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Highway robbery in Alabama

Ben Jealous

Imagine the neighborhood your family has lived in for more than 150 years being turned into a deteriorating flood zone. Now imagine the flooding was caused by the state. That is what is happening to the people of Elba, Alabama’s historic Black Shiloh community.

Thanks to the construction of an elevated highway through the community in 2018, residents are watching their homes be destroyed by flooding caused by the highway project.

“My house has already sunk two feet into the mud. I see my inheritance and my children’s American Dream being washed away and stolen,” says Pastor Timothy Williams.

Williams is a reverend and the owner of a restaurant and cleaning business. Like many other Shiloh residents, his family has been on this land dating back to Reconstruction. Now he and others in the community see their generational wealth disappearing before their eyes from property devaluation as well as the physical destruction of their homes.

Just eight feet away from Williams’ home, in the direction it is sinking, is a Southeast Gas Company natural gas pipeline. He has been told it is possible the sinking house could hit the gas line and blow the house up.

Williams’ story offers but a glimpse into the nightmare Shiloh residents are facing.

Part of the highway project — one of the earliest phases — involved directing stormwater drainage pipes into the community. Now, picture the elevated highway essentially placing the neighborhood in a bowl. There did not used to be flooding. Now it is rampant. And the state will not even own up to its highway expansion being the cause.

The highway also cut off access to the neighborhood’s only fire hydrant. In 2020, there was a fire. Someone burned to death in their home. Residents believe their neighbor’s death would have been preventable with access to the hydrant.

This is not merely an example of poorly executed urban planning. It is reckless environmental racism. The same kind that has created so-called “sacrifice zones” across the country. Sacrifice zones are populated areas that bear a disproportionate brunt of health and environmental hazards due to their close proximity to sources of pollution and development. They are most often communities of color and low-income communities.

Residents of the Shiloh community are educated … they are business owners … many are veterans. They have advantages that people in some other neighborhoods sacrificed to development do not have. But simply by speaking up and advocating for themselves, Shiloh residents have become targets of racist hate. There have been incidents of racial harassment ever since the community started receiving news coverage of their plight. A chilling reminder of what white supremacy looks like in the deep South. 

Williams has seen it firsthand. His restaurant’s clientele is mostly white. One customer told him that he and others had been told to boycott the eatery because Williams had been vocal about the crisis facing the Shiloh community.

Elba also happens to be the hometown of Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.” He literally wrote the book — actually many books, including one titled “Highway Robbery” — on environmental racism. And his extensive scholarship has earned him a spot on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Now, Elba has become a textbook example of the environmental harm of racist zoning and transportation policies Bullard has taught so many of us about. More than a mere twist of cosmic irony, it shows how pervasive the problem of environmental racism is — that the hometown of our nation’s great warrior for environmental justice, who has helped countless people and communities, is still vulnerable to its impacts.

Ultimately, the Alabama Department of Transportation and Governor Kay Ivey are the ones with the ability and responsibility to fix it and compensate residents for all they have lost. So far, all they have done is deny wrongdoing and dupe Shiloh residents into signing away their rights.

An ABC News investigation found the state “used an aggressive legal tool to prevent the residents — and future owners of their land — from the possibility of holding the state government accountable through the court system.” Williams and several other residents received settlements of $5,000 or less that the governor herself signed off on.

Bullard has said he hopes 2024 will be Shiloh’s year for justice. As Williams and others from the community continue to sound the alarm and raise awareness, all of us should be joining them.

Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Alabama, Black Shiloh community, Elba, opinion