Alabama’s Legacy of Environmental Justice

This article is from the summer edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Cade Kistler 

Throughout Alabama’s history, racism and civil rights have been intertwined with environmental concerns. The landscape, which has borne witness to civil rights marches and segregation laws, is clouded by the haze of pollution issuing from the stacks of industrial factories. 

In a 1960 New York Times article titled, “FEAR AND HATRED GRIP BIRMINGHAM; Racial Tension Smoldering After Belated Sitdowns,” a vivid scene opens the narrative: “On a fine April day, however, it is only the haze of acid fog belched from the stacks of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company’s Fairfield and Ensley works that lies over the city.” 

This image of pollution provides a striking backdrop for the racial discrimination and civil rights abuses present at the time. The poison was not just in the air, it was in the constructs of society itself. 

This was plain to see in the operations of the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC). C.C. Owen, former president of the PSC, is quoted in a November 1956 article of The Montgomery Advertiser, saying: “The people of Alabama are not going to abolish segregation … To keep down violence and bloodshed, segregation must be maintained.” 

Fast forward to the present day, where racial animus has largely faded, but echoes of that same divisive rhetoric can be heard in the discourse about environmental policy. The PSC, a regulatory body initially created to ensure a doctrine of fairness among public utilities, has been criticized for functioning more as a protector of corporate interests than as an advocate for the public good. 

In a recent public address, PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh openly defended Alabama Power and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) against criticism from environmental advocacy groups. 

“I have learned you cannot make environmentalists, they are very woke … they do not think like us, and you cannot make them happy,” she said. The statement was apparently made in reference to groups like Mobile Baykeeper who want to see coal ash removed from the Delta. As Ashley Trice wrote in Lagniappe: “If loving the Delta is ‘woke,’ I don’t wanna be right.” 

Cavanaugh went on to say that ADEM serves as a bulwark against the EPA. However, in the United States, Congress establishes the law; EPA sets national environmental standards and implements the law. States can get approval to implement these laws, or more protective ones. Ongoing pollution concerns throughout our state, aided in some cases by regulatory bodies, serve as a stark reminder of the failures that echo the discriminatory practices of the past. 

In the midst of this is Alabama Power, the state’s largest utility. Alabama Power has grown into one of the wealthiest utilities in the nation under the auspices of the PSC. Interestingly, Alabama Power stands at the heart of a paradox. Amid its vast wealth and power (its 2021 record-breaking profits of $1.24 billion stand as the sixth consecutive year of increasing profits), it also positions itself as a victim of environmental costs. The utility resists pressure to remove coal ash to protect citizens and waterways, claiming prohibitive costs while simultaneously boasting extraordinary profits. Such an irony is not lost on those advocating for environmental justice and corporate accountability. 

If one is searching for “fake news,” they need to look no further than their own backyard and power company. A narrative is being crafted, one of victimhood and financial hardship. But the truth of power, profit, and environmental irresponsibility tells a different tale. 

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about the hardworking Alabama Power employees who work tirelessly get the lights back on after storms. We’re grateful for their efforts. This is about the decisions made by a select few in positions of power that shape our environmental legacy. It’s these decisions we must challenge and influence for the better. 

Despite all of this, there is still hope. A growing public demand for transparency, accountability, and environmental justice suggests change could be on the horizon. As the Civil Rights Movement taught us, change is possible, but it won’t come easily, nor will it be swift. Rather, it is secured step by difficult step. 

Just as Alabama was a battleground for civil rights in the 1960s, it remains a battlefield today in the fight for environmental justice. And just as before, the outcome of this battle will have profound implications, not just for the state of Alabama, but for the nation.


Read More Stories


To receive your copy of CURRENTS every quarter, become a Baykeeper today. Members who give $50 or more are automatically subscribed to our magazine. Just go to: