The People Vs. The Toxic Landfill
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Residents of Warren County, North Carolina, spent more
than 20 years protesting the placement of a toxic waste
dump in their community. In 1982 North Carolina state
officials surveyed 93 sites in 13 counties and chose Warren
County, a predominantly rural, poor, black county as the
site; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permitted
the landfill under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
The landfill was constructed to hold 60,000 tons of soil
contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls - chemicals
more commonly known as PCBs. It became necessary after
a trucking company from New York dumped over 30,000 gallons
of waste transformer oil contaminated with PCBs along
North Carolina roadways. The company was attempting to
get rid of the oil because the EPA had banned the resale
of the toxic transformer oil.
After months of deliberations and consideration, it was
decided that the toxic soil should be dumped in Afton,
a small community in Warren County in which 84 percent
of the population at the time of the construction of the
landfill was black. This site, however, was not considered
the most scientifically suitable. The water table under
the landfill was shallow, averaging only 5 to 10 feet
below the surface; this was an especially big problem
in Warren County, where many residents got their drinking
water from local wells.
However, Warren County residents were quick to oppose
the dumpsite. The county twice took the state to court,
but failed to stop the landfill's construction. Local
residents then organized with civil rights leaders, church
leaders, elected officials, environmental activists and
others to protest the toxic waste dump in their community.
The state began hauling the contaminated soil to the site
in September 1982; in all, over 6,000 truckloads of soil
were dumped in the landfill.
For six weeks, protestors used peaceful civil disobedience
to express their disapproval of the state's choice for
the placement of the dump and try to prevent the area
from being filled. Activists marched in front of the site
and even went so far as to lay down in front of the trucks
as they attempted to deliver the contaminated soil to
the landfill. By the end of September, 414 protestors
had been arrested, and in all, more than 500 would be
arrested for protesting the placement of the waste site.
While they were unable to stop the state from dumping
the soil, the demonstrations of the local protestors caught
national attention. They influenced the Congressional
Black Caucus to call for an investigation regarding toxic
waste dumps and the communities they were in; a report
released in 1983 by the U.S. General Accounting Office
reported that racial minorities made up a majority of
the population in three out of the four communities with
hazardous waste landfills in eight southern states.
The Warren County protestors inspired the United Church
of Christ to form a Commission for Racial Justice; this
commission produced a report in 1987 in which they concluded
that communities near waste sites were more likely to
be inhabited by African-Americans and Hispanics than Caucasians.
These two reports helped to bring environmental racism
and justice into the national consciousness, where it
has become a big issue to a variety of people and groups.
Although they couldn't stop the landfill from being constructed
and filled with toxic soil, residents of Warren County
did not give up their fight. They created the Warren County
Working Group, comprised of local residents, state employees
and environmental organizations. The group analyzed the
situation for years, finding that it was not only possible
but essential that the site be detoxified. After years
of continued protests and pressure on government officials,
the state of North Carolina finally began detoxification
work on the site in 2001. The operation cost $18 million,
and once detoxified, the soil was put back into a large
pit, covered and seeded with grass. The last cleanup work
finally ended in January of 2004.
Even decades after the construction of the landfill in
their community, the residents of Warren County and the
protestors who helped them continue to stand out as a
shining example of normal people using nonviolent means
to bring about change. As the first case concerning environmental
racism to garner national attention, it assisted in bringing
environmental justice into the public consciousness. Today,
the EPA has a National Environmental Justice Advisory
Council and eliminating environmental racism is an ongoing
concern of the federal government.