Environmental Politics in Alabama's Blackbelt
Conner Bailey, Charles E. Faupel, and James H. Gundlach
Both academics and activists have been attracted to the issue of environmental justice in recent years. Work by Bullard ( 1990), Bullard and Wright ( 1986, 1987), Mohai ( 1990), and others has greatly increased our understanding of social and environmental justice. Growing public awareness is also shown by the appearance in 1990 of the first issue of the Race, Poverty and the Environment, published by Earth Island Institute, and of a series of articles on the links between race and environmentalism in the newsletters of major environmental organizations (see Russell 1989; Truax 1990).
In 1990 a conference on this topic was held at the University of Michigan ( Bryant and Mohai 1992). Scholars of color attending this conference pressured the Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA) to form an Environmental Equity Workgroup to review evidence that racial minority and low-income communities bear disproportionately high environmental risk ( U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1992).
Yet, despite this heightened national awareness and activity, an effective alliance between the civil rights and environmental movements has not been successfully forged in Alabama. In this chapter we examine the dynamics of this situation through a case study of Sumter County, Alabama, the location of the nation's largest hazardous waste landfill. The population is overwhelmingly black and poor. Local opposition to the landfill for the most part has come only from a small group of white environmentalists. They have been largely unsuccessful in mobilizing the support of the local black community. Investigators attribute this failure to a combination of factors. Chief among them are the pervasive "mill town" atmosphere that favors the status quo and the failure of the white environmentalists to address the social, economic, and political concerns of the black population.