are worth two points (three for triplets and so on for each additional attached little person). Less obvious physical conditions will be awarded points on the severity, and let’s give a respectful twenty points for every child born with an organ on the outside of its body.

…but I look for Hollywood to make one of them lawyerin’ movies about us here in another decade or two. I bet they won’t shoot it here, though.

June 25, 2009

…but how about that other happy goodtime job and revenue generator down in Uniontown—the landfill. I’m sure you know by now that we’re going to get a large amount of probably hazardous coal ash that should go to the landfill. Even though the county does stand to make quite a bit of money from allowing that stuff to be dumped here, most people I’ve talked to and read about don’t like the idea of toxic material being dumped in their communities. Some arguments say that coal ash isn’t toxic, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. A recent article in Scientific American said that coal ash actually releases more radiation into the environment than nuclear waste . This makes sense because nuclear waste spends most of its radiation before becoming waste, and because of the strict standards one has to follow in disposing of it. The standards are obviously not so strict on the more radioactive coal ash.

…but I suspect the security of our landfill might compare to the security of our prisons, and the Department of Homeland Security apparently agrees. The federal watchdogs have even refused to disclose a complete list of coal ash dumping sites around the country because they are worried about terrorists attacking these sites to release the toxic material on the surrounding communities. This doesn’t sound like non-hazardous waste to me. When the fed puts a substance in a similar category to anthrax, I’m less inclined to listen to Albert Turner when he tells me I don’t need to be worrying about it.

…but Little Al isn’t opposed to coal ash. As a matter of fact, he wants us to have as much coal ash as we can get. He even wants to waddle down to Montgomery and pass some laws that secure our entitlement to accept everybody else’s toxic waste. He even says that he wants us to accept coal ash from TVA ash ponds around the state. Little Al wants them shut down and all the waste to come here because—get this—THEY ARE HAZARDOUS TO THE SURROUNDINIG COMMUNITIES.

..but I know Jesus taught us all about self sacrifice, but I don’t think this is what he had in mind. I don’t think Little Al’s quite thinking this way either, though he seems to say that we should take in everybody else’s toxins so they don’t have to suffer from them.

…but the a certain Marion politico wanted us to know that a lot of little  old ladies found last week’s headline offensive, due to the clever implied rhyme about Marion becoming the “ash hole” of the region. Funny. Nobody called me except to tell me how funny they thought that was. And this is yet another example of our backward priorities. You think the offensive thing would be all the toxic waste we’re about to have to live next to. And if your tender little ears are offended when I don’t write the word “ass,” then your heart’s probably too weak to take such unpleasant truths about the world anyway. I’m tired of us coddling one another. Let’s speak plainly for a change. If I have to live in a toxic waste dump, I at least want to live in an honest one.

…but maybe we should join Little Al in his effort to toxify Perry County for profit. I’m sure the rest of America produces a lot of dirty needles and other medical waste it would pay handsomely for someone to take off their hands. And those corpses of homeless people have to go somewhere. We could turn all of North Perry into a Potter’s Field. We could fence off hundreds of lowland acres and create an internment camp for the criminally insane. Maybe have a camp annex for the elderly people whose children don’t want to care for them anymore. Why don’t we get into the refugee business while we’re at it? Anybody set to be ethnically cleansed could just be sent here. Same for all those prisoners in Gitmo who don’t have anywhere to go. Yes, send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Send us everything you’ve got that’s toxic or infectious. For a quick, short-term profit, we’ll take it all.

…but during the county commission meeting this week, Commissioner Clarence Black looked up from the spot on the table he’s apparently been assigned to stare at and said he was maybe kind of opposed to bringing coal ash among his constituents. This is a convenient position for him to take at this point, because all of the other commissioners are so adamantly in favor of it that his vote and voice won’t make a difference either way. If he were really that concerned, we’d have heard his position much sooner, and he’d have at least tried to convince someone else of his position. I appreciate the token gesture, but come on. As is, he can look like he opposes the coal ash import without actually having to engage in politics or protest. But he never talks too loudly anyway. I can’t decide whether his problem is in his tongue or in his spine.

…but Black and the other commissioners took issue with our reporting on their jaunt to meet with TVA officials last week. They said the trip to Tennessee on a TVA jet was a “fact finding mission,” nothing more. They certainly weren’t going to lobby TVA to send the fly ash here. Never mind that they were accompanied by executives from the landfill, or that after that meeting, the ash’s final destination became quite clear. Calling a trip a “fact finding mission” makes it much easier for politicians to accept free stuff without getting into trouble for it.

…but Little Al dropped some more revealing illogic on us. He said that we shouldn’t worry about the coal ash because there’s an ash pond near Demopolis that nobody has complained about for fifty years. That so? Well, now’s a good time to start asking questions about it. I never thought to ask before, because I never knew it was there. Just because nobody has been complaining about it doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Little Al. Now go back and write another argument that doesn’t make any sense. I’ll take that one apart next time.

Column: Speed of coal ash deal shut the public out

Perry County Herald
June 25, 2009

by: John Allan Clark

Well, good thing we had that hastily-assembled and barely-advertised public meeting with officials from the EPA, ADEM, and local governing bodies last night on the coal ash debate. All this time I was worried about the toxic constituents of the ash, arsenic and radium and the like. Good thing Franklin Hill of the EPA set the record straight. The real danger? Newspapers. 

That's right, folks. The biggest problem, Hill suggested last night, was not that the people of Uniontown and Perry County were concerned about the proven toxicity of "nonhazardous" fly ash about to be dumped in their back yards. It was actually that The Media has been "muddying the water" and "spreading misinformation," getting the public all riled up over nothing at all. 

We ask people to question their leaders, and this, it seems, is dangerous. 

But when Hill walked into that meeting Wednesday night, he walked into a hornet's nest I doubt he was expecting. Our people, he quickly learned, are not stupid or easily misled. They're concerned about the future of their county. He also learned that the public has been systematically shut out of the landfill debate from the get-go. He got some inkling of the contempt with which our own leaders regard us. I hope that may help him begin to understand. 
Look at what we're up against. As attendees at the meeting pointed out last night, this plan has been decided on and the deal all but sealed without one iota of public input. Without the public even being informed, except through the work of that wicked old newspaper. 

Forces a lot more powerful than any average Perry Countian are at work here. Our elected officials see a shot at some quick and easy money, and they're not about to let that slip away. Ditto for the landfill officials. TVA has to finish the cleanup of its Kingston disaster that caused all this in the first place, and fast. 

Not only that, but EPA is reconsidering its classification of coal ash as "nonhazardous." Because of increased concern about the ash's toxic constituents, it may soon be considered hazardous waste. It's a lot more expensive to dispose of hazardous waste. TVA doesn't want that. It couldn't be sent to Uniontown. Our leaders and the landfill owners don't want that, either. 

Finally, the EPA itself, facing harsh criticism from East Tennessee residents who live near the disaster site about the speed of the cleanup and dangers the disaster still poses, wants to get this mess cleaned up and behind them. 

Everybody is in a rush to get this stuff in the ground down here, and nobody cared to ask how we, the public, felt about it. Who's going to look out for us? Our local elected officials won't. The government agencies who are supposed to won't. The landfill owners, motivated purely by profit, certainly won't. Everyone who should be listening to our concerns is too worried about their own agendas. 

Here's a suggestion, all of you: slow down. I know, you're in a hurry to make some money, to save face, to do what you feel you need to do. And I know, you have little use for the public and even less for me. But with even EPA itself rethinking the classification of the ash from nonhazardous to hazardous [which Hill confirmed at Wednesday's meeting] as we speak, is it really the time to rush in? 

Here, have one final question. Us folks down here in Perry County would hate to inconvenience you, EPA, but would you mind settling the issue of this ash's safety among yourselves before you tell us how misinformed we are? 

EPA hears concerns on coal ash plan

The Perry County Herald
June 25, 2009

"Nothing that is said here tonight is going to make any difference, you're going to shove this down our throats."

Mike Bortnick of Marion echoed the frustration of many other Perry Countians who showed up at a public meeting Wednesday night featuring officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management; along with representatves from PCA-Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown and politicians from Perry County Commission, Marion City Council, and Uniontown City Council. 

Franklin E. Hill, Superfund Diversion Director for EPA's Region 4, which includes Alabama, came from Atlanta to speak to Perry Countians about the plan to dispose of coal ash from the Kingston, Tenn. disaster which happened in December 2008. It was the first public meeting in Perry County on the matter, which has been in the works since at least early April, according to correspondence between TVA and ADEM. 

Hill said he was there "not asking, quite frankly, for approval" from Perry's public, but to answer questions. He blamed most of the public concerns on "misinformation" spread by local media, which he later accused of "muddying the water," confusing the public about the ash's dangers to serve other agendas. 

The Herald has cited a study conducted by Dr. Avner Vengosh of Duke University and released earlier this year that the coal ash in question contains more arsenic and radium than average, and which concludes the ash poses "serious" health concerns in released into the environments. After Wednesday night's meeting, Hill said he could not comment on the findings of that study. 
During the meeting when asked for EPA's own data, Hill apologized and said he had not brought any of that information with him. He invited to public to look it up on TVA's website. 
Hill also fielded questions about the safety of the disposal procedures of the ash. 

"I never said [the ash] was safe, but it can be disposed of in a safe manner," he said, calling Arrohead's facility "one of the safest" he'd seen. 

He noted the safety measures in place at the landfill, including two plastic liners in place to prevent waste runoff, and test wells around the property to monitor groundwater near the landfill. 

Commissioners Albert Turner and Fairest Cureton offered their arguments in favor of the plan. Turner said the money the county would take in as a result of this plan would be enough to subsidize the county's E-911 system and pay for other county projects. He also touted the 50 jobs landfill officials say the project will create. 

Cureton criticized those who were against the plan, saying, "If you've already got a job, then you don't have to worry about it. . .what about all these folks who can't get a job?" He also criticized those who say the plan unfairly targets a poor, predominately-black community, saying, "None of you are experts on environmental racism or justice or whatever."

Many of those in attendance expressed their concern to Hill: that the public has been shut out of the decision-making process on the ash coming to Perry County. Negotiations appear to have been taking place on the project since April, but the information provided by government leaders to the public on the matter has been scarce. Citizens at the meeting pointed out the plane ride commissioners and councilmen took to Tennessee to discuss the matter with TVA, which was not announced to the public or the press. They also pointed out that commissioners did not announce that night's public meeting until one day before, at the Tuesday night Perry County Commission meeting. 

Hill said local officials should have been more open with the public, if that were indeed the case. 

"There's going to have to be open communication with all of the citizens down here about what's going on," he said. 

"If you go back to Atlanta and feel like the people have been heard today, you're making a mistake," said Kirtley Brown. "This is about nothing but money...I don't think we should sell the future of this county for 50 jobs or 100 jobs; that's not an honorable way to treat the people of this county and the future people of this county."

Despite appearances to the contrary, including reports that TVA was to begin shipping the ash to Uniontown by train as early as last week, Hill said the issue is not settled yet. 

He gave no timeframe on EPA's "pending decision" on the matter, but said, "I don't want you to think that my job is done here. I got the message tonight that my job isn't quite done."

Perry to become ash hole of the region?

Perry County Herald
June 18, 2009, updated June 26

EPA approval is all that stands between 3 million tons of coal ash being cleaned up from a massive TVA spill in December and the PCA Arrowhead landfill in Uniontown. Owners of the landfill submitted a letter of intent to the Environmental Protection Agency two weeks ago outlining the plan to dispose of the ash here. The agency must approve the plan as part of its oversight of TVA's cleanup procedures following the spill. 

Because the ash is not regulated as a hazardous waste, Alabama's Dept. of Environmental Management has no need to grant any sort of approval for the waste to be disposed of here. 
This week, the County Commission of Cumberland County, Tenn. voted in favor of a proposal from a local construction firm to dispose of the ash in an abandoned coal mine there. Proponents in Cumberland say the arrangement will net the county $8 million in hosting fees paid by the developer to the county and create up to 100 jobs. 

The current deal between Perry County Commission and the owners of the Uniontown landfill would mean about $3 million in tipping fees, since the county collects $1.00 per ton of waste disposed of at the facility. 

Perry County appears to remain in competition with Cumberland for the disposal of the ash. If it were to be sent here, it would be transported via rail using an estimated 35000 boxcars. 
Because of the potential boon to public revenues, officials from Marion, Uniontown, and Perry County appear to have coalesced behind the plan to ship the ash here. 

Marion City Councilman Corin Harrison, at the council's June 15 meeting, said the group met with officials from both TVA and PA on the trip, and that the EPA representative told him there were "absolutely zero hazardous materials" contained in the ash: "No arsenic, no nothing."

"He just wanted to impress upon us that there is no hazardous materials," Harrison continued. "ADEM came up with the same findings."

Literature released by TVA following the spill enumerates the dangers posed by toxins contained in the ash.  An independent study by Duke University has also concluded that the ash contains dangerous materials, including arsenic and radium. 

Environmental activists, conservationists, and some local residents have expressed concern at the ash's murky status: though it is considered nonhazardous waste, it can contain relatively high concentrations of hazardous materials. 

Marion Mayor Tony Long dismissed these concerns as held by people "who picked up little small pieces [of information] and are trying to get negative with it." In an interview with the Selma Times-Journal, County Commissioner Albert Turner also dismissed those concerned as environmentalists and alarmists. 

Column: Nothing wrong with questioning leaders' decisions

Perry County Herald
June 11, 2009

by: John Allan Clark

Our coverage of the arrangement to transport TVA's coal ash to the Uniontown landfill probably won't win us many friends in Perry County politics. Then again, we didn't have many to begin with. 

One commissioner told our reporter Tuesday night regarding the matter (I'm paraphrasing) that we should "start thinking about how people can make a living in this county instead of sitting over there at that newspaper making a living talking about everything [elected officials] are doing wrong."

The point of "sitting over here talking about what politicians are doing wrong," I hope, is to help prod Perry County toward a time when the doing-wrong no longer happens, or at least not as often. On that day, maybe the people here will have a chance at a better life. 

But is this coal deal wrong, necessarily? I'll be the first to tell you that I don't know. And that's being a lot more honest than some of our leaders have. 

True enough, coal ash was long regarded as fairly harmless. Dump it in the river, throw it on the river in a huge pile, do whatever you want with it. Of course, there was a time when people thought nothing of spreading arsenic on their cotton fields, or blanketing the countryside in DDT to keep the mosquitoes down. Then, we realized that these things might be a little more dangerous, to us as well as to the environment, than we thought. 

It may also be true that the jury is still out on the safety of fly ash: scientists are split on how harmful or harmless it is to humans, but they all agree that as long as you don't breathe it, ingest it, or get it on your skin, you have nothing to worry about. It does, they tell us, contain traces of toxins, mostly from a smorgasbord of heavy metals. 

The problem here is the problem with pretty much any issue in Perry County. This deal was being engineered behind the scenes long before any of us in the general public knew about it, just the way our leaders like it. When civilians found out about the deal and started raising questions about its safety, those questions were rebuffed as always. 

Those who question the wisdom of landfill developers and small-town politicians are the ones who are "not seeing the big picture." The money, we're told, is just too good to pass up. And this stuff is safe anyway, TVA told us so, and all you want to do is get people all riled up over nothing. Is that really why we question?

Or is it because we've seen this happen too many times before, and all those times our concerns have been justified. These issues (like the landfill, the private prison, the county jail project, government projects, and missing public funds) are kept hush-hush by our leaders until the public finally finds out. Then, when we express concern, we're told not to worry, that everything is going to be fine, that those folks asking questions are just trying to confuse and mislead the public. 

But jail construction drags on. Audit after audit after audit shows public funds going unaccounted for. Contracts are awarded to the same shady businesses, and dangerous prisoners escape. 

Don't you think, leaders, that we've earned the right to question your judgement by now? I freely admit that I'm no expert. I ask questions about things in order to better understand them. Experience tells us that this is the best and easiest way to make better decisions in the future. 

I don't know much about the danger posed by fly ash in a landfill. I do know about the danger of an unasked question. 

Three million tons of coal ash headed this way

Three million tons of coal ash headed this way

Perry County Herald, June 11, 2009

What do 3 million tons look like? Picture the USS Alabama, times 86. In weight, that’s about how much fly ash [a byproduct of coal-burning power plants] the Tennessee Valley Authority hopes to inter over the coming months at PCA Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown. The ash is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency of Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management as a hazardous waste, but that hasn’t stopped many from questioning the impact the waste could have on Perry County’s environment or public health.

TVA had been storing the ash in a retaining pond — an open, unlined landfill — at a coal-burning power facility near Kingston, Tenn. The holding facility broke on Dec. 22 of last year, and over one billion gallons of ash sludge spilled out onto 400 surrounding acres and into nearby bodies of water. Since that time, TVA has been scrambling to get the spill cleaned up and the ash removed.

Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Environmental Protection has rejected a request by TVA to dispose of the waste in that state, where TVA hoped it would be used to fill in abandoned coal mines. A similar deal is being suggested for an abandoned mine near Crossville, in the ash’s home state of Tennessee. According to news reports, Cumberland County is being offered a hosting fee of around $8,000,000 to allow a private construction company to convert an abandoned strip mine there into a coal ash landfill. Residents and commentators in Tennessee have warned against the arrangement, citing concerns about potential environmental and logistical headaches it could create for the county.

Also in competition for the coal ash were landfills in two predominately-black, impoverished communities in the south: Taylor County, Ga. and Perry County, Ala.

Elected officials from Perry County have worked to ensure the material is disposed of here. The estimated 3 million or more tons to be disposed at the facility, coupled with the $1.00 per ton hosting fee the landfill owners pay to Perry County Commission, could mean an infusion of over $3 million for the county’s general fund.

A delegation including County Commissioners Clarence Black, Fairest Cureton, Tim Sanderson, and Albert Turner; along with Marion City Councilman Corin Harrison and Uniontown Mayor Jamal Hunter, left Craig Field in Selma on Monday, June 8 bound for Tennessee. The purpose of the flight was reportedly to negotiate with TVA to bring the ash here. [Ed. Note: Commissioners were also joined by Eddie Dorsett and Mike Smith representing the owners of Arrowhead Landfill. The commissioners, at their Tuesday, June 23 meeting, said the visit was only “informational” in nature.]

The tipping fee for the landfill has been at issue for most of the past year, with members of Marion and Uniontown’s City Councils arguing that an agreement made in the past ensured a portion of that $1.00 per ton would be divided between both cities. Currently, the entire tipping fee goes to the County Commission. The issue still has not been publicly resolved.

Marion earns revenue from the landfill already. For a fee, the city accepts and disposes of the landfill’s leachate: water and other liquids that leach through the layers of trash and then settle at the bottom of the landfill cell. This liquid is pumped out and shipped via tanker truck to Marion’s municipal water treatment facility, where it is processed along with the city’s own sewage and waste water.

Because the ash is considered a non-hazardous waste under both the EPA and ADEM, and because the Arrowhead Landfill already possesses a landfill permit from the state, Perry County Commission is not required to vote on the issue.

The website for the landfill lists the types of waste it currently accepts under the classification of “Industrial Waste.” The website ha not been updated to include fly ash, and in fact states: “This term does not include fly ash waste, bottom ash waste, boiler slag waste, or flue gas emission control waste which result from the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels at electric or steam generating plants.”

However, a letter released by the state of Tennessee indicates the landfill owners had requested permission from ADEM to take the waste as early as April 9, permission Alabama granted later that month. The news that the fly ash could be coming to Perry County did not surface until early May.

The landfill owners have also submitted a permit modification application to ADEM on June 3. The modifications to the permit appear to double the amount of waste the landfill is currently allowed to accept from 7500 tons per day to 15000. This amount is actually a “maximum average daily volume,” meaning the facility may accept more or less waste each day, as long as its average daily acceptance is under 15000 tons. The number of train cars needed to ship the ash to Perry County is estimated at 35000.

The application also includes a modified list of states form which the landfill may accept waste, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

TVA sent test shipments last month to both landfills, reportedly to see which facility did a better job disposing of the waste. Approximately 15000 tons of the waste went to the landfill in Perry County last month. TVA spokesman Barbara Martocci said Tuesday that the company submitted a letter of intent to EPA last week. The letter proposes sending the estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of ash waste to Uniontown.

The landfill is currently an approved facility for storing the ash in the eyes of EPA and ADEM: unlike the TVA ponds, the Arrowhead facility is protected with two layers of plastic liner.

Proponents say this liner, coupled with the natural Selma Chalk limestone formation underneath the landfill, will protect groundwater from toxins contained in the ash. Opponents, including Dr. Sam Stevenson, professor of chemistry at Judson College, have pointed out that all landfill liners eventually fail. “It’s not a question of it, but a question of when,” Stevenson said.

Toxic constituents found in fly ash vary, but are known to include: arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium IV, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with with dioxins and PAH compounds.

An independent study led by Dr. Avram Vengosh at Duke University on samples of ash from the Kingston spill found it contained more radioactive material, including radium, than most fly ash. It also found higher-than-normal concentrations of the toxic heavy metal arsenic. Both are cancer-causing materials, and arsenic is the leading cause of acute heavy-metal poisoning in adults today.

The ash poses its most immediate danger if released into the air or drinking water, or with prolonged skin contact. Leaders and TVA officials have said safety precautions during transportation, disposal and storage will decrease those potential dangers.

Commissioner Tim Sanderson said the coal ash will be shipped and buried wet to cut down on the dust it can produce. “It’s going to be shipped wet and covered within an hour,” he said.

As long as the ash stays where it is supposed to, scientific opinion suggests it poses little danger. The worry expressed by some, though, is that things don’t always work out as planned. If they did, the ash would sill be in a retaining pond in Tennessee. 

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Busy Week in Perry County

While my main job at the Herald is "advertising director," all of us wear many hats. By "all of us," I mean all both of us full-time employees. John Allan and I had an interesting week this week.
Anyway, here was the week at a glance:
Monday: lunch at The Shack...Mayor Long was there. Topics we discussed with the mayor included John Allan's shoes, the landfill, and voter fraud.
Tuesday: more landfill/coal ash news came to us. At the county commission meeting, there was yet another round of revenue commissioner v. county commission. Also, we got reamed by one of the commissioners for our coverage of the coal ash coming to the landfill.
Wednesday: deadline day. We couldn't finish our graduation special section because we were lacking a list of graduates from one of the high schools. We couldn't meet our regular deadline because more and more information kept coming in. Frustrating day.
Thursday: paper gets printed and distributed. We get a visit from a county commissioner. Fun stuff.
Friday: Money comes in from advertising and newspaper sales. Money goes out to various bills. More information about the landfill comes out. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Perry County Herald interviews Loren Coleman

The Perry County Herald interviews Loren Coleman:

Authority weighs in on local cat sightings
April 9, 2009

If you’ve ever watched very many shows on unexplained animal sightings, chances are good you’re already acquainted with Loren Coleman. He has been investigating such things since 1960 and writing about them since 1969. Cryptozoology is the name given to this study of legendary or undiscovered animals, often called cryptids.

Coleman majored in anthropology and minored in zoology at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He then received a graduate degree in psychiatric social work from Simmons College in Boston. He also took doctoral coursework in social anthropology at Brandeis University and in sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He has written nearly twenty books, including Mysterious America and Mothman and Other Curious Encounters, and hundreds of articles on cryptozoology. He has worked on shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, Ancient Mysteries, and most recently the History Channel’s MonsterQuest. He also served as a publicity spokesperson for the Richard Gere movie The Mothman Prophecies.

His cryptozoology research has led him to investigate mysterious animals in every state in the United States as well as in other countries. He has interviewed thousands of witnesses of all sorts of creatures, including Bigfoot, North American apes, strange flying creatures, lake monsters, and mystery cats.

It was natural, then, when I started thinking about the topic of mysterious animal sightings in Alabama to think of Loren Coleman. I found his contact information and on a whim sent him an email telling him that I was with the Herald and was working on a story about strange cat sightings. I got an almost immediate reply in which he asked me to set up a time to call him. Later, when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to keep our appointment, he called me to make sure we had the opportunity to talk. To have a national expert seek out a small town newspaperman has to be a rare event, to say the least.

I first asked him what people could be seeing in these supposed large cat sightings. Coleman said that big cat sightings are common in his home state of Maine and throughout the United States, including the South. “It is taken for granted by people down there that they (cougars) exist,” he said. “They could definitely be seeing eastern mountain lions.” On the other hand, the large black cat phenomenon is a bit more complicated. According to Coleman, approximately 40% of large, long-tail cat sightings across the country are so-called black panthers. He thinks that many of these cases, if not misplaced jaguarondi or jaguars, are either exotic pets that have escaped or possibly Ice Age survivors, such as the American lion (Panthera leo atrox), that have been presumed to be extinct. Coleman also said that wildlife biologists and officials are often under pressure to maintain the status quo and not acknowledge the existence of large cats and other cryptids. If these officials allow that such things are out there, they will have to regulate them as protected game animals and will have to deal with the conflicting concerns of various groups of citizens.

We also discussed the aspects of what makes a strange animal report credible. Coleman pointed to people, such as hunters, who know the wildlife in an area as the most obvious credible sources. Coleman is always concerned about people’s psychological backgrounds in these cases. “If I go and investigate a report, I investigate the psychology of the individual first before I go look at a track or anything else,” said Coleman. He also said that multiple reports of similar phenomena often generate two interesting events. One possibility is that behavior contagion or mass hysteria takes over. Coleman mentioned the humorous example of how people in various areas in the 1950s and 1960s might have been occasionally influenced by the latest monster movie playing at the drive-in. Another possibility, however, is that media reports actually encourage reluctant witnesses of strange events. When the “ridicule curtain,” as Coleman calls it, comes down, people come forward and share their stories.

Since Bigfoot is the best known cryptid in North America, I had to ask Coleman about Bigfoot or large ape sightings in Alabama. “Bigfoot probably does not exist in the American South, but apes likely do,” said Coleman. “These animals are very mobile, and they can avoid human beings because of their intelligence.” As an example, Coleman pointed to the sightings near Clanton, Alabama, in the 1960s of what has come to be known as the “Clanton Booger.” According to Coleman, who personally investigated these sightings, many of the people reported the sound of something crashing through the tops of trees, like a troop of chimps. He also said that a footprint cast was made at the time that appeared to be more ape-like than man-like. This cast, according to both Coleman and press reports, was only destroyed in the last decade.

We also discussed large bird sightings that are reported across the United States, including the Mothman phenomenon. Coleman said that most of these sightings can be grouped either into large owl-like sightings (including the so-called “Mothman,” a name given to the sightings by a newspaper copy editor) or large condor-type birds, such as thunderbird sightings.

Although cryptozoology has its detractors, Coleman said that science has, in many ways, changed its attitude towards cryptid research in recent years. Many biologists and zoologists grew up reading his and others’ books about fantastic animals. “Now,” said Coleman, “professors in these departments are more open. We have people on the inside.” Coleman himself has had a variety of jobs in academic settings since 1980, including teaching, research, and documentary filmmaking.

He has also written extensively on certain psychological issues, including the idea of behavior clusters. His work on suicide and mass murder clusters in particular makes him a sought-after expert in this non-cryptid field. In fact, a major Canadian newspaper had interviewed him on the day before our phone interview. The reporter asked him for his take on the various mass murders that have taken place in the United States this year, including the incident in south Alabama. Coleman attributes these behavior clusters to the “copycat effect,” which is also the title of his 2004 book on the subject. These horrible incidents, said Coleman, are committed by “vulnerable people who are easily brainwashed” by media sources, especially visual media. He also sees a disturbing historical trend in these types of persons. Someone with these tendencies twenty-five years ago was likely to commit suicide, while one today might just as likely commit mass homicide.

Loren Coleman is obviously a man with varied interests, but the common theme throughout seems to be an unending quest to explain how the world truly works, without preconceived notions. I greatly enjoyed our lengthy conversation, and he graciously asked the Herald to send him a link to this story when it was published so he could post it to, a cryptozoology website he helps manage. Hopefully, this story will be found there soon, or you can see it on our blog:

Since last week’s story, I have received several good, credible reports about sightings of large cats. These stories have come from all parts of Perry County and the Black Belt of Alabama. These reports are appreciated, and I encourage others to come forward. I’ll be sharing some of these stories in coming weeks. The effort here is not to alarm our readers unnecessarily but rather to inform and entertain you. Please share your stories, cat-related or not, with me at the paper office or email me at

Monday, April 6, 2009

International sustainability expert has local ties

March 26, 2009

A rich part of the heritage of Perry County is the Goree family. While doing some research, I came across a descendent of this family whose work tries to benefit the lives of people around the world. I contacted Langston James "Kimo" Goree VI, and he was gracious enough to talk to me about his family history and his work.

Goree is the Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Reporting Services and one of the founders of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. His base of operations is New York City, but he travels throughout the world. Goree was born in Honolulu and raised in Berkeley and Walnut Creek, California. He received his nickname "Kimo" (pronounced “Keemo”) from Hawaiian tradition. According to Goree, everyone born in Hawaii gets both a Christian and a Hawaiian name that has become its equivalent. “Kimo” is the Hawaiian version, then, of James, his middle name.

Kimo Goree’s great-great-great-great grandfather, the first Langston James Goree, was one of the early settlers of Perry County and one of the founding fathers of Judson College. Kimo’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Williams Kittrell Goree, was matron of honor at the wedding of General Sam Houston and Margaret Lea in 1840. The Goree family moved to Texas by 1850, living first at Huntsville where they rented the Houstons’ Woodland Home. The Gorees then built their own plantation, Trinity Bend. After Langston Goree I died in 1853, Sarah Goree moved her family closer to her brother, Dr. Pleasant Williams Kittrell, a physician and former trustee of Judson. Dr. Kittrell was also at General Houston’s bedside when he died in 1863 and was later the author of the bill that established the University of Texas. In 1858 Sarah Goree and her family purchased Raven Hill Plantation from General Houston.

Perhaps the most famous Goree of this period, though, was Kimo Goree’s great-great-great uncle, Thomas Jewett Goree. Born in 1835 in Marion, T.J.Goree attended Howard College before moving with his family to Texas, where he attended Baylor College, becoming a lawyer. In 1861 Goree left his law career and set out for Virginia to join the Confederate Army. Along the way, he met James Longstreet, later lieutenant general under Robert E. Lee. Goree served as Longstreet's aide-de-camp throughout the war. After the war, Goree became superintendent of Texas prisons and acquired the family plantation lands for the prison system, which continued to work them in the old manner of labor-intensive agriculture until the middle of the 20th century.

Kimo Goree only became aware of the depth of his Southern roots after his father returned from Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, where he was a civilian attached to U.S. military operations. Goree says that it was only when he moved to Texas that he fully appreciated his family history. Once, for example, he was at a café in a small town, and an older lady heard him introduce himself. She told him that his great-grandfather, a dentist, had fixed one of her teeth.

From 1971 to 1989, Goree worked as a professional actor doing stand-up comedy, film, TV, and radio work. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He even became a popular entertainer at children's birthday parties in the Dallas, Texas, area from 1975-1989 as "Kimo the Clown."

How did the scion of one of the first families of Texas find himself in show business? “I didn’t get into Stanford,” quipped Goree. He had done theatre in high school, so after not being accepted by the college of his dreams, he joined an improvisational comedy group in San Francisco. Later, his nightclub act helped him pay for college in Texas as well as his travels into Central and South America.

In between gigs and travel, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in Dallas in 1984. In 1986 he completed a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas and moved to Austin to pursue a Ph.D. at the Institute for Latin American Studies.

From 1977 through 1989, Goree traveled extensively in Central and South America, where he learned to speak both Spanish and Portuguese. In 1989 he began his environmental work in Brazil at an applied research institute in the Amazonian rain forest. Goree assisted local non-governmental organizations with technology and programs that discouraged slash-and-burn methods of agriculture. This, says Goree, is when his interests in technology and helping people improve their lives came together, especially around the time of the 1992 Rio conference. “A lot of the things we do in life aren’t so much planned as they are serendipitous,” said Goree.

In 1991 he created the Earth Summit Bulletin, which was renamed the Earth Negotiations Bulletin in 1993. Kimo Goree has been employed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development as the Director of the Division Reporting Services since 1993. In this job, he travels about 240,000 miles a year to attend and report on international, multilateral United Nations conferences.

Goree is unabashedly passionate about his job and the idea of sustainable development. “Sustainable development means improving the lives of people without destroying the resource base and the health and wealth of future generations,” said Goree. He believes that much of the resistance to the concept of sustainable development is simply because people haven’t had it fully explained. He wants people to understand that it includes “renewable resources, protecting biodiversity and the climate, and increasing the well-being and health” of people around the world. Much of the problem, according to Goree, is “inefficient and wasteful” energy policies that not only harm the environment and people’s lives but also weaken our national defense due to our reliance on foreign oil.

When asked about what the concept of sustainable development means for poor counties like Perry County, Goree replied that community leaders should look to scientists and technology to improve the lives of poor people and protect local resources. He explained that in the last 100 years there have been three scientific revolutions that have greatly improved the lives of people around the world: pesticides, fertilizers, and bio-engineered crops. He also pointed out that his own family history is a cautionary tale of the dangers of land degradation. His family left old lands back east in North Carolina and Georgia to move to new farming lands in Alabama before exhausting them and moving to Texas. Goree also believes that the current economic downturn is the perfect time for communities to embrace more responsible and efficient practices and values.

“The concept of sustainable development is much more nuanced than that of environmentalism. Environmentalism is focused on the environment. Sustainable development is concerned with the well-being of the individual but not at the expense of resources needed in the future. It is human centered.”

Goree has been married to Pamela Chasek since 1994 and has two children, Sam (born 1995) and Kai (born 1998). There is no Langston James Goree VII yet because Goree’s wife is an Ashkenazi Jew, and their tradition does not allow living family members to share the same name. “I broke a tradition by using a tradition,” joked Goree.

His interests outside of work and family include cycling and technology.

Kimo Goree has never been to Perry County, but he says that it might be time to rediscover his Alabama roots. “I may have to load up the wife and kids and come on down,” he said.

Mysterious animal sightings continue in area

April 2, 2009

Whether you call it a cougar, panther, mountain lion, puma, or catamount, Felis concolor once roamed Alabama. My parents grew up in the Sand Mountain area of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s. They took it for granted that cougars lived there, especially since they heard wild screams at night that their family members identified as panthers. So, it was with great disbelief back in my college days that I heard a professor at Alabama pronounce that there were no permanent populations of long-tailed cats in Alabama nor had there been in years.

It seems that the state of Alabama agrees with him. According to Ken Daniel, an officer with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division with over 19 years on the job, there is no hard, state-recognized evidence of a permanent population of cougars or any other long-tailed cat. The population was likely eliminated by the middle of the 20th century, if not before. There have been no recent game camera pictures, no videos, no roadside carcasses, or any other verifiable accounts. Instead, Officer Daniel says there are anecdotal reports almost every year in Perry County. “We get somewhere between five and ten people per year reporting cougars or other big cats. About half of these people are credible folks.”

What are they seeing? Officer Daniel says it is a mixed bag of possibilities. “A few years ago in Dallas County, someone reported seeing a cougar in their backyard. Based on our investigation, we think someone in the area might have had a pet cougar that got loose.” Other incidents are harder to explain. Officer Daniel recounted a deer hunter’s experience from a few years ago in the area near Mars Hill Cemetery. The hunter saw what looked to him like a cougar, and the experience rattled him so badly that he stayed in the tree stand all day until his son came to pick him up at sunset. Another time, Officer Daniel responded to a nighttime call from a man in Sprott. The man’s dog had started barking, so the man grabbed a flashlight. According to the man, the light revealed a cougar. The man and his dog quickly retreated to the house. When Officer Daniel arrived, he was unable to find signs of any animals having been in the area that the man indicated. There were no tracks, even though the area was muddy.

Sometimes, though, it is a case of misidentification. Daniel mentioned one incident where a hunter shot at what he thought was a cougar chasing a deer across a field right at sunset. (Although cougars are not supposed to be in Alabama, they are still protected and have no open season. In other words, shooting at them is a bad idea unless you are protecting yourself.) The next morning, the hunter and his friends realized the cougar was really an oddly-shaped clod of dirt with a large shock of grass where the tail would have been. In other instances, the answer might be very simple. Alabama does have bobcats, or, as Daniel said, “A lot of times they (people reporting large cats) are just seeing big dogs.” Daniel also mentioned that there are occasionally bears in our area as they travel between northern and southern Alabama. The population near the Mobile Delta area near Saraland numbers approximately 50 to 75, and bears from this southern Alabama group sometimes mingle with bears in northeast Alabama and northern Georgia and vice versa.

In the case of one local man, however, the mystery is in the form of some odd, large animal tracks he and some fellow hunters found about ten years ago. Michael Woodfin says that the tracks were near a dirt road close to a green field about 3/4 of a mile behind the Sprott store. The men found some plaster of Paris and made a cast of the best print. The paw prints were approximately five inches across and five and a half inches long. The print was an inch deep in the mud. The heel pad was two and half inches wide by three inches long. The claws are not obvious in the cast. They also made a cast of an obvious dog or coyote track found in the same area by way of comparison. It was about three and a half by four and a half inches in size. Most sources say that bobcat prints are about one to three inches, coyote and large dog prints average two to four inches long, and cougar prints are approximately 4 inches in either direction.

Perhaps most puzzling are the reports of large black cats. For example, a man reported to Officer Daniel that he was driving one evening and saw a large black cat eating some road kill on the side of Highway 14 near the Sprott store. The problem with this report is that there are not supposed to be any large black cats in Alabama at all. True black panthers are actually either black jaguars or black leopards as North American cougars are generally believed to be incapable of being black, and none of these animals are supposed to be running around in Alabama.
Yet Ken Daniel himself saw a large, dark, long-tailed cat. “I was in the southern part of Perry County checking on some people I thought might be hunting out of season. I was hiding near some old chicken houses and saw a dark olive drab colored cat with a long tail.” Daniel says that it was bigger than a house cat and was spotted with the red clay from under the chicken houses. He thinks it was likely a jaguarundi, a cat more commonly found in Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.

I contacted Loren Coleman to ask him about strange animal sightings in Alabama. He is a well-known, award-winning researcher and author with nearly 50 years of experience in cryptozoology, the study of unknown or scientifically unrecognized animals. Frequent viewers of the History Channel may know him as one of the experts featured on MonsterQuest. Our conversation will be the subject of next week’s column.Meanwhile, if you have experienced a strange animal sighting, and especially if you have evidence of this experience, please contact me at the newspaper office, or email me at