Warren county PCBs

Forty years of good intentions

Will environmental justice get a jump-start from President Biden?

The American environmental movement, and environmental politics in general, are in middle age.


So is a major environmental crisis that never seems to move toward resolution: Locating the nation's worst waste sites and polluting factories in or near poor and minority communities. Nearly 40 years after its debut as a national issue, will environmental justice finally get its due?

Environmental racism didn't begin in 1982 any more than racism itself began in 1982. But in the fall of that year, the state of North Carolina began the transfer of hundreds of truckloads of soil contaminated with carcinogenic PCB's to a new landfill in predominantly poor, Black Warren County.

Civil rights icons like Rev. Joseph Lowery, Warren County's own Floyd McKissick and Walter Fauntroy, Washington D.C.'s Congressional Delegate, helped lead mass protests in which 500 people were arrested for blocking the waste trucks. The PCB trucks eventually got through, but the protestors won a compromise ending further shipments to the site. And environmental justice drew national attention for the first time.

Delegate Fauntroy commissioned a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on racial and economic biases in siting hazardous waste facilities. Published in 1983, the GAO report determined that three-quarters of the hazardous waste dumps in eight Southeastern states are located in or near poor African-American or Latino communities.

walter fauntroy

Walter Fauntroy in 1998. (Credit: Elvert Barnes/flickr)

In 1987, the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) issued a report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, that affirmed such practices were both systemic and nationwide. In 1990, sociologist Robert Bullard published a book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, which told the stories of impacted communities throughout the South. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out what by now was obvious: While dangerous sites are commonplace in poor and minority communities, "there are no nuclear waste dumps in Beverly Hills."

Also in 1990, the CRJ sent a stinging letter to the heads of 10 of the nation's largest environmental groups, citing the overwhelmingly White makeup of the groups' boardrooms and executive suites. Environmental racism, the critics said, begins at home. And the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican appointee William Reilly, created what would become the Agency's environmental justice office.

The late Rep. John Lewis introduced the first environmental justice bill in Congress in 1992, with active support from Vice President Al Gore. It failed.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, mandating that all federal agencies and federally funded projects must consider the impacts of those projects on poor and minority communities.

Which is why it's stunning that 39 years after Warren County:

  • Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" --an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi under the footprint of over 150 petrochemical plants—faces an onslaught of newer, bigger oil and gas facilities;
  • Uniontown, Alabama, is battling efforts to make it the final resting place for toxic coal ash from hundreds of miles away;
  • Aging inner-city drinking water systems in places like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, have imperiled residents;
  • Indigenous tribes consistently contend with pipeline construction and uranium mining.

And there are many more examples.

The Biden Administration has set the bar higher than any of its predecessors. His nominee for EPA Administrator, Michael Regan, would be the agency's second Black leader. He brings his experience as North Carolina's environmental chief. Since Warren County, environmental justice issues have been hard to ignore in the state: Just try driving down Interstate 95 on a summer day with the windows open and take in the aromas of massive industrial hog farming.

At the Department of the Interior—what a concept—Biden has nominated Deb Haaland as the first Indigenous leaders to serve as Interior Secretary. Both Regan and Haaland, if installed, inherit demoralized and reduced staffs and slashed budgets left behind by Trump appointees. But both have promised to extend environmental justice efforts to embrace climate change impacts on poor and minority communities.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland.

The Biden Administration is attaching some specifics to the rhetoric. One ambitious project would nationalize an ambitious California effort to inventory threats to disadvantaged communities—CalEnviroScreen, a screening tool that factors income, race, and pollution to identify the state's most at-risk cities and towns.

Environmental justice has never been a political top priority. In a year when COVID-19 and the economy have jumped the line and hogged the headlines, can Biden push beyond good intentions?

If environmental justice seems historically mired in indifference, cleanup of polluted sites through the landmark "Superfund" law -- the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980-- grew tangled in litigation and starved by lack of funding. We'll focus on that next weekend.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: A protest over PCB dumping in Warren County, NC. (Credit: NCDCR.gov)

Microplastics are filling the skies. Will they affect the climate?

Recent studies reveal that tiny pieces of plastic are constantly lofted into the atmosphere. These particles can travel thousands of miles and affect the formation of clouds, which means they have the potential to impact temperature, rainfall, and even climate change.
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Urban ‘microrewilding’ projects provide a lifeline for nature

Recovering urban wildlife isn’t just about protecting a city’s parks and rivers, but also making its streets, homes and skyscrapers greener.

Summer may be far off, but Milwaukee is seeing hotter summer nights in its densely developed areas

It may be the dead of winter, but a recent mapping campaign found heavily developed urban areas of Milwaukee stayed about 10 degrees warmer at night than other parts of the city during hot summer days.

7 years ago the world agreed to slow down climate change — but a new report shows an uneven future

It may no longer be possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but the climate future is still uncertain, a new report says.

climate storytellers arizona
commons.wikimedia.org

Student storytellers share the personal impacts of climate change

Wednesday evening on the Northern Arizona University campus, student storytellers will share how a warming planet has affected them directly as part of an event called Beyond Climate Breakdown.

basketball court solar energy climate
Image by Varun Kulkarni from Pixabay

Solar project at Broward basketball courts: Cooler players, more and cheaper power

Broward County is planning to launch an innovative solar project at one Fort Lauderdale park’s busy basketball courts that will not only keep players cooler but also help cut energy costs to the nearby African-American Research Library and Cultural Center.

Exxon scientists accurately forecast climate change back in the 1970s – what if we had listened to them and acted then?

Writers of speculative- and science-fiction often identify a key point in time and explore how a seemingly insignificant event might change the path of humanity. One of these moments came in the 1970s when oil giant Exxon chose to ignore its own commissioned research on the impact of fossil fuels.

From our Newsroom
oil and gas wells pollution

What happens if the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the US goes bankrupt?

Diversified Energy’s liabilities exceed its assets, according to a new report, sparking concerns about whether taxpayers will wind up paying to plug its 70,000 wells.

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich: A journey through science and politics

In his new book, the famous scientist reflects on an unparalleled career on our fascinating, ever-changing planet.

oil and gas california environmental justice

Will California’s new oil and gas laws protect people from toxic pollution?

California will soon have the largest oil drilling setbacks in the U.S. Experts say other states can learn from this move.

popular stories 2022

Our 5 most popular reads from 2022

A corpse, woodworking dangers, plastic titans ... revisit the stories that stuck with our readers this past year.

Pittsburgh environmental

What I learned reporting on environmental health in Pittsburgh in 2022

For a lot of people, 2022 felt like the first “normal” year since 2020. It didn’t for me.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.