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Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships

The Beginnings of a Movement: A Story of Hope

by Phaedra Pezzullo, January 2000

[Our story] is about a poor, predominately black community standing against the powerful State. I think thats whats motivating. And in terms of where we are now, I think people still are amazed that people are still fighting the fight and are still struggling and are still willing to make the State live up to its promise.
-- Dollie Burwell, Warren County resident, February 19, 1998

Despite the debt to longer historical traditions (i.e., the civil rights movement), according to most accounts, what Warren County residents and their allies did from 1978-1982 transformed their community into the symbolic center and birthplace of the environmental justice movement. After those events, according to the Washington Post (10/12/82), the marriage of civil rights activism and environmental concerns was explicitly linked for the first time in the United States.

Yet, there has been a shadow over the ending of Warren Countys story for many years: despite their ability to draw national attention to the correlation between social injustices and environmental degradation, the landfill they initially protested is still in their county. This summer, the ending of that story has begun to change. So, in honor of our debt to Warren County and the renewed hope that they bring to all of us, let me again start with the beginnings.

In the summer of 1978, PCB-contaminated transformer oil was illegally dumped on the shoulder of 210 miles of North Carolina state roads in 14 counties. After discovering this dumping site of 32 cubic yards, an investigation found Ward Transformer Company to be the guilty party and pressed charges. This still left the state with the dilemma of removing the chemicals and finding a new, safer storage place. That winter, the state proposed 142 acres of land in Warren County to become the site of the landfill. In 1979, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed the site could be made safe with engineering.

Warren County took the State to court on several accounts in order to protest the decision. Finding no clear evidence for their case, the federal court rejected their suit. Since Warren County did not think their environment was the most ecologically sound choice, they began to question the political reasons for why their community was chosen. Being a predominately poor and black population, a second lawsuit was filed based upon discriminatory intent. However, it too failed. In 1982, therefore, the state began trucking the contaminated soil to the site in Warren County. Residents and civil rights leaders attempted to stop the trucks with six weeks of peaceful civil disobedience. Over 523 arrests resulted, and Warren County became a national news story.

In response to the strong vocal protest in Warren County and nationally, Gov. Hunt wrote an open letter to the community stating that Warren County was chosen for the site solely on the basis of technical reasons and promised to detoxify the site when feasible technology is developed The following year, the General Assembly also committed the state to detoxify the landfill as soon as the technology for doing so is available.

Although the landfill was not stopped, many successes have been attributed to the efforts of those involved in Warren Countys struggle. First, citizens in Warren County challenged the common assumption that waste must be made and, therefore, it has to go somewhere. Warren County residents drew a line and said there must be social concerns for public health when making environmental decisions. Second, those involved in the protests named their experience environmental racism. When Warren County residents articulated the concepts of environmental and racism together, they not only gave language to a process of domination, but they also expanded the existing definitions of each of these terms.

In denaturalizing the process of articulating political influences and scientific sitings, residents of Warren County created the impetus for several studies which have provided empirical evidence of systematic inequities in U.S. toxic and solid waste disposal policies (Bullard, 1990; Bullard & Wright, 1987; United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987; Lavelle & Coyle, 1992; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1983). These studies offered quantitative evidence that prompted further discussions to interrogate the relationship between socio-political standing and environmental decision-making. The environmental justice movement, therefore, is indebted to the residents of Warren County for initiating the framework of a movement that has the capacity to transform the political landscape of this nation (Chavis, 1994, p. xii). Yet, the story continues.

Ten years after the building of the landfill, the state announced up to 1.5 million gallons of water was trapped inside. They agreed to meet with the citizens of Warren County to decide what would be the best means to detoxify the site. As a result, the Warren County Working Group was formed with members representing local citizens, state employees and various environmental organizations. For the past five years, they have met regularly to discuss how the state may deliver on their/our commitments. They hired independent scientists to characterize the site, assess the integrity of the landfill, and determine technical feasibility.

As a result of that analysis, the scientists have concluded that it is not only technologically feasible to detoxify the site, but it is also necessary due to the conditions of the site. Based upon this scientific expertise, the Working Group began to lobby Gov. Hunt and the General Assembly to fulfill their promises and fund detoxification now that it is possible. This summer, as a result of their efforts, the General Assembly allocated $7 million dollars towards detoxifying the site, and the Governor renewed his commitment to keep his word and end this story.

As of this writing, the people of Warren County are still awaiting funding for the detoxification of the landfill. Releasing funds from the state is predicated upon acquiring matching funds from the federal government. Budget negotiations being what they are, the approval of matching funds is yet to come.

If Warren County residents have set a precedent in the past, they are certainly providing another today by working with the state and environmental groups to find common ground. If you are interested in more information on their story and strategies to make environmental justice a reality, please contact the Working Groups Office in North Carolina: (252) 257-1948.

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