following article was originally published by the Environmental
Justice Resource Center at at Clark Atlanta University.
After waiting more than
two decades, an environmental justice victory finally came to
the residents of predominately black Warren County, North Carolina.
Since 1982, county residents lived with the legacy of a 142-acre
toxic waste dump. Detoxification work began on the dump in June
2001 and the last clean-up work was slated to end the latter
part of December 2003. State and federal sources spent $18 million
to detoxify or neutralize contaminated soil stored at the Warren
County PCB landfill. A private contractor hired by the state
dug up and burned 81,500 tons of oil-laced soil in a kiln that
reached more than 800-degrees Fahrenheit to remove the PCBs (polychlorinated
biphenyls). The soil was put back in a football-size pit, re-covered
to form a mound, graded, and seeded with grass.
Local Warren County
environmental justice leaders and their allies across the state
deserve a gold medal for not giving up the long fight and pressuring
government officials to keep their promise and clean up the mess
they created. This was no small feat given state deficits, budget
cuts, and past broken promises. Residents and officials now must
grapple with what to do with the site. This decision will not
be an easy one to make nor is it likely to be absent of controversy.
and Justice Denied
sign at the entrance to the Warren County PCB landfill reads, "PCB Landfill – No
Trespassing." Clearly, the phrase "Justice Delayed
is Justice Denied" might be more appropriate for a new sign
at the entrance to the landfill. The landfill was constructed
to contain 40,000 cubic yards (or 60,000 tons) of highly PCB-contaminated
soil that was scraped up from 210 miles of roadside shoulders
in North Carolina. The PCBs originated from the Raleigh-based
Ward Transfer Company. A Jamestown, New York, trucking operation
owned by Robert J. Burns obtained PCB-laced oil from the Ward
Transfer Company for resale. Faced with economic loss as a result
of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ban on resale
of the toxic oil, the waste hauler chose the cheap way out by
illegally dumping it along North Carolina roadways.
June 1978 and August 1978, over 30,000 gallons of waste transformer
with PCBs were illegally discharged on roadside in fourteen counties.
The PCBs resulted in the U.S. EPA designating the roadsides as
a superfund site to protect public health. The controversial
PCB landfill is owned by the North Carolina Department of Environment
and Natural Resources (DENR) and is located about 60 miles northeast
of Raleigh off North Carolina SR 1604 and U.S Highway 401. The
toxic-waste dump was forced on the tiny Afton community – more
than 84 percent of the community was black in 1982 – helping
trigger the national environmental justice movement. While the ‘mid-night
dumpers" were fined and jailed, the innocent Afton community
was handed a 20-year sentence of living in a toxic-waste prison.
Symbol of a National
months of deliberations and a questionable site selection exercise,
North Carolina Governor
James B. Hunt decided to bury the contaminated soil in the community
of Afton located in Warren County. This rural county might seem
an unlikely spot to give birth to a global movement. Local citizens
later tagged the landfill "Hunts Dump." Warren County
put environmental racism on the map. The PCB landfill later became
the most recognized symbol in the county. Despite the stigma,
Warren County also became a symbol of the environmental justice
Warren County residents
did not take kindly of having toxic waste dumped on them. It
is here where a cross-section of America waged a frontal assault
against state-sponsored environmental racism. Local county residents
organized themselves into a fighting force that was later joined
by national civil rights leaders, church leaders, black elected
officials, environmental activists, labor leaders, and youth.
The state began hauling more than 6,000 truckloads of the PCB-contaminated
soil to the landfill in mid-September of 1982. Just two weeks
later, more than 414 protesters had been arrested. In the end,
over 500 protesters were arrested.
Although the protests
did not stop the trucks from rolling in and dumping their toxic
loads, the marches, demonstrations, and jailings focused the
national media spotlight on Warren County. The protests prompted
the Congressional Black Caucus to request the U.S. General Accounting
Office (GAO) to investigate hazardous waste landfill siting and
the racial composition of the host communities. The 1983 GAO
study reported that blacks made up a majority in three of the
four communities with hazardous waste landfills in EPA Region
IV (eight southern states) and at least 26 percent of the population
in all four communities had incomes below the poverty level and
most of this population was black.
Warren County struggle was the impetus behind the United Church
of Christ Commission
for Racial Justice 1987 "Toxic Waste and Race" report.
The protests also galvanized environmental justice as a national
civil rights and human rights issue. They also ushered in a new
era of national black leadership around the environment. No longer
would environmentalism be viewed as the sole domain of elites
and the white middle-class. Environment was redefined as "where
we live, work, play, worship, go to school, as well as the physical
and natural world." This new definition took hold
among community based organizations, grassroots activists, analysts,
and academics all across the United States - and in the last
two decades spread around the globe from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit
to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in
Johannesburg in 2002.
Science – Not
North Carolina state
officials surveyed 93 sites in 13 counties and settled on Warren
County. The landfill was permitted by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The
Warren County PCB landfill site was not scientifically the most
suitable because the water table at the landfill is very shallow,
only 5-10 feet below the surface and where the residents of the
community get all of their drinking water from local wells. Selecting
a landfill site is not rocket science. The Warren County decision
made more political sense than environmental sense. In the end,
the decision was less about the science of toxicology or hydrology
and more about political science.
of the "objective" science
surrounding waste facility siting masks built-in land-use discrimination.
The environmental justice framework unmasks the ugly face of
racism. There is nothing inherent about black communities that
make them more suitable land uses for dumps and other locally
unwanted land uses or LULUs. Yet, a preponderance of LULUs somehow
find their way to black and other people of color communities
from New York to California.
County residents pleaded for a more permanent solution, rather
than a cheap "quick-fix" that
would eventually end up with the PCBs leaking into the groundwater
and wells. Their voices fell on deaf ears. State and federal
officials chose landfilling, the cheap way out. By 1993 the landfill
was failing, and for a decade community leaders pressed the state
to decontaminate the site.
of Warren County were searching for guarantees the government
was not creating
a future "superfund" site that would threaten nearby
residents. North Carolina state officials and federal EPA officials
could give no guarantees since there is no such thing as a 100-percent
safe hazardous waste landfill, one that will not eventually leak.
It all boiled down to trust. Can communities really trust government
(state and federal) to do the right thing? Recent history and
hundreds of books are filled with case studies of government
deception and "white-washing" real threats to public
health. A "healthy paranoia" pervades many communities
beset by environmental racism, guarding them from falling victim
to a false sense of safety and government protection. Many people
of color activists have long held the belief, and with ample
cause, that some residents "have the wrong complexion for
reality, all landfills inevitably leak. The Warren County PCB-landfill
is no exception.
The question is not if the facility will leak but when the facility
will leak PCB into the environment. Rules were bent and broken
at the very beginning of the construction of the landfill. The
landfill was technically designed to be a "dry-tomb" landfill,
but was capped with a million gallons of water in it. Again,
this is not rocket science.
after detoxification, some Warren County residents are still
questioning the completeness
of the clean-up, especially contamination that may have migrated
beyond the 3-acre landfill site – into the 137-acre buffer zone
that surrounds the landfill and the nearby creek and outlet basin.
PCBs are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants (PBTs).
That is, they are highly toxic, long-lasting substances that
can build up in the food chain to levels that are harmful to
human and ecosystem health. PCBs are not something most Americans
would want as a next-door neighbor. PCBs are probable human carcinogens.
They also cause developmental effects such as low birth weight
and they disrupt hormone function.
A Quadruple Whammy
County is located in Eastern North Carolina. The 29 counties
East" are noticeably different from the rest of North Carolina.
According to 2000 census, whites comprised 62 percent of the
population in Eastern North Carolina and 72 percent statewide.
Blacks are concentrated in the northeastern and the central parts
of the region. Warren County is one of six counties in the region
where blacks comprised a majority of the population in 2000:
Bertie County (62.3%), Hertford (59.6%), Northhampton (59.4),
Edgecombe (57.5%), Warren (54.5%), and Halifax (52.6%). Eastern
North Carolina is also significantly poorer than the rest of
the state. In 1999, per capita income in North Carolina was $26,463,
but in the eastern region it was only $18,550.
County is vulnerable to a "quadruple whammy" of being
mostly black, poor, rural, and politically powerless. The county
had a population
of 16,232 in 1980. Blacks comprised 63.7 percent of the county
population and 24.2 percent of the state population in 1980.
The county continues to be economically worse off than the state
as a whole on all major social indicators. Per capita income
for Warren County residents was $6,984 in 1982 compared with
$9,283 for the state. Warren County residents earned about 75
percent of the state per capita income. The county ranked 92nd
out of 100 counties in median family income in 1980.
Warren County population
increased to nearly 20,000 in 2000. Infrastructure development
in this part of North Carolina diverted traffic and economic
development away from Warren County. Generally, development often
follows along major highways. For example, Interstates 85 and
95 run along either side (not through) Warrenton, the county
seat. Economic development bypassed much of the county.
Over 19.4 percent of
Warren County residents compared with 12.3 percent of the state
residents lived below the poverty level in 1999. Warren County
has failed to attract new business. The 1999 North Economic Development
Scan gave Warren County a score of 2 (scores range from 1 to
100 with 1 being the lowest and 100 being the highest) in terms
of new business rate.
economic gap between Warren County and the rest of the state
actually widened over
the past decade. Warren County per capita income ranked 98th
in 1990 and 99th in 2001. One fourth of Warren County children
live in poverty compared with the state’s 15.7 percent children
A Case for Reparations
is important that the state finally detoxified the Warren County
PCB landfill – a
problem it created for local residents. This is a major victory
for local residents and the environmental justice movement. However,
it is also important that the surrounding land area and local
community be made environmentally whole. Detoxifying the landfill
does not bring the community back to its pre-1982 PCB-free environmental
condition. Soil still containing small PCBs levels is buried
at least 15 feet below the surface in the dump.
officials say the site is safe and suitable for reuse. While
some question about suitable reuse of the site, there is no evidence
that the land has been brought back to its pre-1982 condition – where
homes with deep basements could have been built and occupied
and backyard vegetables gardens grown with little worry about
toxic contamination or safety.
The siting of the PCB
landfill in Afton is a textbook case of environmental racism.
Around the world, environmental racism is defined as a human
rights violation. Strong and persuasive arguments have been made
for reparations as a remedy for serious human rights abuse. Under
traditional human rights law and policy, we expect governments
that practice or tolerate racial discrimination to acknowledge
and end this human rights violation and compensate the victims.
Environmental remediation is not reparations. No reparations
have been paid for the two decades of economic loss, psychological
damage, and mental anguish suffered by the Warren County residents.
Justice will not be
complete until the 20,000 Warren County residents receive a public
apology and some form of financial reparations from the perpetrators
of environmental racism against the local citizens. How much
reparations should be paid is problematic since it is difficult
for anyone to put a price tag on peace of mind. At minimum, Warren
County residents should be paid reparations equal to the cost
of detoxifying the landfill site or $18 million. Another reparations
formula might include payment of a minimum of $1 million a year
for every year the mostly black Afton community hosted the PCB-landfill
or $21 million.
It probably would not
be difficult for a county that lacks a hospital to spend $18-$21
million. The nearest hospitals from Afton are located in neighboring
Vance County (15 miles away) and across the state line in South
Hill, Virginia (33 miles away). Some people may think the idea
of paying reparations or monetary damages a bit farfetched. However,
until the impacted community is made whole, the PCB-landfill
detoxification victory won by the tenacity and perseverance of
local Warren County residents will remain incomplete.
Robert D. Bullard directs the Environmental Justice Resource
Center at Clark Atlanta University. His most recent book
is entitled Highway
Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (South
End Press, 2004).