As the Black Lives Matter movement reignites discussions of racial disparities, more people are starting to take notice of environmental racism and its harmful effects on communities of color. One of the most egregious examples of this can be traced back to the 1970s in North Carolina, where Black residents stood up to local governments who were actively poisoning their water supply with a toxic landfill.
In fact, this moment in American history is largely credited for started the environmental justice movement in the nation.
To understand how this started, let's dial back time to the late 1970s. A New York trucking company devised a scheme to their losses and dump gallons of a toxic chemical known as PCBs along 240 miles of rural roads across 14 North Carolina counties.
"Short for polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs were widely used in paints, plastics and adhesives, and as industrial coolants," the Washington Post wrote. "Then scientists discovered that, if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, the chemicals can cause birth defects, cancer and other disorders in multiple human organs." The Environmental Protection Agency banned the product and halted domestic production in the 1970s.
When state officials took notice, they criminally charged those involved but still had to clean up the mess. Governor James B. Hunt Jr. proposed dumping 10,000 truckloads of the contaminated dirt at a landfill in rural Warren County. Not only did the county have the highest percentage of North Carolina's Black citizens, but it was a largely poor area. People learned that the toxic contents of the soil was seeping into the drinking water.
“We were poor, we were Black and we were politically impotent," Dollie Burwell told the Washington Post. An active civil rights activist before the dumping, she participated in the protests that would erupt soon after people learned what was happening in their community. “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” she quoted from the Bible.
The New York Times covered the 1979 protests, where over 700 Black residents and civil rights activists showed up to protest the landfill. Not only did these demonstrations gained national attention, but major groups like the NAACP and the United Church of Christ also participated.
"The protesters believed that the landfill would undermine local economic development and heath, and that the community lacked the power to prevent hazardous waste facilities from being placed in their neighborhoods," according to North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The agency also called this event a "watershed moment" for environmental racism.
“There were public outcries of ‘We can’t breathe’ and ‘I can’t breathe' by African American environmental justice protesters in Warren County," Ben Chavis said, who was a leader in the revolt. He even coined the term "environmental racism" after he was thrown in jail on suspicion of his involvement in the demonstrations.
Despite the large demonstration and public outcry, they were unsuccessful at stoppin the landfill. The state began dumping the contaminated dirt into a 22-acre area carved out of farmland on September 15, 1982. Washington Post did point out that Gov. Hunt vowed to "oppose future landfills in the county and to detoxify the site as soon as technology to eliminate PCBs became available. But that would take decades."
The Warren County PCB protest would become a lightning rod for Black people and activists to push back against efforts to pollute their communities. A 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force shows that Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than their white counterparts. Researchers also found that Black people are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a plant or factory.
As long as Black Americans continue to be plagued by pollution and environmental dangers, people will fight to improve these conditions and stop generations of disparity.
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