Emelle, Alabama:  Home Of The Nation’s Largest Hazardous Waste Landfill.

By Curt Davidson

Table Of Contents

Key Actors
Map provided by the US Census Bureau



In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., purchased a landfill permit for a 300-acre tract of land near the village of Emelle in the center of Sumter County, Alabama.  In Sumter County, one of the country’s most impoverished regions, one-third of the residents live below the poverty level. Over 65 percent of the residents are Black and over 90 percent of the residents near the landfill in Emelle are Black.  Since acquiring the landfill, Waste Management Inc. has dumped millions of tons of hazardous waste on what was once lush farmland, creating the largest hazardous waste landfill in the United States, and possibly the world.  Nearly 40 percent of the toxic waste disposed of nationwide between 1984 and 1987 under the federal Superfund removal program ended up at the landfill.  The 2,700-acre landfill also sits directly over the Eutaw Aquifer, which supplies water to a large part of Alabama

(Cray, 1991). 


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Sumter County is located in the heart of the Black belt soils region in western Alabama.  The Black belt was the center of Alabama’s cotton plantation economy before the Civil War and Sumter County was the major population center in the state.  Nearly half of the residents were slaves.  Through sharecropping arrangements, cotton continued to be produced which kept the Black population in a condition of poverty and dependence.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought few immediate changes to the existing racial hierarchy. Schools remained segregated until 1969, and at least one racially segregated educational system still operates there today.  Challenges to white minority control in the county occurred for the first time in the 1970s and Blacks were just being elected to public office in 1978 (Alley et al., 1995).  Not only was Sumter County going through great social upheaval during the time that the hazardous waste industry arrived, but it was also undergoing a number of significant demographic and economic changes.  Government and business elites were the primary players in affecting land-use decisions and growth potentials.  Growth was stimulated in the area by the underemployed workforce, weak labor unions, strong right-to-work laws, cheap labor, cheap land, and extremely lenient environmental regulations.  A general theme in this region was the arrival of polluting industries into poor minority communities with little input from local community leaders (Bullard, 1990).


The industry used the argument of “jobs” for local residents to quell dissent by any concerned citizens.  The relatively unknown environmental risks at the time were offered as unavoidable trade-offs for jobs and a broadened tax base in economically depressed communities such as Emelle.  This industrial policy that “any job is better than no job” may have been a major factor in the reasons that local grassroots groups failed to stop polluting industries like Waste Management Inc. from operating.  Waste Management Inc. and other industrial firms at these times tended to view the black community as a “pushover, lacking community organization, environmental consciousness, and having a strong and blind pro-jobs stance” (Bullard, 1990).  Communities like Emelle were exploited for these reasons and also because the residents of such impoverished areas were intimidated by big corporations and deserted by local politicians (Bullard, 1990).


In 1977 a small company called Resource Industries Inc. purchased a 300-acre tract of land just outside of Emelle in Sumter County.  It seems that political ties allowed Resource Industries Inc. to turn the 300 acres into a landfill.  One of the original owners, James Parsons, is the son in law of former Governor, George Wallace. The political connections enabled the company to obtain the necessary permits to operate the dump from the Health Department.  In light of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1974 decision to nominate Sumter County as a possible hazardous waste landfill site, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. bought the permit from Resource Industries Inc. and expanded its operation to consume 2700 acres (Alley, 1995). 

Incidentally in 1996, Resource Industries sued Chemical Waste Management for fraud and misrepresentation and the Wallace crowd received $91 million while the community received nothing (case No. 93-2343-H/V Mark Gregory, et al., Plaintiffs, vs. Chemical Waste Management, Inc.).  The two companies were under no legal obligation to inform the public about the arrival of the hazardous waste industry.  This being the case, local residents of Emelle and Sumter County did not have a chance to mobilize and protest against such a facility.   The local residents did not realize the nature of the facility until it was already operating. 

Additionally, Chemical Waste Management is supported by key local leaders including locally elected officials whose county commission, school board, and municipal budgets were greatly increased by the company’s monthly payments of $5.00 for every ton of waste buried in the county.  These user fee payments totaled approximately $20 million between 1978 and 1995 for the county.  Needless to say, the local government bodies have become dependent on this money and officials responsible for making budgets are not willing to criticize or challenge the company’s policies (Alley, 1995).  Residents, not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them, were thus placed in a position where health risks came second to jobs and government and business elites became the only players affecting land-use decisions.


Since the opening of the facility in Emelle and prior to 1991, the dump has received between 5 and 6 million tons of hazardous waste, according to activist Kaye Kiker.  At its peak, the company received almost 800,000 tons of waste per year.  Most of the waste came from 42 other states and military bases overseas.  The company has had on-site fires, off-site water contamination, federal penalties for environmental violations, reports of dumping of radioactive wastes without permits and the unauthorized acceptance of dioxins (Cray, 1991).  Workers at the facility, including at least one technical manager resigned because of superiors ignoring complaints about inadequate waste sampling and other practices that exposed workers to health hazards.  Workers claim that the emphasis of the company was to “hurry up and get it in the hole and cover it up regardless of what it was” (Cray, 1991).


The company has been accused of burying chemicals without waste location mapping and adequate spacing, testing and inspecting of received containers.  They have been noted for PCB violations including cracks in storage floors, unmarked/dated containers and spillage.  Tests of wells, drainage ditches and swamps outside of the landfill found indications that cancer-causing PCBs have leached from the dump into water supplies.

Other problems at the facility include an accident in October 1984 producing a reddish-brown cloud of acidic vapor containing sodium hydroxide that floated a half-mile off site, a fire in April 1985 that prompted the evacuation of 180 workers, and a pipe that burst sending liquid waste onto adjacent property.  The company didn’t notify officials of hazardous waste spills and did not implement contingency plans.  The corporation has also failed to dispose of an undetermined amount of hazardous military DDT wastes (Ingersoll).  Between 1983 and 1984, six off-site spills occurred, and 12 onsite spills occurred, many involving PCBs.  The list of violations and hazardous imports goes on and the company also has a list of safety violations attached to leased ships and trucks importing the waste (Cray, 1991).


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Key Actors


·        Chemical Waste Management

Chemical Waste Management Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., is the largest company in the hazardous waste industry.  Among the landfill’s customers are America’s 10 largest companies, 159 military bases, and other federal agencies (Cray, 1991).  The hazardous waste industry is motivated by the desire to establish and obtain permits to operate treatment, disposal and storage facilities that generate profits and revenue (Alley, 1995).  Aside from the hazardous waste management and radioactive waste services in which the company is engaged in, its assets include more than 300 land disposal sites, 16 trash to energy plants, more than 300 transfer stations and over 1,400 collection facilities that provide recycling and waste collection resources to thousands of communities.  The company serves more than 10 million residential customers and 1 million businesses nationally, and employs approximately 60,000 people.  The company is now working on defining an environmental image.  It is participating in projects such as the development of an electronics-recycling program with Sony in Minnesota and introducing clean air trucks in San Diego.  The corporation also has signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency to research and develop landfill bioreactor and biocover projects (http://www.wm.com.).


·        Regulatory agencies

Regulatory agencies share a symbiotic relationship with the industry that may appear as an unfair or unjust alliance to a community in close proximity to a hazardous waste landfill like Emelle.  State and Federal regulatory agencies such as ADEM (Alabama Department of Environmental Management) and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) share a common goal with the industry:  to establish and permit facilities that can handle the nation’s waste stream.  However, their motivations are different.  Regulatory agencies are responsible for environmental protection and are mandated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to establish standards for hazardous waste management and to issue permits to those who meet the standards (Alley, 1995).


·        Alabamians for a Clean Environment

Alabamians for a Clean Environment (ACE) is a grassroots environmental group in Alabama’s Black Belt region.  The group formed with the intent to close down Chemical Waste Management’s hazardous waste landfill located just outside the town of Emelle in Sumter County.  The group formed in 1983, dissatisfied with a previous grassroots group, Sumter Countians Organized for the Protection of the Environment (SCOPE).  A few White women including lead activist Kaye Kiker and their husbands formed the core of the group.  They were mostly employed homeowners with some record of family service in the county.  They were farmers, artists, professors and teachers, but they did not consider themselves as part of the county as most of them distanced themselves from the political and civil life of Sumter and Emelle (Alley et al., 1995).


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Sumter County and the small village of Emelle are predominantly poor, African American communities.  According to 1990 census data, the population of Sumter County is comprised of 16,174 residents.  Of these, 46 are Asian or Pacific Islanders, 4770 are White and 11,358 are African American.  The mean household income for Sumter County according to 1990 census data was $12,811.        


The above information is taken from Waste Management, INC:  An Encyclopedia of Environmental Crimes and Other Misdeeds.                          

According to data provided by Charlie Cray in Waste Management, INC:  An Encyclopedia of Environmental Crimes and Other Misdeeds, in 1989, ninety percent of the residents in the village of Emelle were African American.  The mean household income in Emelle, according to 1989 census data, was $10,096.


The above information is taken from Waste Management, INC:  An Encyclopedia of Environmental Crimes and Other Misdeeds.




Sumter County



Median Household Income in 1989






The above information is taken from 1990 US Census Bureau State and County Quick Fact data.


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Opposition to Chemical Waste Management in the form of grassroots groups came about in 1978, after a group of workers walked off the site because of unsafe working conditions.  In response to this, the Minority Peoples Council, a Black organization headed by a local activist organized and attracted the first local and regional media scrutiny that Chemical Waste Management received.  In response to this, the company ended up creating a community relations manager and encouraged local residents and other interested parties to tour the facility (Alley et al., 1995). 


Soon after the walkout, a few residents living in Emelle formed an organization called Sumter Countians Organized for the Protection of the Environment (SCOPE).  The main goal of this predominantly White organization led by a Livingston University professor was to make sure there would be rigorous monitoring of the facility, greater public accountability and free access to accurate information.  After several community meetings involving experts in the field of hazardous waste landfills and the industry’s spokesman, SCOPE became aligned with arguments in favor of the necessity of the landfill (Alley et al., 1995).


Dissatisfied with SCOPE, some residents established an organization called Alabamians for a Clean Environment (ACE), with the specific purpose of closing down the hazardous waste landfill. This was the main group involved in the Chemical Waste Management struggle.  The group did not achieve their goal.  However, by examining the transformations that ACE underwent brings issues together that are important to understand environmental activism, social movements and the politics of waste in America (Alley et al., 1995).  Resource-mobilization, the approach describing how organizations obtain the resources they need to promote their objectives, in this case did not lead the group to a final stage of greater strength.  Instead, it promoted a multitude of information gathering experiences that crossed spatial boundaries and mixed national and local agendas.  Ultimately, this led the group’s members in directions that caused the fracture of the groups cohesion and success.


A few White women including local activist Kaye Kiker formed the group’s core.  Although ACE claimed to have over 300 members, the core group was comprised of only about 10 people.  Moreover, the members (although not part of the traditional White power structure) distanced themselves from the civic and political life of Sumter County and didn’t consider themselves as members of the “establishment” (Alley et al., 1995).  To them, “the civic and political life was shaped by a small White elite trying to maintain political power in the face of an increasingly successful process of Black political empowerment” (Alley, 1995).  The group started its efforts with intensive information gathering.  They received initial information about the background of Chemical Waste Management operations in other states from a grassroots group in the adjacent county of Noxubee, Mississippi.  Some of ACE’s first members were residents of this county who had opposed proposals for a waste site.  The public appeal of ACE was very limited.  Many residents and local officials had interests in the company and the group was ineffective in reaching Sumter County’s African American population that constituted nearly 70% of the county’s total population and over 90% of Emelle’s.  Being that the group was so marginalized, they were harassed, ostracized, and threatened when opposing the facility.  This pressure eventually led to decrease in membership (Alley et al., 1995). 


Despite the fact that ACE was unable to make any substantive changes in the political affairs of Sumter County and despite the group’s marginality as an organization, it was effective in making knowledge about hazardous waste accessible to the public and maintained a voice of opposition in public meetings.  ACE forced political elites in favor of promoting the well being of the hazardous waste industry, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to respond publicly when questioned.  The group asked questions about the safety measure taken at the facility, about health risks and groundwater contamination and about the validity of alleged concern of company spokesman for the well being of the community.  Alabamians for a Clean Environment organized and practiced guerrilla theater tactics like sign waving and name calling to draw attention to their cause.  They also had access to highly visible and powerful actors to speak with them, such as the acting Alabama Attorney, General Don Siegelman, and since elected Attorney General Jimmy Evans.  Coupled with the information gathering and looming public voice and presence, representation and protests were valuable resources mobilized in opposition to the hazardous waste facility, and did result in the successful permit denial for a hazardous waste incinerator on the site (Alley et al., 1995).


In 1987, ACE members disengaged from local White discourse in Sumter County and formed an alliance with a key Black leader.  Under this alliance, ACE and a few Black residents of Sumter, supported by Greenpeace, organized the “Toxic Trail of Tears” rally.  Sumter County was the starting point for the original trail of tears of the Creek Indians and their forced resettlement to Oklahoma in the 1830s.  This version began at the state capitol with a public demonstration and was followed by a funeral-like procession that moved across the state to the hazardous waste landfill.  Over a dozen people were arrested after blocking the entrance to the dump for eight hours.  The rally raised issues of the facility and industry to minority groups in the state and stressed the disproportionate number of hazardous waste sites in minority communities (Alley et al., 1995).


Through activities such as those discussed above, ACE gained the attention of national organizations such as the National Toxics Fund Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, the National Toxics Fund Campaign, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.  Contact with these groups gave ACE a vast amount of resources from technical expertise, information on Chemical Waste Management and strategies on how to oppose them, to legal advice, publicity and lobbying assistance.  Unfortunately, rather than helping with ACE’s cause, these groups who were unresponsive to local needs, further separated the group from the people of the community (Alley et al., 1995).


From here, the group moved on to wider audiences as far as Japan.  After failing to win the support of the local media who, in news articles, wrote about them as “60’s escapees” who were “shunned in their own home town”, ACE defined its image in the national arena.  On top of appearing in newspaper articles, the group appeared in a music video on VH-1 promoting their cause.  Government officials recognized Individual group members as able activists.  One even received the Alabama Volunteer of the Year award from the Governor and was honored by President Reagan (Alley et al., 1995).


The two key leaders of ACE and the key Black leader in Sumter County who joined ACE in the struggle with Chemical Waste Management were hired by the National Toxics Campaign after claiming that “the goal of closing the facility was beyond their reach” (Alley et al., 1995).   It is believed that their association with the National Toxics Campaign led to the dissolution of ACE in part because their energies were turned towards national agendas.


Although ACE was unsuccessful in closing the toxic waste facility, members claim that “sharing information with others was a way to take what they had learned beyond Sumter County to other places sharing similar risks” (Alley et al., 1995).   The two core members of ace returned to their hometown where one became the Chair of the Water Authority of Sumter County to share the impact of the waste industry on the county’s water supply.  She succeeded in preventing the Water Board from opening up a well near Emelle, leaving several communities without water for three weeks.  The Alabama Department of Environmental Management issued strong objections and began the attempt to remove her from the Board.  The other member became a Board member of the Historical Society in Sumter and is working to generate new job opportunities for residents and to bring in tourism projects to bring together White and Black members in the region.  She also frequently receives invitations to speak about hazardous waste and community organization from various institutions today (Alley et al., 1995). 


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Over a decade ago, Emelle was ground zero in the controversy over the sprawling Chemical Waste Management landfill just outside of the city’s limits.  So what is going on now? 


As we have seen with Alabamians for a Clean Environment, environmental outrage did not succeed in closing the largest hazardous waste dump in the nation.  However, a state tax and a series of federal regulations decimated business during the 90s.   The company still operates there today, but only 120,000 tons of waste per year are buried at the landfill.  This is an 85 percent decline from earlier, due primarily to a $51-per-ton fee imposed by legislators in 1991.  Federal law also changed and contributed to the current status of the facility.  Companies were required in the early 90s to reduce the amount of hazardous waste they produced and certain chemicals and solvents were no longer allowed to be dumped (Reeves, 2000).


As far as ACE is concerned, the transformation that it underwent in the struggle proved to be an important lesson.  The grassroots group had a marginal character and didn’t have the support of the local Black community to aid in the struggle.  The group did form alliances with national networking groups and aided others in their struggle, but that is exactly what took the steam out of the struggle on a local level.  There case demonstrates that “relationships between grassroots groups and national organizations do not push towards an increasingly inclusive and institutional movement” (Alley et al., 1995).


Emelle is now desolate and dying, but not because of the disastrous pollution effects that can occur with toxic landfills.  Even ACE activists argue that most residents of Emelle still accept the waste industry as an important employer for the economy.  And it is.  The landfill generated $35million in taxes for the state in 1991 and last year, in 1999, it generated less than $1.5 million.  340 jobs were lost in Emelle (Reeves, 2000).  The general sentiment of the local people is that the decreased production of the facility has “killed” Emelle.  The only grocer retired a couple of years ago, the City Hall paid for by hazardous waste dumping fees sits locked and virtually empty and there is now not a single business left in Emelle proper, so the jobs can not be replaced.  This sentiment is further expressed when listening to resident Rosie Bradley.  She has served three times on the City Council in part because no one else will run and worries about what will become of her town.  She hopes the landfill holds tight and keeps its deadly contents away from her children.  She says:  “Jobs or not, we’re stuck with that” (Reeves, 2000).


This last statement by Bradley raises an interesting concern.  The issue of siting hazardous waste facilities has become an increasingly important issue within the last 20 years.  In April 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice released a survey of toxic waste dump sites in the US.  It found a pattern of environmental racism, or toxic dump sites in areas populated by people of color.  It found that race was by far the most prominent factor in the location of commercial hazardous-waste landfills and Emelle was sited as an example.


Emelle indeed has been hurt by the loss of jobs.  There is no question about it.  However it may be important to think about why the situation exists.  Activist Kaye Kiker points out:  “Our water is polluted here, and it’s just not the kind of place where you want to raise your family” (Montague, 1998).  Should the health and quality of life have to be sacrificed for jobs?  Shouldn’t a basic right of all Americans, regardless of race or wealth  be to live and work in a healthy environment? 


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Alley, Kelly, and  Faupel, Charles, and Bailey, Connor. The Historical Transformation of

a Grassroots Environmental Group.  Human Organization, Vol. 54, No.4, 1995.


Bullard, R.D.  Dumping in Dixie:  Race, class, and environmental quality.  Boulder, CO:

Westview.  1990.


Cray, Charlie.  Waste Management, Inc:  An Encyclopedia of Environmental Crimes &

Other Misdeeds.  Greenpeace Report. 1991.


Ingersoll, Bruce, and Pasztor, Andy.  “Waste Management Inc. Failed to Dispose Of

DDT, Though It Certified Move to US.”  Wall Street Journal, May 16, 1984.


Reeves, Jay.  “Attack on landfill kills Ala. town state taxes, federal laws, not hazardous

 waste, doom Emelle.”  The Detroit News, Apr 10, 2000.


Web references:

Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly:         (http://www.monitor.net/rachel/rehw-home.html)


U.S. Census Bureau                                         (http://www.census.gov)


Waste Management, Inc. home page:                (http://www.wm.com/about.html)

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