By Will Atwater
Standing on the steps of the Warren County courthouse, before a crowd of environmental and social justice activists, local and state officials as well as individuals who had traveled from other states, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Michael Regan delivered a message that many had been waiting decades to hear.
“We are finally ensuring that communities who have long borne the burden of pollution see, breathe and feel the benefits of the federal government’s investments,” he said, announcing the launch of the agency’s new Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Office. “It’s about changing how our government works, and who it works for, something that so many of you today have dedicated your life to realizing.”
Under Regan’s leadership, the office, “will dedicate more than 200 EPA staff in EPA headquarters and across 10 regions towards solving environmental challenges in communities that have been underserved for far too long,” according to a press release from the EPA published on Saturday.
Additionally, the office, which grew out of a merger between the Office of Environmental Justice, External Civil Rights Compliance Office and the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center, will use $3 billion to support a climate and environmental justice block grant program. The funding is a portion of $60 billion that was part of August’s Inflation Reduction Act, set aside to support environmental justice.
The new office will execute the following tasks:
- Beef up the EPA’s ability to get equity, civil rights, and environmental justice principles and priorities into all its programs.
- Create a transparent, unbiased approach to working with communities. Empower and build community capacity through grants and technical assistance.
- Enforce federal anti-descrimination laws for participants in EPA programs.
- Promote dispute and environmental conflict resolution and collaboration.
A week to remember
Regan’s announcement brings a meaningful close to a week of activities commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1982 Warren County PCB protests.
The protests ignited in the fall of 1982 when the community learned that a toxic landfill would be placed in their community and would receive PCB-laced soil, which had been illegally dumped along a 250-mile stretch of rural North Carolina roads, in a mostly African American community, back in 1979.
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.
As part of the commemoration, supporters marched from the Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday, Sept. 17 to the area where the toxic landfill was located.
Other commemorative activities were held at Duke University and the University of North Carolina the week before.
Birthing a movement
Although the protests were unsuccessful in preventing the landfill from being placed in Warren County, during a six-week period in the fall of 1982, daily protests, which gained international attention, ignited the environmental justice movement.
Regan, a Goldsboro native and the first Black man in the top job at the EPA, recalled listening to his parents comment on the PCB protest as they were happening.
“I was just a child, when the state decided to place the PCB landfill in the backyard of a predominantly Black community,” Regan said as he was making the announcement. “I remember my parents discussing the heroism of the women and men who locked arms and laid down in front of those trucks carrying that dirt [laced] with PCBs. Women and men like Dollie Burwell, Ben Chavis, Rev. Bill Kearney, an assistant pastor at Coley Springs, [and] EPA’s own, Charles Lee, joined protesters in solidarity”
Dollie Burwell, who played an instrumental role in the PCB protests, was one of the activists who offered remarks before Regan spoke.
“We are very, very grateful to Administrator Regan, that you chose Warren County to make this announcement today,” she said. “To us, you have acknowledged and recognized the work, the tremendous sacrifice and the legacy of Warren County citizens and the many leaders across this country who started the environmental justice movement, and who continue to fight for environmental justice.”
More work to be done
The establishment of the Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Office comes at a time when many communities across North Carolina and the rest of the country are dealing with environmental problems.
Recently, here in North Carolina, an anaerobic digester—intended to convert hog waste into electricity, which then can be sold as energy—failed and waste leached into the nearby swamp. Other communities across the state are dealing with coal ash and arsenic issues, while riverkeepers continue their efforts to rid waterways of pollutants, such plastic and Styrofoam debris.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act even as citizens of Jackson, Mississippi, Flint, Michigan, and Lowndes County, Alabama are fighting to have clean drinking water and properly functioning sewer systems, respectively.
These ongoing environmental struggles are not lost on Rev. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement that addresses issues related to systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy. In his remarks, Rev. Barber said that there are “four million people who get up every morning and can buy unleaded gas,” but who don’t have access to lead-free water.
Meanwhile, leaders in Warren County say they’re hoping to turn some of the momentum generated by the commemoration into more opportunities for growth and economic development in a community where investment has lagged.
“We hope the 40th-anniversary commemoration will be more than just a celebration but will be more about rallying together again of our collective voice to confront present-day social and environmental justice injustices and to take full advantage of every opportunity for positive change,” Kearney said.