By Will Atwater

One gray cloud hanging over many Sampson County residents’ holidays was the prospect that in the coming year, soil contaminated with creosote and a toxic brew of other chemicals would be dumped there in the coming year. 

But at the last meeting of 2022, Sherri White-Wiliams, president of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN), stood before dozens in a room inside Lisbon Street Church and shared with the audience what she called “a couple of really great wins.”

White-Williams shared that contaminated soil from a site in Novassa, about an hour south of where she stood in Clinton, would not be shipped to the GFL Sampson County Disposal Landfill. That shipment had been rumored to be one of the possible destinations as reported previously by NC Health News.

“That soil is no longer coming here, and it’s actually going to stay where it is,” she said.

The audience broke into applause at White-Williams’ comments. For many, this meant that they could cross one environmental concern off their Christmas wish lists.  

Other concerns at the top of Sampson County residents’ lists include air and water contamination issues. The GFL landfill is the largest sanitary dump in North Carolina. Neighbors complain about foul smells coming from the landfill and worry that toxins from the site are leaching into well water. 

Adding to their list of concerns is the fact that Sampson County is also one of the top hog producing counties in the nation. It’s said that hogs outnumber people in the county anywhere from 33 to 40 to 1, depending on who you ask. 

Studies show that communities near hog concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are at a greater risk of developing chronic, potentially-fatal, health conditions than the general population, according to a 2018 study lead by Duke University researchers and published in the North Carolina Medical Journal. The study highlights anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia as potential risks faced by people living in close proximity to hog facilities. These residents also experience higher rates of hospital admission, emergency room visits and give birth to more low birth weight infants, the study said.

In a more recent study published in March 2022 by the journal Science of the Total Environment, University of North Carolina researchers found that people living near hog CAFOs are more likely to visit the emergency room, suffering from symptoms of acute gastrointestinal illness. The study suggests that gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea can be caused by exposure to fecal pathogens generated by hog waste, which can contaminate air and water.

White-Williams also announced that Sampson County was awarded a $13.2 million state grant to provide public water to the Ivanhoe community. The news was originally announced in September, in a press release from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.

Addressing water issues

“All North Carolinians deserve safe and clean drinking water,” Cooper said in the release. “This investment will help families and business owners in Ivanhoe have confidence that this community will continue to grow and thrive.”

This announcement meant local activists could cross another wish off of their Christmas lists. More Sampson County residents, looking to reduce their exposure to arsenic and other contaminants, have been looking to switch from well water to the municipal supply. 

Many rural homes are located far from county roads, for instance, and homeowners would have to pay to have the lines run from their residences to the main roads to connect to the municipality, at a cost of hundreds of dollars, if not more. 

Many say that they can’t afford the cost. 

To build the case that Sampson County residents need more water infrastructure investment in their communities, EJCAN is partnering with Courtney Woods. She leads the program in environmental engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill, and is working to establish a water testing lab to be housed in the EJCAN office.

Woods said that $5,000 was raised to purchase “user-friendly” equipment. The plan is to train teenagers to use the equipment to test water samples for contamination. 

In 2021, Williams and a group of graduate school students found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a creek near the county landfill, according to an article published that year. 

Pushing an executive order

During the meeting, White-Williams introduced Will Hendrick, the justice director for North Carolina Conservation Network,  who said his organization is working on an initiative to get the governor to sign an executive order to enforce the environmental protections for communities that have been affected by environmental injustice. 

“Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately burdened by pollution across this world, across this country, across this state,” Hendrick said. “We’re trying to make sure that [these] communities … in North Carolina are meaningfully engaged and, more importantly, I think, fairly treated by our government.”

While the water infrastructures investment in Ivanhoe is significant, Hendrick said that an executive order issued by the governor is the best way, given the current political climate, to get government agencies across different sectors to work in unison to direct resources to vulnerable communities.

As Hendrick wrapped up, White-Williams told the audience it could support the executive order initiative by writing and calling state government representatives.

‘One giant step’

Perhaps the biggest gift under the tree for people in the county was revealed when Jeffrey Robbins, executive director of CleanAIRE NC, updated them on the organization’s air monitoring network. CleanAIRE NC and EJCAN are partnering on a project to identify sources, types and quantities of air pollution that pose threats to the health and quality of life in the county. 

The group will place air monitors throughout the community to detect contaminants,  specifically, “particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 microns ( smaller than a human hair strand), volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide emitted from swine and poultry CAFOs, the  county landfill and the Enviva Sampson wood pellet facility.”

A graphic detail that shows the size of particulate matter 2.5 as compared to a human hair strand.
PM stands for particulate matter (also called particle pollution): the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. Credit:

The first- year goal in the three-year project is to identify 20 volunteer community “AirKeepers” willing to host PurpleAir sensors on their properties to collect real time air quality data. The goal for years two and three of the project is to establish an advocacy group made up of AirKeepers, representatives from the state health department and from local government. 

Two representatives from partnering organizations introduced themselves to the audience and discussed their roles. Brian Magi, UNC-Charlotte Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, will assist with installing air monitors and establishing internet hotspots; and Seung-Hyun Cho, Research Triangle Institute (RTI), will analyze the data collected from the air monitors.

Danielle Koonce lives in neighboring Cumberland County but grew up in Sampson County and works with local residents on environmental issues. She said she’s pleased that more attention will be brought to collecting data on a problem that has plagued the community but is hard to capture and quantify.

“It’s just hard to describe odor, it’s hard to describe it in newspapers. You can’t get a video camera down here and record the odor, right?” she said. “It’s stuff that you have to experience and that’s why this is such a hopeful moment.” 

“Now we actually will have devices … and we’ll be able to capture the smells, these gasses and what’s being emitted into the atmosphere. And, I feel like that’s a giant step for the community.”

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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...

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