A Watershed Moment for Environmental Justice—the Warren County PCB Protests

(Image courtesy of Ricky Stillely Photography)

All this month we’re bringing you stories from North Carolina’s black history. Check back here each week day for a new tidbit from our state’s African American’s past.

In the summer of 1978, a trucking company began to discreetly dump liquid contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) along 240 miles of roads in 14 rural North Carolina counties at night. The state quickly responded by constructing a landfill to bury the toxic waste on land purchased from a Warren County farmer. What seemed to be an expeditious response to a problem soon became more complicated. Most people in the area drew drinking water from wells and the water table was only 10 feet below the surface. Warren County also had the highest percentage of African American residents in the state and was one of the poorest. Local civil rights activists and residents soon joined together with national groups like the NAACP and United Church of Christ to protest the landfill. The protesters believed that the landfill would undermine local economic development and heath, and that the community lacked the power to prevent hazardous waste facilities from being placed in their neighborhoods. The demonstrations soon gained national attention and the landfill site was eventually detoxified. The fight is now widely credited as the genesis of the environmental justice movement in America and signaled a change in the way the public thinks about environmental issues.

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