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August 27, 2013

Alabama Teen Fights Pollution in her Community

Alabama-activistsMembers of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. From left to right: Mary Leila Schaeffer, Adam Johnston, Ester Calhoun, Chakarion "Cece" Durden , Sierra Club National Program Director Sarah Hodgdon, Ellis Long.

By Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club National Program Director

Cece Durden knows more about coal ash than the average 17-year-old. The Uniontown, Alabama, teen has become quite the expert in the past few months since learning her small town is facing serious coal ash contamination risks from a nearby landfill.

She told me that she became an activist by attending a meeting near her home, where she learned that the local landfill is receiving toxic coal ash from the 2008 spill in Tennessee. Now she is passionate about recruiting other young people to protect the community from arsenic and other heavy metals.

Two weeks ago, I heard Cece talk on a panel of activists from Uniontown. She was addressing a room of Sierra Student Coalition activists at their summer training program, and she was appealing passionately for their support. Cece spoke with powerful conviction, and when the panel ended, she was surrounded by youth activists ready to support her cause.

Unfortunately, Uniontown's pollution problem isn't just from coal ash. Cece's volunteer work with community group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice also involves the local wastewater facility, which has polluted a number of waterways, too. [The Black Belt is a region of Alabama named for its rich, black topsoil.]

Cece told me that she has been to Alabama's Department of Environmental Management, attended rallies and press conferences, and talked with her neighbors about the problems. Many of them don't even know about the pollution problems and are shocked.

I also met Adam Johnston, Coordinator of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, at the SSC training. He says Cece is taking on state environmental agencies that are doing little to nothing to enforce safety regulations on the landfill's owners and the wastewater facility.

The state classifies coal ash, the by-product of burning coal for power, as household waste, even though it contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and hexavalent chromium.

Adam told me he wants to help the community address this environmental injustice because the federal and state governments are not. The residents of Uniontown are carrying the burden of pollution in their backyard.

Perry Because Perry County is a major agricultural county, it depends on clean water. Adam says the community is in fear for their health because the water is contaminated by widespread misuse.

His organization has coordinated with Cece and Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice in helping an environmental lawyer issue an Environmental Justice Complaint with the EPA due to the coal ash and wastewater contamination.

Cece's environmental activism is just beginning, and her future is bright. She's engaged with new friends from the summer training in order to build a website about Uniontown's pollution problems and to continue to raise awareness.

She's looking for more young people to support her. With her courage and conviction, I know she will find them. (To show your support for Cece, contact Adam at the Alabama Rivers Alliance and watch for the website that Cece and friends are designing.)

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