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Opinion

Memphis Branch NAACP takes on toxic waste fight

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In African-American communities across the United States, young men are besieged by violence and their families struggle to overcome economic deprivation, which threatens their way of life. In those depressed enclaves, African Americans are often relegated to poor housing conditions, and escaping such conditions has been fruitless in some cases.

But there is another threat to the African-American community that looms overhead, and in the ground water, like a modern-day plague: residue from chemical and coal burning plants. That's because African-American neighborhoods are often located in close proximity to these "killing" plants. It's happening across the United States and it's happening in Memphis and Shelby County.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has consistently been concerned about the quality of air and water in the United States on a daily basis. Our poor African-American communities are routinely oppressed with the deadly residue from coal burning plants that is emitted in the air and found in the water supply. Memphis is not immune to this plague.

Here's an example: There are 45,000 Memphians located within three to six miles of the Allen Fossil Plant in parts of zip code 38109. The plant is located at 2574 Plant Rd., not far from Mitchell High School, Ford Road Elementary School and White's Chapel Elementary School. The residents, schools and other facilities in the area have been subjected to this form of pollution for well over 50 years.

The Allen Fossil Plant consumes about 7,200 tons of coal a day, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates the coal-fired plant. In 2009 the plant was ranked 67th by Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies as one of the most polluted power plants in the country, "with 416,705 pounds of coal combustion waste released to surface impoundments in 2006."

According to a July 2011 story in FairWarning, a news organ on the web reporting on environmental safety, health and corporate conduct, an inspector general reported that TVA, for more than 10 years, had "found indications that toxic metals could be leaking from a coal ash pond at the authority's Allen plant."

Although I'm not surprised, arsenic was also found above currently allowable levels in a monitoring well that supplies drinking water to Memphis and nearby areas. This revelation is enough to scare the wits out of each resident in the area and out of Memphians in general.

This is an injustice that wouldn't be tolerated in any other community. African Americans, more than other groups, have suffered far too long the indignation of social and economic injustices. However, the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, is tirelessly at work trying to eradicate any vestiges of racial hatred and discrimination and to create safe havens for African Americans who are subjected to corporate malfeasance.

We have to eliminate plants such as the Allen Fossil Plant that continue to spew harmful soot and toxic waste into the air and water. There are long-term health effects when toxic waste is left behind after coal is burned. The Memphis Branch of the NAACP will not stand idly by while African Americans, or anyone for that matter, suffer needlessly at the hands of corporate officials for the sake of progress.

There cannot be any progress when one's health is at stake and when there is a propensity for danger. Now is the time to discuss refitting the Allen Fossil Plant or rebuilding a new clean energy plant that would serve the needs of this community with safeguards in place. We want healthy and affordable sources of energy that protect our local and global communities.

The residents in zip code 38109 are predominantly African American. The median household income is $28,368, which is significantly lower than the national average of $56,604. While this area has its share of crime, the continued emission of soot and toxic waste will no doubt threaten the very existence of all residents within close proximity to the Allen Fossil Plant.

If the plant is allowed to operate with few restraints, if any at all, the residents in the area won't have to worry about crime.

(Madeleine Taylor is executive director of the Memphis Branch NAACP)