A Conversation with Members of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition

I caught up with Kimberly McCuiston, David Underhill, Patricia Hall and Michele Walker-Harmon of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) during the regional Gulf Gathering, which was held in Fairhope, Alabama, April 13th through 15th.

According to their Facebook page, “MEJAC is a coalition of Mobile Bay residents and groups confronting new and longstanding environmental justice issues to cease toxic industrial pollution.”

They, and other groups, have been working to organize opposition to several projects in the Mobile area that, they say, hold the possibility of causing harm to the people who reside there.

Honoring the Past

“One of the areas that I am most concerned about is Africatown,” explained Patricia Hall. “The cemetery there is where many of my ancestors are buried.”

Hall is the direct descendant of Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, the longest-living survivor from the last known shipment of enslaved Africans brought to the United States. He and over 100 others were kidnapped and brought to Alabama in 1859 or 1860 aboard an illegal slave ship, the Clotilde, more than 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed. Five years later, with the ending of the Civil War, Lewis helped to found Africatown/Plateau, which is now part of Mobile.

“My aunts, and uncles, and cousins - the older ones, would sit the children under the oak trees in the backyard and we were told the history of our families,” she remembered, adding, “My father used to have a saying, ‘Know who you are, know who your people are, and know how you are hooked on.’ By hooked on he meant know the relationship to each other. The important thing to him was that we passed our legacy and the history of our families down.”

VIDEO: Residents and members of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition speak about the beauty and history of the areas they are working to protect. 

Protecting the Present

Hall went on to outline the effect that encroaching industry has presently on the community and way of life in Africatown.

“To see them take the school – Mobile Training School, they are literally running a pipeline, not outside the school, but it’s less than 20 feet from the building itself. It is already in the campus. Instead of children learning, they are sitting there watching these workers dig holes and put these pipes out there.”

Health issues are also a concern for Hall and her family.

“There is so much cancer in that area already, there is so much pollution. They are not looking at the illnesses where that has been a dumping ground and polluted area already. Even with the statistics that they have, no one is paying attention,” she added.

David Underhill, who is also Mobile Sierra Club Environmental Chair, agreed, “You don’t think it is important to preserve the area unless you intend to live there, but if you do, you’ve got to because it’s under assault by the global energy industry and it will be transformed into a sacrifice zone, by all current evidence, unless an organized campaign is raised to prevent that from happening.”

Alabama Coast United co-founder, Kimberly McCuiston, explained that the concern can be extended to all of the Mobile area.

“Since the BP Disaster, we have been bombarded in the lower Alabama area with not just the after effects of the oil disaster, which we’re not even beginning to recover from, but we’ve also been now bombarded with the pipeline… tar sands importation by rail, also a new coal terminal and expansion of tank farms,” she said.

While MEJAC continues to work on advocacy and education within the communities who are being affected by these projects, Michele Walker-Harmon (who is also a co-founder of Alabama Coast United) says the struggle for public awareness and participation has been an uphill one.

“One of the biggest problems, especially here on the Baldwin County side, is that people are apathetic. They don’t realize that what affects people in Africatown community, or Mobile as a whole, is going to affect them,” she said.

“The problem with that is we actually have communities in Baldwin County that get their drinking water from the same watershed that Plains Southcap just put a pipeline through, and when that pipeline goes, 250-plus-thousand people are going to be without a clean approved source of drinking water.”

Even with public acknowledgment and action, Underhill said that local representation and policy makers have often been an obstacle to the Coalition as well.

“Thousands of people have signed petitions against these things (and) presented them to local bodies, who said, ‘Oh, yeah, we agree with you, this is terrible, we are going to take a stand against it,’ but they don’t do anything effective." He added, “The defensive answer from them is always that, ‘we have to pay attention to bigger powers elsewhere that can take away our money for maintaining the ship channel in the port unless we keep a large cargo volume - increase the cargo volume. So we have to surrender your local wishes to those national priorities’”

VIDEO: Members of MEJAC explain current threats to the people, communities and ecosystem of Mobile, Alabama.

Connecting to the Future

“We need people participating – actively participating. That’s been the hardest thing down here that I’ve found, is trying to get people together… and not just saying ‘yeah, yeah, I’m with you.’ We want people to be with us, but we need you physically with us,” explained McCuiston.

Walker-Harmon believes that part of the present problem with getting larger on-the-ground participation from the public is the fear of retribution and the possible social ostracizing of those who speak out by those who depend on big industry for jobs and livelihood.

“Unfortunately that is part of the apathy of living along the Gulf Coast, and one of the tragedies of living along the Gulf Coast - anywhere. Whether it be the oil and gas industry, the fishing communities, the shrimping communities, they all rely on one another and they are all interwoven. Until we find a way to transition away from that need of the fossil fuel dependency and transition into something cleaner and greener, that is going to be a continual opposition that we face.”

Underhill added that it is imperative to the success of MEJAC that intersections between issues and communities who face similar struggles are exposed and relationships fostered.

“Locally, no matter how effective we are in resisting these things, if we don’t have effective alliances with people elsewhere to counter those larger arguments, then we will lose.”

VIDEO – MEJAC representatives share ideas of how the public can be supportive and get involved in environmental justice struggles in the areas surrounding Mobile Bay.