Two-lane roads lined with weeds and trees seem to stretch forever in, where thousands of residents are poor even by Alabama standards and they don’t produce much for the outside world besides timber and catfish.
What Perry County has, though, is vacant land — hundreds of square miles of it. And that provided more than enough space for a massive landfill that critics say has made the county a dumping ground for coal ash from the nation’s largest public utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Perry County will be the final resting place for millions of tons of dredged coal ash from an environmental disaster 300 miles away. The first freight trains loaded with the gray muck, containing toxic elements such as arsenic and lead, are rumbling into the 976-acre municipal landfill that’s allowed to take trash from 16 states.
Officials say the landfill will generate more than $3 million for the county by accepting coal ash from a Dec. 22 ash spill at a TVA plant in Kingston, Tenn.
The spill covered some 300 acres of Tennessee countryside with ash, and officials estimate it could take as many as 35,000 railroad car loads to transport the dredged waste to Alabama. The cleanup will cost about $1 billion.
Critics like farmer Robert Bamberg accuse local elected leaders of selling out an entire county for short-term gain.
“Where is it written that Perry County or Alabama in general is fair game for other states to dispose of their unmentionables?” said Bamberg, an organizer of Concerned Citizens of Perry County.
Perry County isn’t the only poor Alabama county banking on projects more affluent places wouldn’t touch. Others have welcomed state prisons for the jobs they brought, and is home to a 2,800-acre hazardous waste landfill near the Mississippi line.
Elected leaders don’t deny the county of about 11,860 people is desperate for jobs and cash. Unemployment is near 17 percent.
“We’re not desperate to the point that we would endanger the health and safety of our people,” said Commissioner Albert Turner Jr., who supported the landfill project. “But we are desperate enough to know we should take a golden opportunity when we see one.”
Critics have accused TVA offor sending the coal ash to a poor, mostly black county. But Turner, who is black, disagreed.
“It would be economic racism if they didn’t send it here,” he said. “This is economic survival for one of the poorest counties in the nation. Poor people sought this.”
Kim Greer lives in a small wooden house on a dirt road near the landfill. She doesn’t know much about coal ash but has noticed a lot more trucks and trains recently.
“I hope it’s not dangerous and doesn’t get in the water or air,” said Greer, speaking through her screen door. “There’s farm fields all over here.”
There’s little else in Perry County, about 80 miles west of Montgomery in Alabama’s Black Belt, a region named for the shade of its rich soil. Once a prosperous farming region, the area has been among the nation’s poorest for generations.
About 31 percent of the county’s families live in poverty, more than three times the national average, according to U.S. Census figures. The county is almost 70 percent black. Some residents are descended from the slaves and sharecroppers who once worked its fields.
Jobs in the county are few, outside of a catfish processing plant, the hard-hit timber industry, some mom-and-pop businesses and 700-bed private prison.
Against this backdrop, construction began on Arrowhead Landfill in 2006, which has agreed to pay the county $1 for each ton of trash buried there.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators approved TVA plans to ship the Kingston coal ash to Perry County. It contains a cocktail of 14 hazardous materials, but tests showed the concentrations weren’t high enough to pose a health hazard, the agencies determined.
County records show the landfill paid the county $28,800 in dumping fees last year, plus another $53,373 in property taxes. The coal ash dumping fees will swell that by more than $3 million in a single year, commission chairman Fairest Cureton said.
The landfill operators declined comment. Documents show they have asked the state for permission to increase the daily intake to 15,000 tons and to use coal ash to cover other refuse. They also want to more than double the service area to 33 states.
Cureton isn’t worried about the safety of the TVA coal ash; he scoops out a handful from a jar to show to a visitor. To him, the soggy lump looks like money.
“If we wait until something perfect comes in we will never have anything in Perry County,” said Cureton. “We get what we can.”