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The grassroots of environmental justice


Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series that will examine issues related to environmental justice and to the fight of the Rogers and Eubanks roads community to be relieved of what they allege to be an undue burden — 35 years of a landfill and now the threat of a waste transfer station.

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Robert Bullard is the Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and is often called “the father of the environmental justice movement.” His book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, published in 1990, is considered by many observers of environmental justice to be a seminal work.

In October, Bullard attended the North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit, hosted by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, in Franklin County, where he met Rev. Robert Campbell, a member of the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism and a longtime leader in the Rogers Road community.

Bullard says that in talking with Rev. Campbell and in listening to him speak at the summit, what he heard was a story that’s all too familiar — another chapter in an extended narrative of the treatment of underserved and inadequately represented communities.

In 1972, the town of Chapel Hill purchased land just north of town on Eubanks Road in order to place on it a solid-waste landfill. The residents — mostly black and with family histories of having worked and lived upon the land in this community for many generations — were told this would be the only landfill placed in their neighborhood, that it would be temporary, that in 10 years it would be covered and become a park. Over the course of the next 35 years, the landfill has been expanded. Then, this past spring, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to place a solid-waste transfer station on the same property, a decision that has since been reconsidered. On Nov. 5, the board announced that it would reopen its search for an appropriate transfer station site.

Based on what Bullard has learned of the situation in Orange County, he says: “To me it typifies what happens too often when it comes to an African-American or other communities of color and decisions that are often made by non-African-Americans and non-people of color. These landfills generally get placed in locations that are away from the people who are making the decisions. That is not unique, that is not an isolated incident; it’s basically the pattern.”

What Bullard suggests is what has come to be known over the past 25 years as environmental racism or, more generally, environmental injustice, around which has grown a rapidly proliferating, grassroots-generated environmental justice movement. It’s a movement that began here in North Carolina.

“I think it’s really important that a state like North Carolina has a statewide environmental justice network,” Bullard says, “because of the significance of the state in really birthing the environmental justice movement.”

Learning from a legacy

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “environmental justice” is as follows:

“Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across the Nation.”

Obviously, environmental injustice wasn’t born 25 years ago, nor was the impulse to address it. The roots of a struggle to improve peoples’ exposure to the byproducts of an industrial society are intertwined with those of the civil rights and social-justice movements. Environmental justice scholars point out that when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis on  April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, it was to advocate for black sanitation workers, demanding, among other things, better protection for those workers from the conditions to which they were subjected.

But the coining of the term “environmental racism” and the articulation of the environmental justice movement are traced back here to North Carolina, to Warren County, 1982, and to the struggle of a largely black community to keep a toxic waste dump out of its front yard.

“It did come from Warren County,” says Bob Hall. “That’s where it was coined.” Hall is the director of Durham-based Democracy North Carolina and editor of the book Environmental Politics: Lessons from the Grassroots, which includes a chapter on Warren County.

“Steve Edelstein, an attorney, was putting together a challenge and he incorporated … the term ‘environmental racism.’” (Edelstein is a partner with Edelstein & Payne in Raleigh.)
Hall says the term very quickly began to resonate:

“It was a period where there was a wave across North Carolina and across the South, and really across the nation, of all these hazardous-waste issues and new sitings of plants … and people were getting more aware of the connection between land-use policies and racism.”

What Hall most particularly remembers about the struggle in Warren County is the use of community-instigated civil disobedience.

Rev. Leon White, field director for the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, was an effective spokesperson for the cause and he got the United Church very closely involved. The struggle soon gained national attention.

“It had this political dimension as well,” Hall says, “because of [Gov.] Jim Hunt’s decision to site [the dump] there despite the protests.

“But actually I think the most distinctive part of it was the extent to which there was this organized civil disobedience. … It really did fit into the model of bringing a civil rights kind of protest into the 1980s and into an issue involving an environmental hazard.”

The role of civil disobedience, the value of establishing a foundation within the church, not waiting for the world to remedy the community’s ills – these were the lessons carried forth from the civil rights movement.

But equally important to the definition of the environmental justice movement was a redefinition of the word “environment,” now understood to be that place where a community lives, learns, works, plays and prays as a social entity – a synonym, in sum, for the word “community” itself. Also understood was that the power of that community’s commitment to justice would be felt by the broader community, and would require that that community acknowledge injustice.

After the protests began in Warren County, a front-page story in the Washington Post suggested that an ember of the civil rights struggle had been reignited in the rural South: “But this time the black ministers are not the only ones preaching protest. Now even elderly white women are talking it up in the grocery stores, going to jail with men, women and children of both races, clasping hands at nightly rallies and singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

“It was a multi-faceted campaign that had very strong roots in the community itself,” Hall recalls; “there was strong opposition within the community. And then it rippled out to get support for that opposition from a lot of other communities.” He mentions considerable support from the Triangle area in general and from Duke students in particular.

It took many years for justice to be brought to Warren County. But vitally important lessons were learned, and a movement was very much afoot. In a summer 2007 special issue of The Crisis (a bimonthly magazine published by the NAACP) dedicated to environmental justice, Robert Bullard writes that this grassroots, community-based protest in rural, systemically impoverished North Carolina located but 35 miles from the center of Research Triangle Park (home to one of the EPA’s largest facilities – in fact, according to its website, “the largest facility ever designed and built by the Agency’) was “the shot heard around the world and put environmental racism on the map, and it was the catalyst for mass mobilization against environmental injustice.”

Informed discretion

John Cooper cites a Thomas Jefferson quote, which goes: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Cooper is a program director at Chapel Hill-based MDC, a nonprofit organization that works to promote community initiatives. He is currently assisting the Duke Endowment-funded Program for the Rural Carolinas and directing the FEMA Emergency Preparedness Demonstration Program, a joint initiative with the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at UNC.

Cooper emphasizes that information is the fuel of grassroots activism. He cites the argument often made that members of a community sometimes welcome less-than-desirable enterprises into their neighborhoods in the belief, or hope, that they may somehow serve a productive purpose.

The argument goes, says Cooper, “‘Well, these disadvantaged folks, these poor black folks, they welcomed these toxic facilities because it means jobs — they wanted them to come there because it means economic development.’ But then we find out that the jobs weren’t going to the community but the pollution and the toxicity were.”

Clearly, there’s often a fine line between misinformation and a lack of information. But more immediately, any argument that suggests a community would welcome a waste dump calls to Cooper’s mind the theory of rational man, which says that any person, when given two options,  will choose the option they believe is in their best interests.

“So it made no sense to me how someone could argue that an informed person, a person with all the information, would willingly invite a noxious facility into their community,” Cooper continues. “I mean, a person with common sense just wouldn’t do it. And that just drove home to me the fact that what people need is unbiased information.”

There was no promise of jobs made to the Rogers-Eubanks community. A park; perhaps some sidewalks – that was the upside.

Ten years of a noxious facility seemed enough. Twenty, then 35, as the facility expanded, was, to an increasingly informed, and organized, community, clearly neither fair nor just.

That community alleged environmental racism. A core of community activists demanded that their neighborhood be eliminated from consideration for the siting of a solid-waste transfer station, that all solid-waste activities in the community be discontinued by November 2009 and that quality-of-life issues be immediately addressed.

Their message was now being heard.

Next week: Significant strides.

4 Responses

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  1. Neloa Jones

    Wow, absolutely great article. Kudos, Taylor. I learned a lot.

  2. Stan Cheren

    Congratulations on this and previous articles and the new series. Long overdue!

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