It is a story about greed, and the way greed warps people, makes them view the very earth itself as something to be exploited and stripped and pumped for every last dollar it will yield up. The way greed makes human lives, thousands of them, no more important than figures on a ledger.
It is the story of Alabama, and in one way or another, it has been our story for as long as these state borders have existed. There is no way around it; our state and its long-gone riches were built on the backs of oppressed and enslaved human beings years ago. That kind of oppression, when white citizens here made vast fortunes by owning the lives of their black brethren, is gone. We are all in it together now.
Alabama has had a hard, painful road towards reconciliation. Its citizens, black and white, still often have a difficult time trusting each other in light of our troubled history. But we’re trying. Look around you; the people, the regular citizens of Shelby County, are not its problem.
We may disagree on politics, but we sit together at Commission and City Council meetings and treat each other, mostly, with respect. We are working, just by living here together, toward building a future for this home of ours. We know, and have for a long time, that we all need the same basic things out of life, and as long as we need them together, we can seek them together.
The old bad guys are dead and in the ground. The new ones drive SUVs with Dade and Jefferson County plates.
…put down your Blackberries, guys, and stay your attorneys. We do not mean you are “bad people.” But in this story, you are the villains.
You are chasing the American Dream, of course, just trying to make a dollar, and providing the country with the valuable and much-needed service of limestone for building roads. You ask to come by your permits legally, and with the full-throated blessing of Vincent’s elected representatives, who are, after all, just trying to get a little revenue for their little cash-strapped community.
Here is our fear; no amount of money will be able to make up for what this quarry will do to our land and citizens. The City of Vincent is relying on ADEM and WRQ to ensure that the laws are followed and carried out by the quarry. While an environmental lawsuit against the city seems far-fetched to them now, an operation of this size, magnitude and excavation depth in close proximity to the river, rail lines and gas and oil lines cannot continue to be thought of as safe by any reasonable mind. There are inherent risks associated with mining that extend beyond just the pit, especially in geography that is sensitive to subsidence as Shelby County is.
This continues to be downplayed as a non-issue to the residents of this community. In the event something does happen that causes tragedy, we would remind all of those involved that their words may come back to haunt them by a savvy group of plaintiff’s lawyers. Vincent and Shelby County may get out of it unscathed, but we would not bet on it. White Rock Quarries can afford to pay whatever fines it may incur for whatever its employees may or may not have done. Can the city of Vincent and those that “call the shot?”
The companies who are taking the bulk of the millions generated by the limestone extraction will never have to set foot in our county again once the quarry outlives its usefulness. This may come earlier than they we all think if it floods or worse happens. They will never drink our water, breathe our air, or eat bream from our creeks. They can be in charge from offices with glitzy addresses, never get a speck of dust on their hands, and endorse fat checks until those pristine fingers need a latte break. Can you local officials?
Our elected officials, for the most part, believe they will be temporarily better off financially. They get power (a teeny little bit, but that’s enough to satisfy most people), they get to rub elbows with folks who have even more money and power than they do, and they get the feeling of thinking they have done something “good” for the people whose lives they govern: they got a smattering of cold, hard cash to spend on pet projects and a chance to put their own dirty little fingers in a lot of cash.
This, if we must remind you, is the state where people were willing to sacrifice their livelihoods, their personal safety, even their lives in the struggle for the right to vote, the right to say, “In this small way, my voice matters. I have a say, and mine is worth as much as yours is, no matter who you are.” That voice is now all but drowned out by the sons and daughters of the men who fought to get it, which would apply to the two sole minority city officials; Ernest Kidd and Bridgette Jordan-Smith.
Do you remember the apathetic and disinterested looks you leaders wore, as you sat in your chairs at the last public meeting, with strong disapproval directed right at you, a strong majority of Vincent’s citizens telling you, “We don’t want this quarry?” We remember. You elected leaders get the same look when we citizens dare to question your actions. It is the look WRQ gave us when they came to tell us how much they were going to make sure nothing bad happened here in May 2009. That look is the look of power, certain of its rightness. Or, if not of rightness, at least of the fact that it will get what it wants.
They get it all; we get their big holes, lose almost 1000 acres of prime farmland and our way of life as a quiet, rural community forever.
Or maybe not. Environmental lawsuits may get filed one minute, excavation may stop the next. A few weeks after that, the owners of the quarry will be demanding through their high-priced super lawyers for the right to continue business and they may get that granted. Doesn’t mean anything’s going to change just yet, far from it. Every statement this company and it’s PR and legal men have released takes pains to reassure the public the quarry will do no damage.
When people, regular, good, now voiceless people like the minority residents of the River Loop in Vincent, Alabama plead for help, money clouds the judgment of anyone who can. The fat cats see money, as do our elected officials, and even ADEM and the Environmental Management Commission may go right along with them and permit this quarry.
Fortunately for us, eventually someone will look at Vincent and see something besides a poor, backwoods little city no one’s heard of, with beautiful land, but leadership not representative of all the people, and easy pickings for the big city boys to buffalo with promises of riches. Someone will look down here and see, of all things, people. Human beings, whose very quality of life may become a mere casualty of the quest to collect as many little green pieces of paper as you can before you die. And somebody will realize that is wrong.
When we can step outside of the endless pursuit of more and see that all those things we’re knocking over to get at it have eyes and mouths and names and beating hearts like ours, we’re not so quick to leave them lying in our wake. It is a lesson Alabama has come by honestly.
It is a lesson that Vincent and Shelby County has yet to learn from.