by Jennifer Colette Russ –
When a toxic, PCB-laced landfill was built in a mostly Black, poor, and politically powerless town in Warren County, North Carolina, residents were furious.
Health concerns relating to the dump were ignored, leading them to protest, in an event regarded by many as the beginning of the environmental justice movement. In recent years, many other minority neighborhoods have had similar experiences due to their underrepresentation in state and federal government. It is clear that state governments specifically choose poor, nonwhite communities to dump toxic waste, dismissing detrimental health effects it could have.
The State of North Carolina deliberately chose Warren County for the location of a hazardous waste landfill because of its poor and mostly African American population. In September 1982, over 6,000 truckloads of toxic, PCB-laced soil were shipped to the small town of Afton, which was rural, poor, and “nearly 60% Black,” making it a convenient destination for a toxic waste landfill. This is supported by the history of redlining, or discrimination in housing and lending by banks against communities of color.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968, in its fair housing provisions, outlawed yet failed to eliminate these practices of redlining. Black neighborhoods remained poor, making their property a cheap location for a landfill. Dollie Burwell, civil rights activist and resident of Afton, NC, told The Washington Post that her community was a primary target for the landfill because, “We were poor, we were Black, and we were politically impotent.” These discriminatory practices kept African American neighborhoods poor, vulnerable, and politically powerless.
North Carolina chose to place a landfill in a cheap location, where those it affected the most had the least ability to prevent it. Inexpensive property and lack of political representation allowed neighborhoods like Afton to be easily selected for toxic waste disposal. Potential health hazards were purposefully overlooked because it could disrupt construction of the landfill.
PCBs, or Polychlorinated biphenyls, are known to cause “birth defects, cancer and other disorders” in the organs if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. In order to build the landfill, the state refused to acknowledge these effects and other concerns over PCBs leaching into the water supply. The toxicity of PCBs was known at the time, but the information was dismissed because it posed a legal threat.
This infuriated the residents of Warren County. Six weeks of peaceful protests led to over 500 arrests, which authors Skelton and Miller from the NRDC call “the first arrests in US history over the siting of a landfill.” North Carolina ignored and actively tried to silence worries of health repercussions that might act as a barrier to the placement of the dump.
To summarize, the Warren County injustice occurred because the residents had no political power or representation to be able to stop it. Likewise, the absence of minority groups in state and federal government has resulted in inefficient or nonexistent environmental justice initiatives.
In 1992, President George W. Bush created an environmental justice working group, but he later weakened it, claiming that it should “advocate for all Americans rather than concentrating on racial minorities.” Another federal office, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was tasked with addressing environmental injustice issues in 1994.
However, according to the Center for Public Integrity, “The [EPA] dismisses outright more than nine in 10 environmental discrimination complaints.” This may be due to the lack of diversity and passion for environmental justice among government officials and organizations.
In 2008, Uniontown, Alabama became home to the Arrowhead landfill, over a half-billion gallons of toxic coal ash. Eighty-four percent of Uniontown residents are black, while 49% live under the poverty line. Similar to Warren County, hazardous waste disproportionately affects people of color, and residents from both locations have experienced numerous health consequences.
In 2012, Uniontown residents filed a civil rights complaint to the EPA, stating that the landfill “adversely and disparately impacts African Americans in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.” After six years, in 2018, the EPA denied the complaint because of “insufficient evidence.” Consistent with Warren County, the residents of Uniontown experienced inequity in the placement of toxic waste, and dismissal of racial discrimination and health concerns.
The Uniontown case parallels Warren County. Both occurred in poor and majority-African American communities who tried to defend against toxic landfills. Reports of environmental injustice in Uniontown were dismissed by the federal government, and residents from both Uniontown and Warren County have experienced health issues from the toxic waste, as well as contaminated drinking water.
In order to overcome this toxic legacy, state and federal officials from minority groups and with knowledge of and passion for environmental justice must be elected. By having representatives who feel strongly about environmental racism, and including environmental justice advocates in decision making, the government will gain an increased awareness of injustice and will be more willing to use methods of toxic waste disposal that are eco-friendly, in addition to being people-friendly.
The Biden administration, which was elected with record voter turnout, has promised to have every federal agency consider environmental justice in their actions. To elect more diverse and environmentally and racially conscious people requires increased voter registration and turnout. If more people register to vote than ever before, a big difference can be made in the state and federal government.
Elections can give more political power to minorities and people of color, allowing them to stand up against hazardous waste and other forms of discrimination. I believe safe and clean water is a human right, and that by voting for diverse representatives who advocate for environmental justice, we can bring attention to current problems, such as the Uniontown landfill, that have yet to be addressed.
With help from passionate officials and environmental justice activists, states can develop alternate methods of toxic waste disposal that don’t harm communities and can strengthen the movement that began in Warren County.