Esther Calhoun is from Uniontown, Alabama and is the daughter and granddaughter of sharecroppers who grew cotton and vegetables and raised hogs, cows, chickens and horses. She is one of the founders and a former president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. Ms. Calhoun organizes to help people hold on to their strength, to educate community members, and to ensure that everyday people have a voice. Esther was sued (along with three other people) by Green Group Holdings LLC after speaking up about environmental and health concerns related to a landfill.
Answers edited for length and clarity.
Photo care of Casey Chapman Ross
How did you get involved with environmental justice?
I started off with voting, which is part of people having a voice, as well as advocating for my son who was mistreated by the police. Then I got involved in activism; I would vote and also participate in organizing others to vote. Sometimes, it was about a particular person, such as Johnny Flowers. I didn’t think he was the right Commissioner so I went out and told people. He was getting ready to bring a landfill in and we didn’t need what was coming with the landfill.
[T]hey put coal ash directly in front of the community, in front of people’s homes where they have to smell the stink of dust.Esther Calhoun
Why did you decide to speak out against the landfill? What were some of the impacts you were seeing for your community?
The reason I started speaking out against the landfill was Green Group Holdings initially said it would be a landfill with local trash, then trash from multiple counties, and then up to 33 states. Then they started bringing in coal ash. We were disturbed about where this coal ash was coming from and how dangerous it was. We were reading and hearing stories about the spill in Kingston, Tennessee, where this coal ash was coming from, and we decided we needed to do something.
We started going out and having conversations with people in the community and doing different things trying to fight it. But the more we went out, it still wasn’t heard. The company didn’t want to listen. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) wasn’t listening. It felt like we were sold out by the Commissioners, including Johnny Flowers who said it was a done deal.
It’s not that we didn’t need a landfill for our own garbage. But we never had a community meeting before they decided on the landfill. And they put coal ash directly in front of the community, in front of people’s homes where they have to smell the stink of dust.
Our elected officials don’t get that once you are elected, you are a voice for the people.
I always say – step out of your comfort zone and stay focused. What if this were you? You wouldn’t want this in your community. The company did a study about how the town was run, what kind of leadership we had, what tools we had to have a voice. And we didn’t have tools – the only tool we had was the media. We had Earthjustice working with us and some universities, but we didn’t have tools to test the water or get our property appraised. Being in a poor area with a lack of education, how did you do these things? People are afraid of speaking out as we’re in the south where there is still white supremacy.
We tried to fight, but you need to have a certain level of education to give a presentation before the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. With ADEM you need to send in a request to speak. But how do you know how to send in a request when you don’t even know how to write to these people? They make it very difficult so you don’t even have the tools to communicate on a state or federal level unless you go online and use the internet to fill out a form. It’s hard when you have a majority of elderly people, a majority of people who didn’t have the education to know how to go 80 miles and do a presentation. I think that makes it very difficult for a community like Uniontown.
So that’s where Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice stepped in. We carpooled and brought schoolteachers and people living by the landfill to speak with ADEM in Montgomery and covered their meals. We also did demonstrations in front of ADEM. We felt that they didn’t really care as we’re in a rural area. We felt sold out. I just stayed focused on freedom, justice, telling the story of the people and what the community was telling me. I kept going and going.
What was it like when you found out you were being sued?
It started when Green Group Holdings went to our cemetery. We have a cemetery which was given to the Black people of Uniontown in 1858, and they trespassed on our cemetery. They said they owned the cemetery, but this is a historic Black cemetery. They went over some of the graves with their heavy equipment. At first the landfill company said they made a mistake and they were going to beautify the cemetery, but they didn’t do that. Instead, they switched the names, came back a second time and went over my ancestors’ graves. Now I no longer know where my ancestors and brothers’ graves are. I know they are out there somewhere because they didn’t disappear.
The company said they owned the cemetery; how can you buy a cemetery? So many things weren’t recognized by the state government. The company went out there with heavy equipment, hired people and put a bulldozer over my ancestors’ graves. That was so devastating and wrong. If this had been a white cemetery or if people of color had done this to a white cemetery, we would have been in court. They can’t fix what they messed up with my ancestors. I’ll never know where they really are, but I know they are out there.
With this lawsuit, I didn’t have anything for them to get. It would be a different story to me if I owned a nice big house and if they won they could take it, but I didn’t have anything. Also, if they didn’t give a dang about the dead, how could they give a dang about the living? So, I wasn’t really troubled, but I was worried for the people beside me and was thinking about how we could do this as a team. We had the ACLU representing us and the title 6 lawyer from Earthjustice. The lawsuit didn’t phase me because I’ve been through so much environmental justice – dealing with the landfill, things that happened to my kids. I had to relocate them. It seems like it would be scary but a quarter of a million dollars? Where do you get that kind of money from a community of people on fixed incomes? I wanted to fight the lawsuit. But one of the other people sued didn’t want to bring his family through that.
We got sued for the simple fact that we were exposing the landfill. They didn’t like that we talked to other community groups, such as a group from Texas near where the same company wanted to bring coal ash. We took other groups to the landfill, exposing what kind of neighbor this company was. The company had tried to say that no one lived in the area and we showed everyone that was a lie – people lived right across from the landfill. We met with others – Senator Booker, students, members of the EPA, other groups. We did rallies and spoke out.
Why did you keep fighting?
Why should I give up? I had the quotes from people like MLK and Fannie Lou Hamer, and I thought why should anyone give up? You need to have a strategy in place and you can’t be afraid. You gotta step out of your comfort zone and stay focused on the fight. Not revenge, just what you’re doing. If it is for justice, you keep fighting. You keep being the voice for the people. When you see a city or state that’s not full of voices of the people, that’s all for money, power, and control, there’s a problem. That’s when it’s really easy for people like the landfill to come into your community and take over, because you don’t have people elected that have a voice for you.
Is there anything else you want to share with anyone else who’s facing a threat, who’s facing a SLAPP?
Keep fighting, never give up, stay focused. You’re not only educating yourself, you’re educating other people. You may say something that’ll help others. Looking at me, being who I am, I’m just like most of the people in the area education-wise. You don’t need to have a PhD behind your name to have wisdom. You don’t need to have a PhD behind your name to know what’s going on in your community. How can you know anything without talking to the community? That’s where you get your wisdom. You talk to them, you try to organize your people. Don’t ever feel like you have to give up just because there’s a SLAPP lawsuit. I think the SLAPP lawsuit is set up to make you feel frightened, but you shouldn’t be frightened. It sounds scary, but I think they’re afraid of you because of what you’ve presented, and how many other people you can connect with that will fight with you.
I think the SLAPP lawsuit is set up to make you feel frightened, but you shouldn’t be frightened. It sounds scary, but I think they’re afraid of you because of what you’ve presented, and how many other people you can connect with that will fight with you.Esther Calhoun
What ended up happening with the SLAPP suit?
In February 2017 there was an agreement and the company dropped the lawsuit. The company wanted us to take down our Facebook posts and restrict our speech, but we have freedom of speech. They didn’t get what they wanted.
At first the state and federal government were not recognizing coal ash as hazardous, but what changed that was showing the health problems. I believe, to this day, that a lot of our health problems are caused by what’s in the air. We’ve got a lot of kidney problems, a lot of nerve problems, but if you’ve got a lot of problems and you don’t do nothing, what’s going to change? The coal ash has affected people who live there. They can’t leave productive property for their children – who wants to live near a landfill?
Just like John Lewis said – if you see something that’s not right, say something. You just have to keep going. You have to be educated. If coal ash leaves your area, worry about where it’s going. We wanted it out of our community, but we also need to ask where it’s going. Is it going to affect another community without resources to fight it? That’s why people need to talk and need to exercise their voice to help people fight the problems coming to them.
The company is getting ready to renew their permit for the landfill now with ADEM, as we speak.