Two Black Towns In The Shadow Of Environmental Racism Fight Back Against Chemical Companies

Africatown and McIntosh, two predominantly Black communities located in Alabama’s “chemical corridor,” a 60-mile stretch of land in Alabama, are living in the shadow of Alabama’s booming chemical industry, a fact residents say helps obscure the fact that the industrial expansion in the Mobile area is slowly killing them. 

As Reckon reports, in 2021 Finnish chemical giant Kemira, now Sterling Specialty Chemicals, completed a major expansion of its operations only about 1,500 feet from homes in Africatown, a community located in Mobile. Africatown native, Joe Womack, a retired U.S. Marine Corps. Major and the president and CEO of a local environmental group, C.H.E.S.S., (Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe & Sustainable), told the outlet his group is part of a long-standing tradition in Africatown. 

“Through all Africatown’s entire history, residents have tried to stop pollution. All the way back, maybe it was a quiet word or a letter that didn’t make much difference,” Womack said. “Now we have a united voice. We have protested. We have used the courts. We have held public meetings where we hold these people and companies accountable. It hasn’t always worked, but we’re still here, ain’t we?”

Womack also used a metaphor to describe the City of Mobile, the Port Authority, and the local chemical industry’s piecemealing out of the community. “This is how it works,” Womack explained. “First, they ask for your arm, so you give them a thumb. That’s a good compromise. Then years go by, and they ask again, so you give them your hand. And maybe they’ll help build a few things like a museum or a welcome center. But let me tell you this: They are still looking at your arm.”

As Al-Jazeera reports, a similar story is unfolding in McIntosh, Alabama. McIntosh, a tiny community of 250, is surrounded by eight chemical plants, part of a 26-plant network stretching from Highway 43 to Mobile, where Africatown is located. Residents in that community also describe a process where they were swindled out of their land by deceptive practices by a homebuilder who later sold the land to corporations, paving the way for a chemical industry takeover. 

In 2017, Olin’s chemical manufacturing plant began belching chlorine in the air for 12 hours without warning residents of McIntosh, during which time, residents described burning lungs and dying birds. The Alabama Department of Energy eventually fined Olin $80,000 for the unauthorized release of the chemical and a failure to report it, but this has not stopped the company from releasing chemicals in the air. Olin has repeated the action four times, the latest coming in January 2022.

Michael Hansen, the former executive director of GASP, a non-profit that works to reduce air pollution and promote environmental justice told Al-Jazeera that the practice of companies like Olin creates a sacrifice zone in communities like McIntosh and Africatown. 

“Cancer is a common occurrence. (in areas like those two towns) In addition to that, asthma and other chronic breathing difficulties, heart disease and stroke, difficulty sleeping, nausea, and learning impairment for children are common. It can stunt cognitive development as well as respiratory development.”

Hansen continued, “This creates a cumulative impact, and if there’s more than one plant in an area, you start looking at what is called a ‘sacrifice zone’ where residents who live near the vicinity are sacrificed for the sake of industry,”

Like Africatown, residents in McIntosh are starting to band together to fight back. Andy Lang, a contract pipefitter, is also a community advocate, bringing various members of the community together while he and other members of the joined lawsuits against Olin in 2018, which are due to be heard in 2024. 

Lang is determined to see something done to change the bleak prospects of his community, his home. Despite the slow progress of the court cases, the community remains hopeful. He told Al-Jazeera that the children of the community are his driving force. “We’re angry and worried because while the lawsuits are held up in court by big companies, people are dying and still in danger and no one seems to care. For these kids, if I don’t do something, our history’s going to be gone, but the people are coming together talking. We’ve never been this far, but we’re beginning to have a little faith, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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