The environmental justice movement began in my home state of North Carolina. I’m a native of Durham, proud and continually humbled and inspired by the state’s natural beauty, from the warm blue coastal waters to the cool mountain air. As a boy, I spent many Sunday afternoons after church strolling through Duke Gardens on the University’s campus. I was too young to fully appreciate the beauty there, but the Gardens would eventually become one of the most serene and scenic places in my memory. Surrounded by a vibrant spectrum of colors and patterns, it almost felt like a different world inside the Gardens, where the fragrant air seemed to envelop us as it extended down long, sandy paths lined on either side with stone walls on which I would teeter with glee. These experiences undoubtedly inspired my aspirations when I applied for college years later, ultimately finding myself a few miles down the road.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an equally (some would say exceedingly) stunning campus, I attended college among the sprawling ancient oak trees and jittery grey squirrels. Before college, I spent part of my high school years in the rural town of Louisburg, North Carolina where I played baseball and basketball. One of our regular opponents was Warren County High School. Bus rides to Warren County carried no special significance. I considered them simply another team to play, oblivious, at the time, to the county’s history. But that’s where a movement began.
In 1978, the Ward Transformers Company illegally dumped over 30,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) on the sides of roadways in 14 North Carolina counties. Throughout the 1970s, federal regulators had begun to gradually phase out the manufacture of PCBs which had been used for insulating oils to keep electric power transformers from overheating. Congress finally banned PCBs in 1979.
The EPA classifies PCBs as a probable human carcinogen. Acute toxic effects on humans from exposure via the skin, by consumption (most commonly through eating fish), or in the air, include irritation of the nose and lungs, skin irritations such as severe acne (chloracne) and rashes, and eye problems.
At the time of the dumping, the only legal disposal of PCBs, per federal law, was by incineration at 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit at one of the two U.S. sites licensed for that purpose, in Missouri and New Jersey. To avert these onerous legal requirements, Ward sent two men in a tanker truck to dispose of PCB-tainted oil along rural highways. What followed is hardly surprising. The soil became contaminated. The state subsequently devised a plan to build a landfill for depositing contaminated soil.
They decided to place the landfill in Shocco, a rural town in Warren County that was 75% African American, with no local government. Warren County had the highest majority of African Americans in the state and was extremely poor. Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, it was ranked 97th in GDP. These statistics offer more than a glimpse into the unjust origins of the state’s impetus for placing the landfill in Shocco.
Due to the largely private nature of these shady dealings, Warren County residents did not fully understand the severity of the developments until after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had already approved the site. However, locals soon became alarmed. Fearing that their groundwater would be contaminated by PCB, local leaders and civil rights activists including Ken Feruccio, Reverend Luther Brown, Reverend Leon White, and Dollie Burwell organized protests over the construction of the landfill. Their protests attracted the support of civil rights groups across the nation and turned national attention on the issue of institutionalized environmental racism. Hundreds of residents were arrested in sustained protests, and there were several years of legal challenges. Buck Ward, the company president and one of four men convicted in the dumping, served nine months in federal prison in 1982. But the state succeeded that same year in building the landfill and filling it with 13,000 truckloads of PCB dirt. Governor Hunt promised that the landfill would not expand and that Warren County would not become a waste county. Despite promises that it would be safe, the Warren County landfill leaked. In 1983, water was discovered under the landfill, revealing a contamination crisis in Warren County.
It took nearly twenty years, but The Environmental Protection Agency finally got serious about cleaning the Ward Transformer site in 2003, when it was added to the Superfund national priority list of hazardous waste sites. PCBs are resilient contaminants and efforts to quell their harmful impacts are ongoing. (I will write about more recent efforts to curb PCB contamination in a future post.)
Justice for Warren County residents was certainly delayed if not outright denied. Yet what transpired there beginning almost 40 years ago became the catalyst for the modern environmental justice movement. The events in Warren County united the civil rights movement and environmental justice for the first time, revealing a type of environmental injustice tinged with racism that had been previously unaddressed and providing a platform for previously marginalized groups, namely low-income, minority, and rural communities, to voice their concerns. This case served as a model for later fights against environmental injustice.