At Odds in Alabama Over a Landfill on a Historic Trail By SOMINI SENGUPTA AYNEVILLE, Ala., Oct. 1 Other than scruffy banks of pine and poplar, and the occasional barbecue house and gas station, the rolling land along the highway that stretches from Selma to Montgomery offers little more than its rich red Alabama soil and the collective memory of its people. For some, the bounty of this land lies in its Selma chalk soil. They call it "mother nature's cement," a tightly packed clay said to be ideally suited for a landfill. That is exactly what a businessman, a friend of the Alabama governor, has proposed to build off Highway 80, with a promise to accept no garbage from outside Alabama and to share his proceeds with destitute Lowndes County. Local politicians, pinning their hopes on the landfill to bring revenue and a few jobs to a county where nearly 40 percent of the 13,000 residents live below the poverty line, have approved his proposal. For others here, the wealth of this land is its place in the civil rights movement. It was here, along Highway 80, in March 1965, that a 54-mile march, from Selma to Montgomery, led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Along this highway, black farmers let the marchers camp overnight on their land. Here, the day after the march, a civil rights volunteer, a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo, was gunned down. And along this highway, black sharecroppers, evicted for daring register to vote, built a settlement called Tent City. Some of these spots have been marked since the National Park Service designated this stretch of Highway 80 a national historic trail. Since then, too, many people here have dreamed of one day seeing hotels and restaurants dot the highway, drawing tourists and creating jobs. To them and to many more people outside, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at an anti-dump rally last month, and John Lewis, a congressman from Georgia who marched in 1965, a dump is the ultimate affront, a case of environmental racism. "It's an insult," said Bob Mants, who also marched alongside Mr. Lewis as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and who now heads the Lowndes County Friends of the Trail. "You can't commemorate it on the one hand and desecrate it on the other." And yet, this is not a duel of old-time Deep South enemies. Unlike many things in Alabama, the fight over the landfill has divided traditional allies and united blacks and whites on both sides. In fact, everybody in this fight seems eager to display their own civil rights stripes. The landfill's most vocal champion, for instance, is John Hulett, the county's first black sheriff, now the probate judge and the county's de facto political boss. Mr. Hulett, 72, helped erect Tent City and establish the country's first black political party, Lowndes County Freedom Party. The county commission that approved the proposed landfill in 1998, convinced that it would not affect the civil rights trail because it would be set back from the highway by at least 500 feet, has a black majority. The lawyers representing the county in the landfill case work for the firm of Henry Sanders, a black state senator and a civil rights stalwart. Meanwhile, as Mr. Hulett points out with relish, landfill opponents include the residents of the tony, overwhelmingly white town of Lowndesboro, who, he says, have never cared about the county's black majority. "We didn't have any white participation in the civil rights movement in this town," Mr. Hulett snapped, sitting in his office here in the county seat. "Suddenly, it's the trail they're interested in." For his part, the Lowndesboro mayor, John H. Nichols, 66, a white man, points to his civil rights credentials: He was a national guardsman circling the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a helicopter, watching as marchers were beaten. "Then I realized, we are not free," Mr. Nichols recalled the other evening. "That trail is as much mine as it is anybody's. I was there." Landfills are a major source of revenue for Alabama. There are 25 dumps statewide that take household waste alone. Much of it comes from out of state; Alabamans produce only a third of the landfills' capacity of 31,500 tons daily. The issue of non-Alabama trash has become a favorite target of some politicians. Earlier this year, Gov. Donald Siegelman opposed a proposed landfill in Macon County, since withdrawn, because it would have accepted out-of-state trash. The governor has remained silent on the Lowndes site, to be developed by Lanny Young, a Montgomery businessman, race-car team owner and political consultant who is a friend and former roommate of the governor's chief of staff, Paul Hamrick. Mr. Young's company already collects Lowndes County trash. His political consulting firm represents Waste Management Inc., one of the country's biggest landfill companies. Mr. Young acquired land and a state permit for another landfill, in Cherokee County, and quickly sold it at what he called a handsome profit. The state environmental agency has approved his proposed 200-acre, $6.8 million landfill, which would bring in a maximum of 1,500 tons of household garbage and construction debris into a shallow valley encircled by a ridge of pine and oak. His development is at a standstill now. Residents have appealed to a state agency that oversees state permits for landfills. Mr. Young has sued officials from the town of Lowndesboro, who claim that they should have some legal authority over the project; the landfill would fall within the town's police jurisdiction but outside town limits. Mr. Young recently declared personal bankruptcy, but said it will not affect the plans for the project. The county, he said, could gain up to $350,000 a year, a considerable sum for Lowndes and roughly 5 percent of the landfill's expected gross revenues. Mr. Young would also donate 30 acres for archaeological digs and build a kiosk on the highway to display Lowndes history. Quemeller Lane, 54, whose family has lived in Burkville, just west of the dump site, for over a century, had not known much about the civil rights struggles here, or about the 1965 march, until she moved here from Pensacola, Fla., 26 years ago. To learn it filled her with pride. "To have this honor, this prestige, this highway being named a national trail, and they come along and they say, `We'll show what we think of this,' and put a dump on it," Ms. Lane said. "I just think it's awful."
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : 10/03/00 EDT