Read the full article by Bennet Goldstein, Sarah Whites-Koditschek, and Dennis Pillion (Wisconsin Watch, AL.com)
“Five-gallon plastic pails holding a toxic chemical linked to cancer sat for years on the shelves of a fire department in south-central Wisconsin. Finally, in a heralded statewide cleanup, they were gathered up and shipped off.
‘I don’t have to worry about something being knocked over, broken open,’ said Jefferson Fire Chief Ron Wegner. ‘So it’s just nice to have it gone.’
But where did it go?
It turns out there are no easy answers for dealing with ‘forever chemicals’ called PFAS: a family of 12,000 human-made compounds that don’t readily break down in nature. Removed from Wisconsin, the birthplace of the modern environmental movement, means buried in the ground in Alabama, where the federal government has flagged areas as vulnerable to environmental injustice.
In Wisconsin, experts weighed the most socially and environmentally responsible solutions. The state is trucking more than 38,500 gallons of PFAS-containing firefighting foam more than 700 miles to Emelle, Alabama, the home of one of the country’s largest hazardous waste landfills.
It sits in the Alabama Black Belt, a string of rural counties historically known for fertile and dark soil, America’s Cotton Kingdom and the slave trade. Remnants of that legacy still show today. Sumter County is home to 12,345 residents, about 70% of whom are Black and nearly a third of whom live in poverty. More than half are unemployed.
‘A state that is predominantly white is sending its waste that’s toxic to the Black Belt,’ said sociologist Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University professor who surveyed Emelle residents in the 1980s as part of a landmark study on environmental racism in the American South. ‘It’s not going to a predominantly white area in Alabama. It’s not going into the rich area. It’s going to the Black Belt.’
In 1977, relatives of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace opened the landfill, which Chemical Waste Management purchased the following year. It sparked opposition from its birth, with detractors believing developers targeted a community that lacked the power to object. Today, Chemical Waste Management annually disposes of 274 million pounds of hazardous waste from all over the nation.
The landfill’s entrance sits a few hundred yards from M&M Market, a gas station and lunch counter where two old high school friends chatted on a summer afternoon.
A woman served the day’s lunch special, country-fried steak. The two companions reminisced about graduating from Sumter County High in 1973. Talk turned to rumors about the next batch of waste destined for the landfill.
‘You can’t safely contain nothing that’s man-made,’ said military veteran Jimmie Williams, 69. ‘So why bring it in here?’
He sees a lot of sickness around him — conditions people don’t understand, like heart disease, strokes and even unexplained death in young people. There is no evidence to suggest it is connected to PFAS or the landfill, but he feels in the dark.
‘We don’t know,’ Williams said. ‘We’re lost.’
PFAS cleanups left to states
As public alarm about PFAS grows, many states are grappling with the chemicals, which are found in a bevy of consumer products like nonstick pans, food wrappers and raincoats.
Firefighters question how to handle stockpiles of fluorinated foam that contains PFAS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to institute disposal requirements, leaving states to ‘figure out what to do,’ observed Darsi Foss, a former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources division administrator who led the team that developed the foam collection program.
Officials in some states opted to burn the foam, which can disperse PFAS into the air.
Without an affordable and safe way to destroy the compounds, a hazardous waste landfill seemed best.
But Bullard, often called the ‘father of environmental justice,’ said transporting PFAS to Emelle perpetuates — even if unintentionally — environmental racism by disproportionately shifting the burden and risk onto a largely poor community of color. While Wisconsin can discard a piece of its PFAS problem, Sumter County residents lacked the choice of whether to accept it.
Emelle fits into a larger pattern, Bullard said. A 2007 study he led found people of color made up 56% of the population in neighborhoods near the nation’s hazardous waste landfills. The figure jumped to 69% when analyzing clusters of two or more facilities. Race independently predicted hazardous waste locations — more than income and education levels.
There has been no reported contamination of community drinking water due to the Emelle landfill, and company spokesperson Tricia Farace told reporters the facility ‘utilizes engineered controls to prevent impacts to groundwater and the neighboring environment.’
But Bullard says medical outcomes alone can’t measure effects.
Few people, he said, want their community to be considered America’s ‘waste dumping ground.’
‘Harm can be measured in terms of the extent to which people are disrespected.’
Wisconsin touts firefighting foam collection
Manufacturers comprehended the hazards of PFAS by the 1960s but concealed them for decades.
Thousands of U.S. cities and counties, and a host of states and utilities, including many in Wisconsin and Alabama, sued the 3M Company, DuPont and other manufacturers, alleging they failed to alert the public of exposure risks, such as altered hormone levels, high cholesterol, hypertension in pregnancy, kidney and testicular cancers and reduced vaccine effectiveness. In 2022, the EPA released health advisories, suggesting virtually no amount of several PFAS is safe for consumption.
The chemicals are increasingly turning up in public drinking water around the country, prompting cleanup efforts nationwide.
In a 2020 survey of Wisconsin fire departments, about 76% of respondents said they possessed or previously used fluorinated foam, some dating to the 1980s. Many wanted to learn about their liability and how to get rid of the stuff.
One department explained that nobody would take its stored foam, while another reported awaiting government assistance, according to redacted survey responses provided to reporters through a public records request. Two departments previously sent their foam to an incinerator, and one dumped it into the sewer.
In 2021, Wisconsin lawmakers allocated $1 million to collect the foam.
‘We’ll be gathering that PFAS and finding the right and appropriate way to get rid of it and get it off the landscape,’ extolled former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, the state’s top environmental official, in 2022. ‘What we’re doing at the DNR is rolling up our sleeves, and on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.’
Officials examined other state approaches.
At least two, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, opted to incinerate their fluorinated foam. Washington considered doing so, but withdrew the proposal in the face of public concern over pollution risks. Colorado paid fire departments to store their foam. New York officials would not disclose their disposal methods to reporters. Michigan and Indiana contracted with a company that owns a hazardous waste landfill in Idaho.
Wisconsin took its cues from its Midwestern neighbors.
‘We really felt like, at that time, using the hazardous waste landfill was the safest option available,’ said Mimi Johnson, director of the Office of Emerging Contaminants at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. ‘There are not many in the country, and in particular, that will take PFAS, knowingly.’
None of the country’s 60 permitted hazardous waste landfills are in Wisconsin.
The state contracted with North Shore Environmental Construction, which it previously hired to clean up PFAS spills.
Dave Johnson, the company’s executive vice president, said North Shore has long worked with Chemical Waste Management.
Chemical Waste Management also offered indemnification to Wisconsin for liability in case the landfill is ever flagged for cleanup under the federal Superfund law.
‘We give recommendations on where it goes,’ Johnson said. ‘The customer has to decide: What is their company’s risk? What is their company’s image? … What’s cost-effective now? What’s socially responsible?’
When North Shore contracted with the state, the company committed to avoid contributing to environmental injustice.
‘You obviously don’t want to go into an area that’s going to be a disadvantage to somebody,’ Johnson said.
When asked, Mimi Johnson said the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was unaware of the Alabama landfill’s contentious history.
In November 2022, the agency hired an environmental justice policy adviser, Julie Majerus, who was not involved in the planning of the PFAS collection program.
‘The DNR cannot change the fact that the disproportionate harms currently exist,’ she said, ‘but we can begin the work to right those harms and better engage with the communities most impacted to include their voices in our decision-making.’”…