An earthen retaining wall, holding back a pond full of coal ash, gave way, sending something close to five-and-a-half million cubic yards of the sludge through the area.
It was an environmental disaster for eastern Tennessee that has faded from the public's view recently because of the other disaster still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.
It is still, however, a very big problem.
Among the many issues the Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority struggled with, none were as pressing as what to do with the stuff. (The TVA is the owner of a nearby power plant and is the agency responsible for the coal ash.)
Eventually, the agencies settled on sending millions of tons of ash by rail to Perry County, Ala., to a landfill near Uniontown, roughly 80 miles west of Montgomery.
Here, deep in Alabama's Black Belt, is where filmmakers N'Jeri Eaton and Matt Durning pick up the story.
And what a story it is. For what we find in their documentary, "Perry County," is not a shallow telling of the predictable — a big corporation steps on local little people and their civic and political leaders, the familiar song of environmental racism. Instead, we find a narrative that captures the complexities of race and raw power in today's Black Belt.
Powered by vivid archive footage, strong cinematography and excellent interviews — especially with noted historian Wayne Flynt of Auburn University — the film moves at a quick pace to cover a lot of toxic earth and politics in a short amount of time.
There are plenty of villains here, and heroes, too. The contradictions are towering.
Take Albert Turner Jr., for example, a cad to the masses in Perry County, black and white. His father, Albert Sr., was a beloved leader of the civil rights movement, a brave man who risked his life for the cause. Albert the younger, on the other hand, a county commissioner, is about maintaining power in his corner of the Black Belt.
It is Turner, then, who is at the center of this 26-minute documentary, the man in many ways responsible for steering the coal ash — and a paltry $4 million sum — Perry County's way.
This despite the fact that Perry County's unelected — black and white — mounted an impressive fight against the sludge. A white catfish farmer named Robert Bamberg, a black preacher named James Murdock, a young white newspaper publisher named John Allen Clark, say it with passion and succinctness; this is why we do not want our county to become a dumping ground.
It would become a dumping ground anyway thanks to Albert Turner Jr. But he couldn't have done it alone. He had help from his fellow commissioners who employed the more subtle tactic of keeping their mouths shut for the most part.
Then again, without Turner's boundless energy for environmental degradation, it is hard to see how it could have come to be.
In a particularly telling moment in the film, the good bureaucrats of the EPA hold a public meeting. Residents are asked to voice their opinion about bringing the coal ash to Perry County.
But not a single resident showed up. It seems Commissioner Turner had scheduled another event, a classic car show, a barbecue and a health fair on the same day, at the same time, as the EPA public meeting.
Eaton and Durning capture his dark cynical humor when he drops by the EPA's empty meeting hall, gazes around and says, "and look at the crowd."
It was a trick out of Robert Moses' playbook and a sickening display of the usurping of civil society. If it makes you angry, just think how it makes a good many of the people of Perry County feel.
It is a tribute to Eaton, from Maryland, and Durning, from Massachusetts, both who now live in the Bay Area, that they could come to the heart of the Black Belt and get it right.
Perry County Documentary
The next screening will be Monday at 6 p.m. in Demopolis at the Marengo Theater.