The Birth of the Environmental Justice Movement was in Warren County

By | May 9, 2011

The fight against the PCB landfill in Warren County in the late 1970′ and 1980′s first connected racism and environmental justice. R2J is committed to sharing the rich history of North Carolina.

Below is from the Institute of Southern Studies:

Warren County, North Carolina (1979)

Between June 1978 and August 1978, over 30,000 gallons of waste transformer oil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were illegally discharged on roadsides in fourteen North Carolina counties. The PCBs resulted in the U.S. EPA designating the roadsides as a superfund site to protect public health. North Carolina needed a place to dispose of the PCB-contaminated soil that was scraped up from 210 miles of roadside shoulders. In 1979, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) along with EPA Region 4 selected rural, poor, and mostly black Warren County as the site for the PCB landfill.

In 1982, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit in district court to block the landfill. The residents lost their case in court despite the fact that 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. William Sanjour, head of the EPA’s hazardous waste implementation branch, questioned the Warren County landfill siting decision. The first truckload of contaminated soil that arrived at the landfill in September 1982 was met protesters. More than 500 demonstrators were jailed protesting landfill, sparking the national Environmental Justice Movement.

Warren County which was 54.5 percent black in 1980 is one of six counties in North Carolina’s “Black Belt.” The other North Carolina counties where African Americans comprise a majority of the population include 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.

Region 4 and North Carolina officials insisted the PCB landfill was safe and would not leak. They were dead wrong. Warren County resident Dolly Burwell and her fellow protesters were right. The landfill was suspected of leaking as early as 1993. It took more than two decades for Warren County residents to get the leaky landfill site detoxified by the state and federal government. In all, a private contractor was paid $18 million to dig up and burn more than 81,500 tons of contaminated soil in a kiln on site.

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