Cece Durden knows more about coal ash than the average 17-year-old. The Uniontown, Alabama, teen has become quite the expert in the past few months since learning her small town is facing serious coal ash contamination risks from a nearby landfill.
She told me that she became an activist by attending a meeting near her house where she learned that the local landfill is receiving toxic coal ash from the 2008 spill in Tennessee. Now she is passionate about recruiting other young people to protect the community from arsenic and other heavy metals.
Two weeks ago, I heard Cece talk on a panel of activists from Uniontown. She was addressing a room of Sierra Student Coalition activists at their summer training program, and she was appealing passionately for their support. Cece spoke with such powerful conviction. When the panel ended, she was surrounded by youth activists ready to support her cause.
Unfortunately, Uniontown's pollution problem isn't just from coal ash. Cece's volunteer work with community group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice also involves the local wastewater facility, which has polluted a number of waterways, too.
Cece told me that she has been to Alabama's Department of Environmental Management, attended a rally and press conference, and talked with her neighbors about the problems. Many of them don't even know about the pollution problems and are shocked.
Adam Johnston, Coordinator of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, who I also met at the Sierra student event, is another fan of Cece's. He says that she is taking on state environmental agencies that are doing little to nothing to enforce safety regulations on the landfill's owners and the wastewater facility.
The state classifies coal ash, the by-product of burning coal for power, as household waste, even though it contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and hexavalent chromium.
He told me that he wants to help the community address this environmental justice because the federal and state governments are not. The residents of Uniontown are carrying the burden of pollution in their backyard.
Because Perry County is a major agricultural county, it depends on clean water. Adam says the local residents fear for their health because the water is contaminated by widespread misuse.
His organization has coordinated with Cece and Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice in aiding an environmental lawyer to issue an Environmental Justice Complaint with the EPA due to the coal ash and wastewater contamination.
Cece's environmental activism is just beginning, but her future is bright. She's engaged with new friends from the summer training in order to build a website about Uniontown's pollution problems and to continue to raise awareness.
She's looking for more young people to support her. With her courage and conviction, I know she will find them. (To show your support for Cece, contact Adam at the Alabama Rivers Alliance, and watch for the website that Cece and friends are designing.)