In the summer of 1982, Warren County became ground zero for the environmental justice movement. The community, at the time a relatively sparsely populated county on the Virginia border north of Raleigh, was rocked by six weeks of protests over PCB-laced oil being sprayed on rural county roads. 

The incident that sparked the movement that’s now a worldwide phenomenon occurred back in 1978, when the Ward Transformer Company was looking for a low-cost way to dispose of toxic oil that came from electrical insulators. They began spraying the stuff along roadsides under the cover of darkness. In total, a 240-mile area, which stretched across several North Carolina counties, was contaminated. 

People in the community, once they learned about it in 1982, weren’t having it. 

During a six-week period in 1982, more than 500 protesters were arrested, and their actions drew national attention. It was during the protest that civil rights activist, Ben Chavis, reportedly described what was happening to the community as environmental racism.

The PCB protests, which ignited over placement of a hazardous waste dump in Afton, and the subsequent delivery of nearly 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), resulted from illegal disposal of the chemical along North Carolina roadsides in 1978.

PCBs belong to a group of man-made chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons and were widely used in the U.S. from 1929 until 1979, when they were banned. PCBs are considered toxic and carcinogenic. Exposure to these chemicals could result in a suppressed immune system and may cause cancer, among other negative health impacts.

Recently, Chavis along with two other environmental justice pioneers—Dollie Burwell, and Naeema Muhammad—received the environmental justice Trail Blazers award for their long-term commitment to fighting against environmental injustice.

In September people will gather in Warren County to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1982 action. 

Chavis, Burwell and Muhammed received the awards during the inaugural Environmental Justice and Healthcare Summit, which was held in mid-August and hosted by North Carolina Black Alliance (NCBA), an organization that advocates for Black and brown communities on issues such as environmental justice, health and policy. 

Muhammad is the organizing director for the North Carolina Justice Network (NCEJN) and is known for her work to raise awareness about the negative impact of concentrated  animal feeding operations (CAFOs), many of which are found in low-wealth communities of color in eastern North Carolina. 

“Naeema has worked tirelessly to hold the hog industry accountable for the pollution it produces that disproportionately impacts the lives of African Americans living in rural North Carolina counties,” said La’Meshia Whittington, deputy program director for NCBA, who served as the mistress of ceremonies for the event.

Both Burwell and Chavis have a long history of activism and are credited with playing significant roles in the Warren County PCB protests. 

“I’d like to thank the North Carolina Black Alliance board of directors and selection committee for considering me for this special honor and recognition in my home state of North Carolina,” said Burwell in a written statement.

In a pre-recorded acceptance speech, Chavis commented on how the movement has spread.

“What started in my favorite county—Warren County, North Carolina some 40 years ago, with the beginning of the environmental justice movement—has grown to a global movement,” Chavis said. “The demands of millions of people are not only being heard, but there are changes [being made].”

Building a movement

Although Warren County residents were not the first to stand up against what we now recognize as environmental injustice, their weeks-long PCB protest gained national attention.  Despite not prevailing in the end, the Warren County protests are recognized as the event that illuminated the problems faced by many low-wealth communities of color across the country.

If there was any doubt remaining after the Warren County protests about the targeting of the Black communities for landfill placement, this was laid bare by the 1983 study produced by the then-U.S. General Accounting Office. The study found that roughly 75 percent of landfills were located in communities where “African Americans made up at least twenty-six percent of the population, and whose family incomes were below the poverty level,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

At the time, Warren County’s population was 60 percent Black and ranked near the bottom of North Carolina’s 100 counties in per capita income, according to the 1980 census. 

Prior to the Warren County protests, there were two protests that are listed as notable on the environmental justice timeline published by the EPA—the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and Bean vs. Southwestern Management Corp., which took place in 1979 and involved a Black community in Houston that fought to prevent a landfill from being placed near community schools.

In North Carolina, CAFOs and landfills have fouled the air, contaminated the soil and water, and dampened the quality of life for many who live near them. The majority of state’s swine CAFOs are concentrated in rural and predominantly low-wealth minority areas, such as Sampson and Duplin counties. 

Looking to the past to assess the present

Shauna Williams is now a Warren County resident and the president of the board of trustees for the Historic Warren County Community Center.  But back in 1978, she was a news reporter for Durham’s WTVD Channel 11, when the state decided that the best way to mitigate the illegally dumped PCB contaminated soil that covered approximately 240 miles of roadsides across 14 counties, was to establish a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County to store it. 

Williams recalls that leading up to the protests, residents were telling anyone who would listen that they did not want the landfill in their community.

“The meetings across Warren County were in churches and homes with the county commissioners,” Williams said. “A notable public hearing drew several hundred people and lasted many hours until 2:40 in the morning.”

The meeting Williams is referring to lasted for more than 7 hours and protestors charged state officials of selecting Warren County as the hazard waste landfill site because the people who lived were “few, poor and Black,” according to an account of the meeting published in the New York Times on June 5, 1979.  

Yet, despite the meetings and protests, the landfill was eventually placed in Warren County, near the town of Afton.

In a recent interview that was shown during the NCBA Summit, Williams echoed a concern that was at the top of the list for environmental justice advocates who opposed the landfill.

“Why does this stuff always have to go into a Black majority community?” Williams asked. “That’s a problem. We need to speak up and make sure this stops happening.”

Heightened awareness

Floyd McKissick Jr. was the director of planning for Soul City, a planned community located in Warren County. The community was established by his father, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick and the younger McKissick was among those who tried to convince state leaders that placing a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County would be harmful to growth.

“There were a handful of us who were very concerned, not only about the environmental consequences and hazards, but also about what it would do to Warren County in terms of being something that would impede its economic development,” McKissick said.

In spite of weeks of protests that gained national exposure, ultimately, the PCB contaminated soil was dumped in the hazardous waste landfill.  In 1994, a test of site monitoring wells revealed “low levels of dioxin … up and downhill from the site,” according to a report produced by the University of North Carolina. After the landfill was detoxified, it closed in 2003. 

Over years, some residents that lived near the site have suffered health issues, such as cancer, that they attribute to the contaminated soil that was brought into their community. One of the defendants found guilty for the illegal dumping was Robert Ward of Raleigh, who was sentenced to two and half years in prison and fined $200,000. 

Reflecting on lessons learned from the Warren County protests that occurred 40 years ago, McKissick said that activists now are more conscious of environmental injustice issues that “low wealth communities” often face.

“There may be times when that opposition is vocal and persuasive, and other times where it falls upon a deaf ear. But the level of awareness today is far greater than it was back in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s.”

Below is a list of events that will be held to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Warren County PCB protests. Courtesy of Jenny Labalme.

July 25  – Dec. 22: UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library Environmental Justice Exhibit

Sept. 8 at 5 p.m.: “Casting Your Ballot for Environmental Justice” Virtual program hosted at Duke. Register here.

Sept. 14 at 1 p.m.: Webinar discussion with former protester Dollie Burwell, the Rev. Dr. Ben Chavis and the Rev. Bill Kearney. Register here.

Sept. 14 at 5:30 p.m.: “Recalling Warren County – Discussing the Birth of the Movement.”  Discussion between former protesters, a protest photographer, the first NC Black woman elected to Congress and the Rev. Dr. Ben Chavis at Duke University’s Penn Pavilion Garden Room. Register here.

Sept. 15 at 1-3 p.m.: UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Special Collections Library panel discussion and exhibit viewing

Sept. 15 at 5:30 p.m.: “Environmental Justice: Past, Present and Future” with Rev. Dr. Ben Chavis and Catherine Coleman Flowers at Duke’s Chapel. Register here

Sept. 17 from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.: Commemoration ceremony & march to the landfill. Registration and gathering at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Warren County. Address: 224 Parktown Road, Warrenton, NC 27589. More info. here

Sept. 18 from 2 – 4 p.m.: Community Worship Service at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church.Info. here

Sept. 20 from 5 p.m.- 8 p.m.: Downtown Warrenton & Warren County Jail Museum EJ Tour. More info here.

Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m.: “Back Together Again” Virtual gathering NAACP Warren County Branch. More info here.

Sept. 30 at 12 – 1 p.m.: “40 Years of Environmental Justice: Birth in Warren County to Today & Beyond” with Rev. Bill Kearney and additional speakers TBA, a free lunchtime webinar hosted by Clean Water for NC. More info here,

Sept. 30, Time TBD: “The Roots, Experiences, and Future of Climate Justice” with William Barber III, Yumna Kamel, and Dr. Jennifer Hadden at Duke University Gross Hall room 107, Ahmadieh Family Auditorium. Register here

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Will Atwater

Will Atwater has spent the past decade working with educators, artists and community-based organizations as a short-form documentary and promotional video producer. A native North Carolinian, Will grew...

One reply on “NC recognized as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement”

  1. Will thanks for your article on Warren County’s role in the birth of the environmental justice movement. This year the 40th anniversary
    commemoration theme is “We Birthed the Movement” we are intentionally highlighting the “unsung heroes/sheroes” who played important roles in the protests resisting the dumping of PCB contaminated soil in the Afton Community located in the Shocco Township of Warren County.

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