This interview was originally posted on my newly launched blog Against Nature where I discuss climate change and environmental issues with a broad range of people working on these problems in new and interesting ways.
Kaye Kiker is one of those rare people who give me hope. Kaye is a hero who against all odds won many battles against corporate toxic waste behemoth Chemical Waste Management, the biggest toxic waste dump in the United States.
Chem-Waste opened its largest facility (of many) in Emelle, Alabama in 1978. Emelle at that time was 94% African-American and desperately poor. Citizens there were blatantly lied to by their local government, having been told that a brick factory was coming to town to bring in jobs. While the surprise dump brought some jobs, it blighted the community’s air and water quality. In addition to US chemical companies, Chem-Waste treasonously imported millions of tons of cancer-causing toxic waste from countries around the world for profit.
At that time Kaye Kiker was an unassuming stained glass artist, Sunday school teacher, and library volunteer who was reluctantly dragged into the fight for her community’s air and water. Kaye and her husband Doug lived just 20 miles away from the dump and had to live within the scorn of the dump’s workers and the company’s lawyers.
For nearly 40 years now, Kaye continues the fight against toxic waste dumping and the effects of environmental racism to this day. In the interview below, we discuss her path to activism and some of the many battles fought against Chem-Waste. This is a story about unchecked corporate greed that should not be forgotten during this age where the EPA has been corrupted by an anti-environment administration, and our relationship with the planet is in an existential crisis.
The first thing I did when I found out about the arrival of Chemical Waste Management, was I went to see a civil rights leader in Livingston. His name was Wendell Paris. I was a little bit intimidated by him because of his history in civil rights. He’s an amazing man and I learned so much from him. I think my relationship with Wendell was one of the main reasons, or the only reason, that I became effective. He advised me. He taught me about civil rights. He empowered me in so many ways. They had workshops at the Federation for Southern Cooperatives located in Epes, a small community in Sumter County. It was a facility run by John Zippert which provided public educational opportunities about toxic waste, community organizing and citizen empowerment. Mr Paris extended invitations to us to participate in the meetings.
MN: You were very lucky. He sounds like a great mentor figure.
KK: We became very good friends. I depended on him to help me understand what the workers at the Chemical Waste Management landfill were going through. He was very concerned about it too because they were exposed to all kinds of chemicals. I mean their shoes would melt on their feet in the pits! They didn’t have respirators or protective clothing or anything. Men would then go home and their clothes would be washed in the family wash. The other issue, of course, would be the environment. How much waste would then be put in the ground? I think they were there five years before I even heard of it.
MN: Wait, their shoes would melt?
KK: Yeah, the bottom of their rubber shoes would melt. Wendell told me about that. I was alarmed at all the things he told me. I thought that we had to get this information out to the state. We formed a group called Alabamians For A Clean Environment and started addressing it with legislation in Montgomery in all sorts of ways we could think of to make the public aware. People were really angry across the state about what was going on. This toxic waste was coming in from foreign countries like Saudi Arabia, The Philippines, Japan, (there might have been other nations involved too) and the waste was coming in by truck, in barrels, and in tanker trucks. It was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week coming into Emelle, Alabama.
KK: There were spills, explosions, and fires along the way. We documented as much as we could hear about. It was bizarre. It was like war basically. All these very deadly chemicals were coming in and you couldn’t fight it. The representatives in our county pretty much supported it. We were ridiculed in the paper. Like I said, I’d never experienced anything like this. I was a Sunday school teacher. I didn’t know how political something could become as a toxic waste landfill.
MN: What was your life like before Chemical Waste Management came to town? When we last spoke you told me you were not an activist until you felt you had to become one.
K: Oh yeah. I liked to crochet. My husband and I lived in a mobile home for five years. Then we moved to York which is in Sumter County. We restored an old country Victorian home there. We were very interested in the restoration of old houses. I bought an old Opera House downtown. It was a two-story, 4800 square foot brick building purchased for ten thousand dollars.
KK: I’m a stained glass artist. I would sell antiques in there. The reason I got involved was that at the historical society I tried to learn more about restoring old homes, and a lady stopped me and said, “Kaye we have a toxic waste dump in our county.” I said I didn’t know what she was talking about. I said “I don’t know anything about toxic waste or the environment”, and that I wouldn’t be able to help them. She begged me, so I said: “I’ll think about it.” I did. I thought about it for two weeks. I told my husband, “Doug, I feel like I’m supposed to understand this a little bit better.” So I went to a meeting at her house. It was only seven people. They gave me information about what was going into the landfill and I was just appalled, I couldn’t believe how toxic the waste was; acids and chemicals of all kinds. Then I started branching out and asking politicians; people in Montgomery, Jimmy Evans, the Attorney General of Alabama, anyone I could find who could tell us what to do about it. That was when I became an activist. (laughs)
MN: When you look through the history of activism, oftentimes people become so because of the set of circumstances they are in. I think you fit that model.
KK: Our home was twenty miles away from the toxic dump. Why would I be so concerned? Then I went to visit a local Civil Rights leader, Wendell Paris. He enlightened me that most of the environmental fights are in poor communities of color and that it is clearly a racial justice issue. It really is because white people more likely have the political clout and finances to fight these facilities. A lot of times they have attorneys that are involved. Black communities are desperate for work. The poverty level in Sumter County is 42.7%. Emelle is the closest town to the toxic dump with a population of fifty citizens according to the 2010 Census. It once had 100 residents a few years ago. People are moving out of Sumter County.
MN: Alabama, as we both know, has an incredibly fraught history of racial injustice. Are you aware of other instances of environmental racism in the country? Is Emelle the most egregious?
KK: Oh yeah. There are many! Wherever you find toxic waste dumps and incinerators, you will find a poor community. It’s really easy. A poor Black community is most likely a target.
MN: Has this gotten better over the years? Or has there been any movement on this?
KK: Things have gotten better because citizens are interacting with the state and the federal EPA agency more. For example, I told you that my husband worked at a paper mill where they bleached paper using chlorine. I was opposed to the use of chlorine. I found out there was a safer process that was developed in Japan called oxygen delignification that safely whitened paper. Before then, when I was fighting Chem-Waste so much, I was attacked by them all the time because my husband worked at a paper mill which used the process of bleaching. I began to address the paper industry’s use of chlorine and urged them to look at the Japanese example of whitening paper without using bleach. Thankfully, paper mills, in general, switched to the oxygen delignification process. The paper mill my husband worked at was the first paper mill in the US to switch over. We were so happy and I was very outspoken about it…even with my husband working there.
MN: Wow, so you won that one.
KK: Doug was reprimanded by the paper mill supervisor who asked, “Can’t you shut your wife up?” My poor husband. He’s just a dear and a delightful man. He had always supported me. His only concern was the death threats that we got. He was worried about me.
MN: Let’s talk about the intimidation you and your husband were up against. At the time going up against Chem-Waste, who was intimidating you and how?
KK: Different ways. I went to the county supervisor’s meeting and I asked them to make the state of Alabama pay more money to Sumter County. The poverty rate was rising, the county was getting poorer, so we deserved having more State funding because we hosted the biggest toxic waste landfill in the nation. Of course, I had opposition from them. The local paper was critical of me. Of course, I would respond to their criticism by replying to the attacks. Most of the time I ignored the attacks. I didn’t have time to think about the people who did not agree with me. I was too busy travelling the US teaching citizens how to protect their communities from becoming a toxic waste sacrifice zone like Sumter County had become.
There was an older Black man in York, Mr. Pipkins, who had retired from the same paper mill where my husband worked. He lived near us and he supported what I was doing. He would follow me to meetings where I would speak about the dangers posed by the toxic landfill. When leaving the meetings, Mr. Pipkins would follow me home making sure I got there safely. He just felt like I was in danger and maybe I was, I don’t know, but I appreciated him.
MN: Was it also the workers at the dump afraid of losing their jobs who wanted you to go away?
KK: They were concerned about losing their jobs, so I would go to the dump site and confront the management. Chemical Waste Management, Inc. invited the public to tour their facility, so I went too. On the tour, I witnessed employees working without respirators and protective clothing. The disposal pits were so deep, they made bulldozers look like toys. Toxic liquids were poured in the huge pits and dust swirled around the workers. I demanded the dump workers should be provided protective clothing and respirators.
What would happen is that people knew what was happening to me, and of course, they were supportive, but only in a confidential way. They didn’t want their names known. Nobody would make statements on my behalf, especially if they had a business or worked for a company in Sumter County. But, in circumstances like I was in, one must not allow threats to silence a cry for justice. It’s not fair, but a lot of people are afraid to speak out when there is an injustice.
MN: When Chem-Waste was coming to town was it them or the city that lied to the community and said that it was going to be a brick factory coming to town?
KK: I think George Wallace’s son in law….
KK: … was one of the partners. (laughs) You know who George Wallace is?
MN: Unfortunately I do.
KK: He was our Governor. His son-in-law was one of the three partners that came and set this facility up. It infuriated me that our governor would allow something like that in the state and our county. The other two partners were from Tennessee. Sometimes we would go as a group and have protests in front of Chem-Waste to shut them down. I was arrested for blocking the gate and not allowing the trucks in. That’s the only time I’ve ever been arrested in my life! (laughs)
MN: Really? Just once.
KK: They took us to jail. Wendell Paris was one of the protestors too. We were put in jail for about four hours until they let us go. I expected we’d have to go to court but the charges against us were dropped. I don’t know why, but they did. So, maybe I don’t have a record. (laughs)
MN: What significant damage did the dump actually do? Did the waste seep into the water?
KK: Oh yes. The original landfill, they had been dumping there five years before I heard about it. What they did was dig deep pits, and toxic waste was just poured in. They claimed that the limestone would prevent leaks but that’s not true. In our case in Sumter County, the limestone was naturally fractured so the water would disappear. Whole lakes would go missing from time to time. The cracks would open up and the lakes would disappear! So of course, toxic liquids would do the same. Limestone is not always solid. We demonstrated how lemon juice, vinegar or Clorox could quickly melt limestone. We made demands that they use high-density polyethylene liners in the pits.
KK: So we brought all this information out to the state agencies like the EPA and everyone we called. There was a man named Hugh Kaufman that worked at the USEPA and I would call him and ask for advice on what to do. Hugh came to our county and spoke at public meetings to help us. Then the EPA threatened to dismiss him for doing his job.
MN: What? Why?
KK: Hugh still lives in DC I understand. He wasn’t the only one. There was a man from Louisiana who came to help us. He worked for the Attorney General’s office. His job was to monitor toxic issues in his state. He came to speak at our public meeting. He lost his job over that. Alabama’s Attorney General, Jimmy Evans was very helpful to us. He stood by us the whole time he was in office. Thankfully we had some clout with him and different governors. Donald Siegelman, who was elected Governor also supported our fight against the dumping industry. Different ones supported us. Others were very much for the chemical disposal industry.
MN: In the early days did the local government push back against Chem-Waste? If at all?
KK: The local government didn’t push back at Chem-Waste. Chem-Waste was giving money to all kinds of groups in Sumter County. I worked for the library. I was an artistic manager for getting people to take classes on how to make things; paint and stuff like that. I didn’t stop fighting the dump. Like I said, most Sumter people became silent.
MN: When you said the governor was not a supporter of Chem-Waste. Did he do anything? Say anything?
KK: Yeah and they flew down to meet with us. We had the EPA bringing up the issues we were concerned about. So the people would know what was going on, and the governor of Alabama flew down, Alabama Attorney General, Jimmy Evans, came down and spoke in favor of our position. He once advised me to be very careful. “You may be stopped by someone and they may throw in a bag of dope or something.” You know, to hurt my image as a well-known person. Anyway, nothing like that happened to me. I was very careful and I prayed for protection.
MN: I can imagine that’s nerve-wracking. At the time, if the local government couldn’t do that much or chose not to, did the federal government get involved?
KK: The Governor of Alabama gave me an award for my work. President Ronald Reagan presented me a Presidential Medal at a White House luncheon because of my efforts to address toxic waste disposal issues in my community. It was odd. I thought it was unusual because I didn’t expect to win anything like that. I’ve been awarded other things like that by groups and people. That was a very nice thing to happen but it was unexpected I had no idea. In fact, when I got the call from the White House, I had been cleaning house all day and I took my phone off the hook so nobody could bother me because people would call me from all over the United States for advice about toxic dumps near them. So that day, I took the phone off the hook. In the evening I had finished cleaning house, and as soon as I put the phone back on the cradle, it rang. I answered it and a woman at the White House said President Reagan had been trying to reach me all day and that he wanted to invite me to Washington to receive a medal. That was an amazing message. Doug and I flew to DC for the presentation at a White House luncheon.
MN: The funny thing is that at the time the environment was not that much of a partisan issue. It’s very interesting to me that Reagan did that.
KK: It was remarkable. I had no idea anything like this would happen to me. I didn’t do this work with the idea of being honored. I did it to educate citizens how to be empowered to do their own work in their communities.
MN: That’s incredible and probably helped raise the public profile of toxic waste dumping. It’s imaginable that anyone who really does significant work in this field of activism doesn’t do it for vain reasons.
I’m really interested in when you stopped the importing of toxic waste from Germany. I saw a pdf of a letter you wrote online which I guess you would have written to the local government. Tell me about that chapter. I imagine that was a pretty big fight.
KK: Oh, you’re talking about the German waste that was about to be shipped over to America for disposal?
KK: I was appalled about that. I’m involved with other environmental groups. Not a member of them, but I support their goals and go to meetings. I discovered a group in Tennessee who was very concerned about this waste shipment so I got involved and looked at the matter. I just was incensed that the German people… I think it was like 30,000 people marched against having this dumped in their country.
KK: There was a company over here. I can’t remember the name of their company now. It was years ago. They agreed to ship it over to the USA for disposal. These things happen all the time and you can’t monitor all of it. We have a lot of shipments of waste coming in by trainload, truckload and shipping into our ports. Toxic waste transport is a huge issue in regards to human health impacts.
MN: Are there any existing laws on the books regarding waste transport?
KK: I think there are rules about it that have been developed over the years. I would think if it were highly controversial it should be advertised in some way or public notice would be involved.
MN: So the waste coming from Germany, that was not coming to Sumter County, that was a different dump?
KK: Let’s see. I’m trying to remember where that waste shipment went. I keep records on such matters of transport and waste disposal. This particular shipment went to an incinerator in Tennessee… maybe Oak Ridge.
MN: Did the troubles in Sumter County get national media coverage?
KK: Oh yeah.
MN: I found out about Emelle, Alabama from Bobby Kennedy Jr. When did that attention peak? I know national media coverage comes and goes.
KK: It does come and go. It depends if there is a new incident that has impacted a lot of people or if people get angry. Environmental groups trying to propose legislation, for example, then there’s some acute interest in that.
MN: Was that in the 1980s when you were a national media celebrity?
KK: Yeah, I think it was from being outspoken and living near the largest toxic waste dump in the nation. I’m active politically here and a member of the Alabama Democratic Executive Board, so I stay busy on the issues of poverty and the environment and toxic chemicals dumping, and teaching people about environmental justice and the importance of community organizing. There’s so much to do, but like I said, I have no secretary or funding and it’s a big issue and you do the best you can. (laughs)
MN: Did you ever have an operation of volunteers? Did you have help at all?
KK: Yeah, I did. We had a little group called Alabamians for a Clean Environment. One of the women was as active as I was. The group members were active until our group disbanded. I kept going because I was all that was left of the three of us who were the most active. Doug and I moved to Mentone Alabama ten years ago because the quality of life is good. Presently, I am the Vice Chair of the Progressive Women of Northeast Alabama. Our group has raised about $25,000 to help young women complete their education.
MN: That’s great!
KK: I recently joined a group who oppose herbicide spraying on our roadsides because the product used contains cancer-causing ingredients. Most people have no idea the harm herbicides can do to their health or what chemicals they are exposed to. We moved to Mentone because the quality of life is so much better than Sumter County could offer.
MN: Has there been an increase in cases of cancer occurring out of Sumter County?
KK: We tried to get a cancer registry in Sumter County. It’s really difficult to get that documentation. I have been told that most death certificates are private information.
MN: Because of doctor-patient confidentiality?
KK: People don’t want their names out in the registration. Other activists around the country who have worked with cancer rates around polluting industries that I know have been threatened too like my husband was. Their husbands, their wives, it’s hard to keep going when people quit because they can lose their job or something. I don’t know what to say, it’s a sad situation. In some cases, some of the leaders are like me and won’t back off and are still very vocal. I don’t know how much longer I can go. (laughs)
MN: I know the answer to the next question, but I’d like to get your views on the Trump administration and Scott Pruitt at the EPA and where the fight is at now.
KK: Oh, I don’t think Trump is going to be pro-environment. He’s not gonna support the environment around the world and especially the United States. I live in a red state and we can’t get a lot done here in Alabama on environmental issues. There’s just not a lot of support for that. The state agency The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is one of the weakest and least funded in the United States. I don’t know what to say! (laughs)
MN: It’s fine. I don’t anticipate you having all the answers for everything.
KK: My hope is in citizen action and that people meet with each other, run for office and say “I’m an environmentalist and I’m here to protect our water.”
MN: I couldn’t agree more.
KK: People who are being exposed to toxic chemicals on job sites are running for office. That’s what I hoped would happen. We need more people doing that.
MN: Do you think there’s a way to de-politicize our environment? I see that as the greatest threat. The political divide is sharper now than it’s ever been in my lifetime. Do you see any ways in which we can collectively de-politicize the environment so that red states can protect themselves as well? How do we take politics out of the environment?
KK: That’s a good question. I don’t see fighting for a clean environment as a political issue. It certainly is to some people though. I think it’s important for people to contemplate their water sources and air quality, the cancer rate in your counties for example. Most people aren’t interested in those sorts of statistics. The only way to make them really interested is in the local flight. There are strong environmental groups like the Sierra Club for example. Water quality is an issue for them, is it about toxins in the water or something like that? I’m just trying to get people to understand how they are impacted by toxins and poor water quality, and poverty is part of that.
MN: I agree. I think education is such a big part of it. Especially that you’re doing this work in a red state. It seems much more vital than anything I could do here in New York which is already very progressive with environmental laws.
KK: I often tell my husband, “let’s move to Vermont”. (laughs) Where people care about the environment.
MN: I have taken up enough of your time so I have one last question. What solutions would you offer for toxic waste management? We know that this isn’t working. People are getting sick and dying. What would work in your opinion? Have you given it much thought?
KK: There was a good deal of thought given to the toxic chemicals and things in Emelle. We demanded the use of double liners at the facility. The waste that was coming from foreign countries was overwhelming. We have no idea how many millions of tons of toxic waste has been disposed of. We have landfills all over the state of Alabama. Most counties have their own landfill or several depending on the population. These are all facilities that will leak eventually because the liner is only guaranteed for 12 to 20 years. There is no way to replace an old liner. Sadly, an essential aquifer is located very near the toxic dump which has expanded greatly. I served as the Chairman of the Sumter County Water Authority almost a decade. During that time, a group of dump supporter filed a lawsuit against me claiming that I profited from my position. Of course, this was a lie, but they hoped it would make me quit my position. They finally dropped their effort. If one is to achieve anything in this life, it must be done with persistence.
MN: There’s too much stuff. You couldn’t expose it anyway.
KK: Bad technology. Burning waste is also a bad solution.
KK: The only thing that’s hopeful is recycling and not using chemicals that compromise health, and not exposing people to these chemicals at work.
MN: Could you pour concrete into these holes to mitigate some leakage?
KK: You talking about in Emelle?
MN: Yeah. Maybe it’s too late for Emelle, but going forward. I guess people are working on this. I don’t know. I’d like to learn more about the technologies around waste management.
KK: If you could get a sample of their liner it’s about a ¼ of an inch thick. We made them put two liners into the facility but I don’t know how many facilities in the nation do that? I have no idea. I think most of them require a membrane of some sort. Polyethylene, I forget what they call that. Plastic. It’s pretty thick and should last a couple of decades. Then it is impossible to take it out and put a new one in.
MN: Can’t open up Pandora’s Box.
KK: We need some serious recycling in this country for sure. People are eager to get rid of waste quickly in this country. We all have garbage that can be recycled. I recycle as much as I can that’s acceptable at the recycling center in Fort Payne.
MN: A lot of counties are working towards zero waste. We recently got compost barrels in Brooklyn where I live, and I’m finding since the compost barrels came I’m only throwing out packaging. Between the composting and the recycling it’s only that really shitty plastic packaging that stuff comes in, you know? I think Norway is at zero waste and they’re incentivized to use electric cars. There are solutions but the politics will have to change.
KK: Yes, and the solutions are coming too slowly. We should be vastly advanced on waste disposal solutions and we’re not.
MN: I agree, it’s a crime that we are not. Thank you so much for your time and talking to me. It’s been an honor.
KK: I hope it’s helpful. Thank you for calling me. I enjoyed this interview.
MN: More importantly, thank you for your service.