Warren County, North Carolina, doesn’t seem the most likely place for the environmental justice movement to have started. It’s a small, rural county northeast of Raleigh, and might have stayed just that if not for a decision to dump a toxic landfill in its midst in 1978. The response of Warren County’s primarily black residents earned the county the national spotlight and inspired decades of environmental justice activists. As Martin Luther King Day once again prompts us to consider issues of equality, Warren County is a poignant reminder that environmental quality extends far beyond science: it has an immediate and sometimes devastating impact on human well-being.
Warren County’s struggles can be traced to some landmark environmental progress, ironically enough. In the early ’70s, researchers found increasing evidence that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were toxic and carcinogenic, leading the EPA to ban production of the chemical in the US. The 1976 Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) went further by stipulating proper disposal of PCBs.
RCRA was inconvenient for Robert Burns. His trucking company was hired in 1978 by Ward Transformer Company, located in Raleigh, to dispose of PCB-laden transformer fluid. Under RCRA, the transformer fluid should have been brought to a special facility, but Burns decided to circumvent the extra expense associated with this process by illegally dumping the fluid. For about three weeks, he and his sons drove along NC highways at night, spraying the 31,000 gallons of transformer fluid onto the soil alongside the roadway. The “midnight dumpers,” as they were later called, ultimately contaminated about 240 miles of soil, landing Robert Burns, his sons, and Robert Ward of Ward Transformer in jail.
The sticking point with environmental problems, though, is that booking the perps and filing lawsuits does little to limit the hazard. The roadside soil with its dangerously high concentrations of PCBs was still roadside, posing health risks to those living nearby. Thanks to the EPA’s recent regulations of toxic chemicals, North Carolina couldn’t ignore the problem even if it wanted to: the soil had to be cleaned up. The Love Canal crisis occurred shortly after the midnight dumping, adding social pressure to the legal impetus.
It wasn’t yet possible to detoxify PCBs, so the most viable solution was to sequester the contaminated soil in a landfill. That left the thorny question of where exactly to site a landfill loaded with toxic soil. In late 1978, Governor Jim Hunt announced that the state would be placing the landfill in Afton, located in Warren County, raising plenty of suspicion. At the time, Warren County had the highest percentage of black residents in the state and nearly the lowest per capita income, and residents feared that demographics were the real reason their county had been selected.
Alarmed that they were being targeted because of their race and economic status, residents formed an action group and began attending the EPA’s public meetings. It soon became clear that something dodgy was underway. The state had claimed that Afton featured optimal physical conditions for the landfill, but facts increasingly undermined that assertion. At the first public meeting in January 1979, state officials asked the EPA to waive a regulation requiring at least 50 feet between the base of a landfill and the underlying groundwater. Convenient, because Afton’s water table was at a meager 7 feet. Later, a scientist hired by residents reported that Afton’s soil was not ideal for containing landfill leachate, as it could not compact sufficiently. Based on those facts, a landfill in Afton was liable to leak and contaminate the shallow groundwater.
The next two years saw a jumble of lawsuits from the NAACP, Afton, and landowners, while the contaminated soil continued to sit along highways. The landfill was finally given the green light in 1982. When dumptrucks pulled into Afton that September, they were greeted by four to five hundred protesters, some of whom laid in the street in front of the trucks. Resistance had been organized by local religious and civic leaders, such as Rev. Luther Brown, Dollie Burwell, and Ken and Debra Feruccio, along with national civil rights organizers like Floyd McKissick and Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who had convened in Warren County in anticipation of the dump. Expecting objection, the dumptrucks were accompanied by hundreds of state police officers and members of the National Guard, who proceeded to arrest a total of 523 people over the next several weeks as the dumping continued. (See footage and some sweet ’80s fashion in the video below.)
Despite the best efforts of residents, the landfill was not derailed, and Warren County became the new home of 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. The EPA almost immediately found itself with egg on its face after years of assuring residents they were constructing the “Cadillac of landfills.” Before the landfill could be capped, rain caused erosion and added 500,000 gallons of water to what was supposed to be a dry landfill. Governor Hunt, in an attempt to mollify the protesters, promised that the soil would be detoxified as soon as technology became available. However, infuriatingly, monitoring wells near the landfill were not tested until 1994. Those tests reported PCBs and dioxin (a highly toxic chemical) in groundwater up- and downhill from the landfill. The state responded with indifference, claiming that “[w]e see no reason for alarm,” and that the landfill could not be definitively identified as the source of the toxins. At last, remediation funds were included in the 1998 state budget, and cleanup began in 2002. The detoxified landfill was closed at the end of 2003.
The Warren County landfill had profound impacts on the national conscience. It marked the first time citizens mobilized in advance to protest a landfill, and established such protests as a way of objecting to environmental threats. Environmental justice still draws heavily on approaches used by civil rights advocates in Afton, and it is now standard to question whether race and/or socioeconomic status influence the location of environmental hazards. The landfill also impacted legislation aimed at avoiding environmental racism in the future. In direct response to Warren County, the General Accounting Office issued a report in 1983 revealing that 3 out of 4 hazardous waste sites in the EPA’s Region 4 (roughly the Southeast) were located in primarily black communities. The Warren County landfill may have also influenced a 1984 amendment to RCRA that attempted to limit hazardous waste production and control it from cradle to grave. Environmental justice earned the ultimate acknowledgement in 1994, when an Executive Order demanded that federal agencies create an environmental justice agenda and incorporate it into their mission.
The best way to end a story like this is to put it back into the hands of the residents who fought so hard to prevent the landfill and subsequently attempted to force North Carolina and the EPA to follow up on their promises to minimize negative impacts. The following quote was collected from an Afton community member as part of UNC’s Exchange Project:
“Where the environment is not protected then not only does the birds of the air, the fish of the sea lose, but people lose because everything is turned into an opportunity, an it … If you’re not responsible to Mother Earth, most likely you’re not going to be responsible to the children of Mother Earth … The impact that this movement has had on our nation, at many levels, not only in terms of racism but also in terms of humanizing the environmental struggle, is significant.”
For previous MLK Day posts, check out our opinion pieces on connecting academia to environmental justice and becoming a more socially-responsible science grad student. And as always, make MLK Day a day on, not a day off! Search The Corporation for National & Community Service’s MLK Day page for service events in your area.
For more info: