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‘Control the narrative’: how an Alabama utility wields influence by financing news

Residents of this seventh poorest state have the most expensive monthly electric bills in the US. (Javier Palma/The Guardian)

By Miranda Green for Floodlight and the Guardian

In the more than a decade since Alabama regulators allowed a landfill to take in tons of waste from coal-burning power plants around the US, neighbors in the majority-Black community of Uniontown frequently complain of thick air so pungent it makes their eyes burn.

On some days, it can look like an eerily white Christmas in a place that rarely sees snow.

“When the wind blows, all the trees in the area are totally gray and white,” said Ben Eaton, a Uniontown commissioner and president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a local group that is pushing to shutter the facility.

Residents of the former plantation town complain of high rates of kidney failure and neuropathy – two symptoms of exposure to coal ash, whose toxic byproduct contains mercury and arsenic. The controversy has been covered for years in local and national news outlets, including a civil rights case Eaton’s group filed – and lost – to close the landfill.

Just this year, coal ash in the state drew national attention when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tentatively denied a state clean-up proposal that it found to be too weak for waste coming in part from its largest electricity provider – Alabama Power.

But neither the news from Uniontown, nor the EPA rejection, ever appeared in the Birmingham Times – a historic African American newspaper – or on the online-only Alabama News Center, an investigation by Floodlight found. A search for “coal ash” in the Birmingham Times yields just one reprinted story from HuffPost, and it’s a reference to coal ash in another state.

Both news outlets have financial ties to the main subject of those stories, Alabama Power.

For decades, Alabama Power has sowed influence across the state, according to interviews with more than two dozen former and current reporters, civil rights activists, utility employees and environmentalists.

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