Alabama, Environmental Racism

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

Africatown and McIntosh are two predominantly Black communities located in Alabama's "chemical corridor," a 60-mile stretch of land.

Africatown and McIntosh, two predominantly Black communities located in Alabama’s 60-mile stretch known as the “chemical corridor,” are living in the shadow of the state’s booming chemical industry.

But residents say 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.

“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,” Joe Womack, an Africatown native and the president of local environmental group C.H.E.S.S. told Reckon. “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?”

For Womack, it’s been years of compromise with little return for residents.

“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. The 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 said they were swindled out of their land due to the deceptive practices of 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 fighting back. Andy Lang, a contract pipefitter, is also a community advocate. He and other members of the joined lawsuits against Olin in 2018, which are due to be heard in 2024. 

“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,” Lang told Al-Jazeera. “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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