Above the Waterline: The convergence of the civil rights and environmental justice movements

Rev. Joseph Lowery and protesters on their march to Raleigh in 1982.

As I write this column, today is Juneteenth or Freedom Day: an informal holiday that has been a tradition in the United States for more than 150 years. I didn’t learn about this celebration from schoolbooks or teachers and, I am embarrassed to admit, I knew nothing of it until a few years ago. Juneteenth began in Texas, where African-American slaves finally learned on June 19, 1865 that they had been freed by President Lincoln more than two years earlier.

There is so much – too much – that we simply have not learned, or acknowledged, or owned up to regarding the history of slavery and racial injustice in our country. Yet, this “hidden” history has profoundly shaped modern American society. As writer James Baldwin said in an interview more than fifty years ago: “History is not the past; it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” On this Juneteenth, many black and brown people are finding it difficult to celebrate, as they are still fighting for equal rights to housing, education, wages, health care and a clean environment.

In 1982, while I sat at my desk in the Atlanta regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I had no idea that elsewhere in the building agency officials were signing off on a plan to bury 60,000 tons of soil contaminated with a banned, toxic substance in a landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, near the small town of Afton – or that the events that followed would serve as the spark for what we now know as the “environmental justice” movement, uniting civil rights with environmental activists.

Used as a coolant in electrical transformers until the substance was banned in 1979, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, had contaminated the soil; the toxic chemical was known to cause birth defects, liver and skin disorders and suspected of causing cancer. More than 30,000 gallons of PCB-laden transformer coolant had been illegally dumped along hundreds of miles of state roads by one of the nation’s largest transformer repair companies. Why? Because they didn’t want to pay the cost for proper disposal, of course. Instead of sending the toxic material to a permitted hazardous landfill in Alabama (built, I will note, in another impoverished region with no prior disclosure to residents of the nature of the facility), they decided to bury it in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina – at one-tenth the cost.

After a four-year struggle over the proposed landfill and charges of racial discrimination, the county’s low-income, African-American residents lost their final battle in court. That September, a convoy of dump trucks, each filled with six tons of the contaminated soil, moved toward protesters lying in their way on a rural road. Every day for six weeks, the protesters blocked the trucks; more than 500 were arrested. It was the first time that citizens had mobilized in advance to stop an environmental threat.

At meetings and hearings, local residents had begged then-Governor Jim Hunt and federal and state agencies not to turn their community into a toxic dumping ground that threatened drinking water wells. “Is it right,” asked one speaker, “to pour a dangerous chemical on a county because it is small and poor?” Government officials insisted that the hazards posed by the landfill were negligible; yet, they ignored their own requirements, allowing the toxic waste to be stored within seven feet of groundwater, instead of fifty. The governor, a strong landfill proponent, promised to push the detoxification of the site, someday, when it was feasible.

Protesters lie in the road to block trucks of contaminated soil during the Afton protest.

The Afton protests energized a new faction within the civil rights movement that saw the environment as yet another front in its struggle for justice. Many early environmental justice leaders came out of the civil rights movement, bringing similar tactics: marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, empowerment through education, and litigation. Civil rights veterans, including the late Rev. Joseph Lowery, who died in Atlanta last spring, joined the anti-landfill marches, as the nation watched.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office evaluated the correlation between hazardous landfill locations and the race and socioeconomic status of surrounding communities; it concluded in 1983 that three of every four landfills in the Southeast were in or near communities with majority non-white populations – with more than a quarter living below the poverty line. No one wants a landfill, dirty factory, major pipeline or interstate highway for a neighbor, but corporate decision-makers and their politically-controlled regulatory agencies had decided that it was easier and less expensive to put these facilities in low-income, non-white communities.

After the GAO study, EPA set new guidelines and standards for selecting landfill locations. More studies were published over the years that revealed the inequitable treatment of poor, non-white communities; the first National People of Color Leadership Summit was held in 1991, a year after Dr. Robert Bullard published his seminal book, “Dumping in Dixie.” Under the Clinton Administration, environmental justice – the equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits – finally became federal government policy, a first step, but only that.

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice was established and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, became an essential tool in the fight against environmental racism by requiring federal agencies to disclose potential impacts on low-income, minority communities and allow meaningful input. Sadly, this progress is unraveling. President Trump signed an executive order, last month, that expedites NEPA reviews of major infrastructure projects and sidesteps protections; Senate Republicans refuse to support additional investment in environmental justice.

Twenty-five years after the PCB landfill was first proposed, a group of local residents and state officials gathered, a few days before Juneteenth in 2004, for a barbecue dinner to celebrate the final detoxification of the landfill at a cost of $17.1 million. Someday had finally arrived.

 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown. 

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