N.C. community struggles against Environmental Racism

By Andy Koch
North Carolina FIST

Members of Environmental Justice Network during a 51 Hour Vigils held on the Halifax Lawn at the NC Legislature in protest of industrial hog pollution in rural eastern NC counties. Youth from Duplin and Sampson Counties are joined by youth from Raleigh list as EJN leader Gary Grant speaks to crowd.

In December 1978, North Carolina state officials chose rural Warren County as the dumping site for 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are highly carcinogenic chemicals. To their surprise, the decision ignited grassroots opposition that led to the largest civil rights demonstrations since the 1960s at the time. That struggle also gave birth to the Environmental Justice movement.

The small, unincorporated Shocco Township was to be the site of the landfill. Like the majority of landfill sites in the southeastern United States, Shocco was overwhelmingly Black and poor. Warren County itself was 64 percent Black — the highest of any county in the state — and it ranked 97th in per capita income. While Governor Jim Hunt and North Carolina District Court Judge W. Earl Britt flatly denied that the decision was made based on racial grounds, the people of Warren knew otherwise.

Due to a high water table (the upper surface of ground water) and permeable soil, Shocco failed to meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements that would ensure a safe PCB landfill. The EPA waived both restrictions. It is hardly surprising that an agency of the federal government failed to protect this poor community of color.

The first trucks started dumping on September 15, 1982. They were met by a multinational group of 130 people carrying signs and chanting, armed with community, faith and civil disobedience. On that first day of protest, 55 people were arrested for lying down in front of the trucks, and the demonstrators received national media coverage.

The people of Warren protested every day during the six weeks of dumping, with the continued support of the Coley Springs Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice in Raleigh, N.C. Environmental and Black civil rights leaders from across the country came to Warren to pledge their support, linking environmental and racial issues to human and civil rights for the first time. When dumping stopped in late October, a total of 523 arrests had been made. Policing the operation cost the state an estimated $787,000.

Though the protests may not have halted the dumping, it was a significant victory in many ways. Blacks and whites united on an environmental issue for the first time. Voters were empowered by the demonstrations, and in 1982 elected their first Black sheriff, a Black state representative, and a three-to-two Black majority on the county commissioner board. Most importantly, the Warren resistance marked the first step on the long road to environmental justice.

The principles of environmental justice were first articulated in speeches during the Warren demonstrations, and then later in print. The 1987 publication of “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” by the Commission for Racial Justice and Jenny Labalme’s “A Road to Walk: A Struggle for Environmental Justice” gave form to the ideas of this burgeoning movement. In 1990, sociologist Robert D. Bullard published “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality,” the first textbook on environmental justice.

In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., drafted and adopted 17 principles of environmental justice. Since then, the principles have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. (www.ejnet.org)

The principles include:
• Ecological unity of all peoples and species,
• Ethical and responsible use of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things,
• Universal protection from toxic wastes and nuclear testing, which threaten the right to clean air, land, water and food,
• Political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples,
• The right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment,
• Opposition to the destructive operations of multinational corporations, and
• Opposition to military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples, cultures and other life forms.

Since then, the environmental justice movement has grown immensely. The movement forced President Clinton to sign an executive order on environmental justice in 1994.

The principles and ideas of environmental justice have fundamentally changed the character of the environmental movement both in the United States and worldwide. Today, hundreds of thousands of individuals across the globe are involved in the grassroots struggle for environmental justice, and hundreds of organizations have taken up the fight.

In 1999, an emergency gathering of African American leaders led to the formation of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and many regional affilates, including the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NC EJN). Currently, NC EJN is fighting the devastating effects of hog waste lagoons, which severely impact the water, air, and land quality of communities they are located near. Over 10 million hogs are concentrated in eastern NC, which is a majority Black area. NC EJN had a major victory in 2007 when legislation passed prohibiting the construction of new lagoons using old harmful methods.

In Spring 2010, the NC Environmental Justice Network held its annual gathering in the township of New Hill, located in western Wake county. The residents of New Hill have been fighting the proposed construction of a waste water treatment plant in the historic district of their town, directly across from two churches and a cemetery. The plant would not serve New Hill, which is 85 percent Black, but instead would mainly serve the nearby predominantly white, affluent towns of Cary and Apex.

In every local struggle, no matter how small it may seem, lies the potential for immense change. FIST salutes the courageous grassroots efforts made by the people of Warren County, N.C. for environmental justice. We salute those in Duplin Co, those in New Hill, those in the Warnersville community in Greensboro and those everywhere who continue this fight today. This struggle will always be an inspiration for all people suffering under the great weight of injustice.

(This article made extensive use of “A Road to Walk: A Struggle for Environmental Justice” by Jenny Labalme

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